Knowledge is in the World

In the fields opposite our home, where the children play, there is lots of knowledge. There are birds and trees to name, bridges to be built; there are sticks to carry and holes to dig, there is team work and strength and resilience. On the bookshelves of our home, in the books that our children read, there is lots of knowledge. There are Romans and Crystals and Dinosaurs; there are secret worlds full of imaginative wonder. In the schools that our children are lucky enough to attend, there is lots of knowledge. The teachers are brimful of it and they share it freely and with love. And then there is the knowledge that is in the world beyond our home. In the places, we visit and the people we meet; the landscapes we see and the ancient stories that we learn. Somewhere very far away, in the middle of the Pacific, is Easter Island. It is a long, long way from home, and through a wonderful set of circumstances, we are lucky enough to be going there in April. Rapa Nui here we come! And we simply cannot wait to see, the knowledge that is in the world.


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When I listen to music, the music tells me what movements I would need to make, in order to scribe it into dance. Music can also turn into art or writing, but the best fit is dance. When we translate one form into another, we do so through the lens with which we see the world. We explain what we see, by turning it into something visible, so that other people might understand it in the same way that we do. The process of training to dance is mostly about lots of repeated exercises, and about memorising the movements that someone else made up. The dance steps that your teacher chose; Mikhail Fokine’s “Dying Swan” from Swan Lake. As you get to grips with the movements, you can add your own style to the choreography – a positioning of the hand, a slight pause before you take a step. You dance the steps on the stage, and everyone claps. But in the end, no matter how beautiful your dancing was, you were still a dancer doing someone else’s dance.

Choreography works in a relationship with the dancers who are doing the steps, especially the first time you make them up. You learn as much from watching the dancers weave the steps together, as you do from listening to the music in the first place. Does it look right? Does it fit well? Does it flow? Your dancers can tell you what works and what doesn’t if you are open to listening to them. You can even choreograph as a group, although it’s tricky. Teaching (and planning for teaching) is about translating knowledge into meaning, in a room full of children. It’s not just dancing the dance, it’s making up the dance as you go along. You might know tons of stuff, but teaching isn’t about what you know, it’s about getting your knowing into the heads of the children so that they know as well. So you can go into that classroom, with the best lesson that anyone ever choreographed. But you’ve got to know what to do if the orchestra strikes up The Birdie Song, instead of Swan Lake.

Posted in Dance, Learning, Teaching, The Arts | 3 Comments

Shame on You

This week there was a story in the news about a school where the head teacher wrote a letter to parents, politely asking them to stop dropping off their children in the mornings while still wearing their pyjamas. Only a week or so earlier, another head teacher had written a similar letter, asking parents to make sure that their children had a shower and wore clean clothes to school. On the face of it, these seemed like perfectly reasonable requests, dressed up in very polite language. In our house, the kids have regular showers – it’s not a difficult thing to do. I just put the hot water on and shout up the stairs at them to “get in the shower!”. And you certainly wouldn’t catch me turning up at school in my PJs, mainly because I’d be too embarrassed, but also because the school is a mile’s walk away along muddy country lanes. If I overslept, I might throw a coat over my tracksuits and take the kid in by car, so she could jump out without anyone spotting my inappropriately slovenly attire. But this would definitely be a one-off event, not a regular occurrence.

One of my most vivid memories of infant school is of the day that a child wet himself in our classroom. When the teacher discovered the pool of urine beneath his seat, she made him stand up on the table in front of the class and she publicly shamed him. They used a similar ‘shaming’ technique at the middle school that I attended, at the end of each year, to ensure that we knew our place in the grand scheme of things. When the exam results came out, we would be given a ranking order within the class, from 1 to 33. Our ranking number was called out, and we would each have to stand up, in turn, in front of the class. I was lucky because my ranking was usually in the top three, so I got a hearty round of applause from my peers. Life wasn’t so sweet, I would imagine, for the child at number 33.

