*The Magic Creative Cake*

It is an intuitive truth of teaching, that as a teacher you must model the behaviour you hope to receive. If you want your children to behave politely, you must speak to them in a polite manner yourself. If you want your students to be inquisitive learners, you must ask them questions and take an interest in their ideas. If you want your children to be curious, then you must demonstrate a deep curiosity about the world. Children learn as much from what they see the adults do, as from what they hear the adults say. It is not enough just to tell our students how to behave; we have to show them as well. This applies as much to parenting, as it does to teaching. The child who swears at you in your classroom has picked it up not from direct instruction (hopefully), but from parents modelling it in the home.

One of the most critical aspects of creativity is a willingness to experiment, to play around with ideas, to take risks, and to be willing to appear silly as you do so. Yes, technique is important and skill is vital, but technique + skill does not = creativity. I can be the most technically skilled dancer in the entire world, but this does not mean I will be able to choreograph a dance. The only way to get to something that is truly innovative and of value is to go sideways with your thinking: to stop doing the linear thinking that human beings are so prone to, and to zoom off in a lateral direction. When you go sideways, a lot of what you come up with may be nonsense, or of hardly any use at all. But the truly creative always comes out of linking the unexpected. The genuinely creative is about sparking something new, and pushing yourself to be imaginative and innovative, not just about replicating what came before.

There is an interesting tension between these playful aspects of creativity, and the push from some in education for a return to ‘traditional teaching’. Many of those who call themselves ‘traditionalists’ suggest that children must be instructed in knowledge first, before they can hope to be creative. They must be imbued with sufficient “cultural capital” and exposed to “the best that has been thought and said” in order to have any hope of creative thought. I do wonder, though, whether this is a case of working backwards from the desired pedagogical technique, to the skill they want the children to achieve. (“Children best learn to be creative through direct instruction and classical literature, because direct instruction and classical literature are the things I am going to use.”) I also see confusion between the performance side of the creative arts (clearly a professional musician must be highly skilled at playing an instrument) and the process of being creative at an individual level (a musician is not the same as a composer). As Martin Robinson points out here, punk achieved a lot with just three chords and the willingness to give it a try. Small children can achieve an awful lot of creative thinking if you give them a few plain cardboard boxes. They don’t need to learn The History of the Cardboard Box first.

One of the problems I have with the ‘knowledge based’ model of creativity is that it seems to ignore the modelling side of the teacher/student equation. Whatever you think about what is often pejoratively termed ‘progressive teaching’, it is hard to deny that it has a focus on being innovative and experimental, rather than relying on the techniques of the past. The teacher is literally modelling the approach that he or she wishes to achieve. If teachers use a direct instruction model to get over the maximum amount of knowledge in the minimum amount of time, they are of necessity missing out on the creative modelling part of the equation. If science and research inform everything you do in a classroom, then someone else has given you the ‘correct’ answers. You don’t need to wonder, and explore, and experiment, and be playful, yourself.

I meet a lot of teachers – literally thousands every year. One of the main words I would use to describe the teachers that I meet is “creative”. These are people who see a problem in their classrooms, and come up with all kinds of suggestions or solutions to resolve it. Can’t get your kids to be silent? The teachers I meet have a hundred and more solutions for that one. Can’t get your children to bring a pen? The teachers I meet have a vast array of tips to solve your problem. The minute you insist that teachers use only one method, and you create the same routines for everyone to use, you are by definition limiting teacher creativity. If I want the children to move quietly and calmly around preschool, I might tell them that there is a sleeping giant under the floor, and that they would be best not to wake him. I am modelling the creative thinking I want the children to achieve. The moment we see ‘play’ and ‘playful’ attitudes as being wasteful or not of value we have stepped away from the heart of what makes creativity happen. So you can have your traditional cake and eat it if you want, and I am sure you will find it delicious. But please do not tell me that it is *The Magic Creative Cake*.

Posted in Children, Creativity | Leave a comment

Riding a Bike

Although knowledge is helpful in being creative, more knowledge does not necessarily lead to more creativity. You can probably think of some people who are very knowledgeable indeed, but who do not do creative things with the knowledge that they have. This is because having knowledge, and being creative with the knowledge that you have, are two separate entities. Learning to be creative is a bit like learning to ride a bike. You cannot learn to ride a bike by reading a book about it. Even if you knew everything there was to know about bicycles, you would still be no closer to actually being able to ride a bike. You cannot learn to ride a bicycle by watching how other people do it, or by being told how to do it by someone else. These things may help you in your quest to understand bikes, or to develop a good riding technique, but they are not going to get you actually riding one. The only way to learn to ride a bicycle is to do it yourself.

I stand and watch as my daughter flies down the lane on her bicycle, her hair trailing behind her in the wind. “Look, no hands, mummy!” she shouts, lifting her fingers off the handlebars. She is confident, and balanced, and brave. How did she get here? Why, just a handful of years earlier, she was a tiny helpless baby, cradled in my arms! Well, first she had to learn to control her body – to support her head, to roll, to sit up, to stand, to walk. Just shy of a year old, she took her first tentative steps. We clapped with delight. She turned to smile at us and promptly toppled over. After a while she was confident on her feet. Now it was time for ‘my first trike’. To start with we pushed her along, but soon she took over – she was desperate to do it by herself. Her tiny feet on the pedals, pushing hard to create forward momentum. The desire to get somewhere, under her own steam, propelled her to learn. Next came a proper bike, with stabilisers attached. Stabilisers gave her confidence, and helped her practice, but they were also a comfort blanket, protecting her from the moment when she had to take the leap. Leaping is hard and falling is painful. Confidence is slow to build and easy to shatter.

Finally the day came when she was ready for us to take off the stabilisers. I gave her a push and helped her to balance the bike, by running behind her to steady it at the back. Eventually I let go. She wobbled, and then tumbled into a patch of nettles. Nettles sting. Mistakes hurt. But you cannot learn to ride a bicycle without falling off. Days passed – her confidence ebbed and flowed. She asked us to put the stabilisers back on for a while. But barely a month later, she was ready to try again. This time, when I gave her a push, she stayed upright for a time. We kept going. And going. And within a matter of hours, she was riding happily up and down the lane. If we want children to learn to be creative, they must take a series of baby steps first. We must help them feel confident to have a try, even when we are sure that they will fail. Building creativity is not about having as much knowledge as possible. It is not even about having the most brilliant technique. It is about nothing more or less than being willing to fail, and fall, and get up, and fail again, and fall again, and get up again. Until one day, to your surprise, you find yourself flying down the lane. Finally, joyfully, majestically! You are riding a bike.

Posted in Children, Creativity | 10 Comments

Schtop May King Senz

My kids learned to read just as phonics schemes began to be pushed by the Government. The oldest did it via Jolly Phonics and the Oxford Reading Tree; the youngest via Read Write Inc and the same Oxford Reading Tree books her older brother had read (although they were a lot tattier than they had been three years previously). Both children were sent home with a list of ‘red words’ (high frequency words that are tricky to read by ‘sounding them out’). I helped them learn these words as whole units. Yes, I know I’m a ‘phonics denier’ for suggesting that such a thing might be useful to do, but I really truly don’t care. Thankfully they both had an experienced teacher and we supported their reading at home. As soon as their teacher realised they had got it, she set them free from the dull old reading scheme books and told us to read whatever we wanted with them. I thank my lucky stars that they are both avid readers who read for ages every night out of sheer pleasure.

Nick Gibb regularly talks about the increase in the number