If you have a problem with one or several of your parents, or indeed with one or several of your students, the very last thing you should do is to make a public announcement about it, especially in these days of social media, 24 hour news and a press hungry for scandal. By sending a letter to all your parents, you are not only making the point to the parents concerned, you are making the point publicly to the parents who didn’t even do this thing in the first place, and effectively to the press as well. By doing it in this way, you are trying to use the power of shame to induce a change in behaviour, even if that honestly wasn’t your intention. I would never claim to be a perfect parent. I do plenty of stuff that would not pass muster for a parenting manual. Sometimes I accidentally swear in front of my kids. Sometimes I let them stay up later than they should. Sometimes I can’t be bothered to chase them off their computers, or hassle them to do homework. But if a school ever wrote a letter designed to get me to cease and desist in my bad parenting ways, and they sent it to all the other parents at the school as well, I would find myself seriously affronted.

The point about children is that they don’t get to choose their parents but, generally speaking, no matter how crap their parents are, they love us all the same. Yes, some parents are not as aspirational or tiger mum/dad-ish as governments or schools might want; yes, some parents (me included) could do with bucking up our ideas at times. But after that letter had gone out, how would a child feel if he or she was the one brought to school by a parent in pyjamas? Or if he or she was the one who didn’t have a shower that weekend (maybe because the hot water got cut off)? Are the children meant to feel ashamed and embarrassed that they have parents who do not do these things? How exactly does that help children to learn? Where a school has concerns around child protection or neglect, there are clear procedures to follow. But stepping over that line to shame parents for the habit of school-run-pyjama-wearing is not part of the role. Maybe, instead of writing a letter to everyone at the school, a better approach would have been to have a quiet word with individual families, if they really felt that it was essential.

The thing about putting ourselves up on a pedestal in order to shame others, is that we had better make sure that we don’t make any mistakes ourselves after we’ve done it. Because people have very long memories, and they don’t like being told how to bring up their kids. They especially don’t like being told that you disapprove of what they do, as though you were somehow ‘better’ than them. So no, not shame on me. And no, not shame on you. Just isn’t it a damn shame, to focus on shaming, and not on support?

Posted in Parents, Schools | 13 Comments

The Drawing Board

If you want to develop new ideas, to be creative, you have to experiment. If you want to experiment, you have to be willing to make mistakes. Certainty is out and failure is in, because failure is what you learn from. It’s interesting that, at a time when we talk about the value of children learning from their mistakes, it is out of fashion to be experimental in the classroom. It feels like in the search for the ‘perfect answer’, mistakes have been banned along the way. Children are meant to make mistakes; teachers aren’t allowed to. On that note, and before I get all serious, here are my top five Grateist Misstaykes:

Coming in at No.5 is all the times I’ve lost my temper or said something a bit mean to a child or group of children. It’s not big, it’s not clever, and I’m not proud of it, but it can happen when you get annoyed. Lessons learned: control your emotions; just be kind.

At No.4 is letting kids loose with scissors and magazines to do a collage, in a large open drama studio space. Snip, snip, snip went the scissors. Tick, tick, tick, went the clock. When the bell went the kids scarpered. Lessons learned: leave more tidy up time than you think; no, you can’t go until the room is tidy.

No.3 was the time that I let the kids loose on ‘updating’ some Shakespeare into a modern dialect. I was green. They were London teenagers. The homework went a bit further than anticipated. Lessons learned: the clue is in the word ‘teenager’; shred the evidence.

Almost but not quite top at No.2 is every time I have laminated stuff and left it outside. Elmer treasure hunt. Set of wildlife signs. Lessons learned: rain always beats laminate; stop putting plastic things in nature.

But No.1 has to go to Flour Babies. It worked the first time round to give out bags of flour and tell the kids to look after them like they were their babies. Yes, one lad put his in his locker for a week and claimed it was ‘self-raising’, but mostly they thought about what it meant to have someone else relying on you. It was fun improvising scenarios around our babies (this was in the days when fun wasn’t banned). Carrying a bag of flour around for a week is a salutary lesson in what ‘having a baby’ means. You can’t look that up in a book. But when I tried it again, in an ‘easier’ school? Flour Baby Massacre. Lessons learned: everything doesn’t work with everyone; keep going back to the drawing board.

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Better, together

As the years pass
The Ghost of Not Good Enough
Picks up your scent.
It limps behind you
Feeding on missed apostrophes, missed opportunities
And the children you didn’t quite reach.

On many a day
The Ghost of The Wrong Decision
Whispers in your ear.
“Why did you do that?”
“Why didn’t you do this?”
“Surely you could have done better?”

All around you
The Ghosts of Driving Up Standards
Erect hurdles.
“Jump over this!” one shouts
“Do this!” insists another
“Be responsible for that!”

You do your best
But the Ghost of All Above Average
Starts to get on your nerves.
You begin to wonder
Whether things are really
Quite as they should be.

Just when you think that all is lost
A child steps up and grabs your hand
Then a colleague grips your other hand, tight.
“Don’t you believe in the silly old ghosts,” they say,
“Ain’t none of us perfect yet.
But we can always try and get better, together.”

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The Narrows

Last night I was wondering out loud on Twitter whether all children still receive their entitlement to a “balanced and broadly based” curriculum. The question came into my mind because I had been trying to get some information about the Year 7 SATs resits that the government is introducing from December 2017.  I was thinking about what can happen in Year 6 at the moment, where a narrow focus on ‘passing SATs’ can become the be-all and end-all of the final year of primary. And I was wondering how this might filter into Year 7, with the introduction of the new tests. After my tweet, I was sent stories of schools where PE has been dropped from the Year 6 curriculum, and others that have days on which children do double Maths and double English, instead of anything resembling a normal school day. And I got to worrying a lot about how the first year of secondary school will look for the children who take the tests in May and who do not reach the “expected standard”. At the moment, this page offers minimal clues about the DfE’s plans:

“We will introduce compulsory resit tests in December 2017 in English reading and maths for year 7 pupils who do not reach the required standard at the end of key stage 2. Sample tests will be available in December 2016 to help schools prepare. Schools may use these sample tests with their pupils if they wish.”

SATs resits in Year 7 are an absolutely terrible idea, for a veritable host of reasons. The first and most obvious one being that it is crazy to expect secondary schools to be able to get a child to reach the ‘expected standard’ in three months (after a long summer holiday) when his or her primary school did not get him or her to that point in seven years. The resit idea seems to rest on the assumption that the child did not ‘pass’ because of a flaw in the primary school, rather than because of some kind of need or learning difficulty in the actual child. The children who will have to resit these tests have already spent their last year of primary mired in failure. What on earth will it do to their confidence to be entered again barely 3 months into their secondary careers? The second reason that this idea is stupid is because of transition: we already know that children drop back in their learning in Year 7. Why on earth would we decide to compound the problems of transition by adding the stress of a test they must ‘pass’ after less than 100 days at a new school? But the biggest reason why this idea is so worrying is because of what will (almost inevitably) happen to the curriculum for these children. I can already imagine the interventions, and the narrow set of subjects, and the after school classes. What kind of way is this to inspire children as they begin a new chapter in their lives?

Between the village where I live and the main road into Bristol is a section of road called “The Narrows”. I don’t think that this is the official, ordnance survey map name for this bit of road. It is just a nickname that it has been given in local parlance. As you might have guessed, this section of road is where it literally ‘narrows’, down to a single lane. High, muddy banks close in on either side. Trees loom over the road, cutting out the light. There are regular mud falls from the banks, and bits of stone break loose onto the road. Those of us who live locally understand that, as you approach The Narrows, you need to slow down and check for oncoming traffic. You can’t quite see to the end of the narrow section, so it is all too easy to zoom into The Narrows and then get trapped as a vehicle comes towards you, and another follows behind. There are stories of gridlock in The Narrows, epic tales of people trapped for hours, that have made their way into local folklore. It is incredibly easy to get sucked into The Narrows, and trapped, and it can be horribly hard to break out. This, then, is how I imagine these poor children, made to resit their SATs endlessly, until they finally reach the ‘expected standard’. Trapped in a dark and claustrophobic place called The Narrows. Engaged in an increasingly desperate attempt to break on through to the other side, where the kind of curriculum they are entitled to lies just out of reach.

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Power Play

It is an axiom of teaching that teachers need to be able to control a class of students. In part, this is to do with safety – with one adult and thirty children, there have to be some boundaries. Mostly, though, behaviour management is to do with learning. If the children are not behaving well, for instance if they are not listening to you, then they cannot learn as effectively as they might. We don’t like to admit it to ourselves, but there is something thrilling about having a group of people in our thrall. There is a feeling of power when you know how to get a class of children under your control. When I am doing a presentation to a hundred or more teachers, and they all listen to me and laugh at my jokes, it almost feels like I have magic powers. Behaviour management can sometimes turn into a power play, in which the thrill of being able to control other people means you take it further than you need. It is possible to get so caught up in the control and conformity part of the equation, that you lose sight of what really matters. You might find your school featured in the press in a bizarre story about the colour of bras. Conformity becomes an end in itself – a proxy for rigour and discipline – rather than behaviour being about learning and community.

There are three basic ways to (try to) get people to behave as you want them to. You can motivate them in a positive way, using some kind of carrot that they will earn if they do what you asked. You can punish them, if they fail to behave as you had wanted, in the hope that this will make them want to avoid the consequence next time around. Or you can find ways to build their intrinsic motivation to ‘do the right thing’ – to learn how to regulate their own behaviour, because that’s the right thing to do. In the ‘good old days’, when I was at school, our teachers didn’t trouble themselves much with the idea of carrots for good behaviour. If we broke the rules, we could get beaten with a stick. At the very least, an adult would scream at us furiously. Our teachers could wield the ultimate power over us and we knew exactly who was in charge. The stories of historical child abuse that have come out in recent years show us what can happen when the balance of power tips too far in one direction. Children are already the vulnerable ones in the teacher/student relationship. It is vital that they have a voice and can speak out if something is not right.

When compliance is achieved via the threat of punishment, the balance of power lies with the teacher and the school. We are doing something to the child to make them behave as we wish. The child has no say over whether or not the punishment happens: they either comply with the rules, or they are going to get punished. We have the power, and we are using it in a relationship with someone who has less power than us, and this means that there are some very important ethical questions for us to consider. We need to examine our own motives very closely indeed. Consider how you feel when you give a sanction – if you’re totally honest with yourself, there may be just a tiny bit of ‘make them suffer’ going on. The ‘behave as we wish’ bit should always be about dignity, respect and balance – it must be reasonable within the context of our role. The child must feel able to speak up if the ‘behave as we wish’ bit is not as it should be – as history has shown us, not everyone’s motives are as pure as we might hope. And when children with SEND are six times more likely to be excluded than those without, as Nancy Gedge explains here, there are some pretty serious questions that we need to ask about how and why that is. Exclusion is the logical end point of a punishment based approach, because you have to have some kind of ‘final outcome’. How do we square that with a focus on learning and inclusion?

It might be helpful if I explain the approach to behaviour that we take in our preschool, because it is different to what happens in many schools. For us, ‘behaviour management’ is not really about external controls, apart from some simple routines and golden rules. We see behaviour management as being about helping children learn to regulate their own behaviour; to become intrinsically motivated to behave, because they want to learn as part of a community. We don’t talk about ‘behaviour problems’, because we don’t see behaviour as a ‘problem’ to be solved. We don’t use sanctions, beyond perhaps a brief expression of disappointment, and we don’t have reward ‘systems’ like the ones that you might see in a school. Mostly, we focus on ensuring engagement with learning, and on highlighting the positives. When a child behaves inappropriately, we see it as a form of communication. We ask ourselves what the behaviour is telling us about the child. Was it something to do with the learning, the physical environment, self esteem, confidence, self control, language skills, tiredness, hunger? Could there be SEND going on that the behaviour is flagging up? What can we change about our practice to help the child learn how to behave?

When I say that part of the adult’s role is to try to ensure good behaviour, I am sometimes accused of saying that ‘if the children misbehave it is the teacher’s fault’. This is a misunderstanding of what I mean. Of course the child is ultimately responsible for his or her own behaviour – we need to learn to make good choices, and some find this harder than others. But the thing over which I have most control is my own reaction to the behaviour I get. Unless I plan to do violence with a big stick, I cannot force children to behave how I want. Going straight to punishment seems to me to be a bit of a cop out. Surely I can think of something else to try first? Can I help them understand why I need this behaviour, before I hand out a detention? Maybe I could even do something to make them forget to misbehave? I don’t think we will ever ‘solve’ behaviour, because it is part of the human condition. But I do think that our focus should be on understanding and cooperation, not on compliance and control. We only get to make the rules because we are older, and because we need learning to take place. There is nothing inherently good about unthinking compliance – it can be dangerous as well. And we should be very wary about teaching children to comply with adults, without asking why before they do.

Posted in Behaviour, Children | 9 Comments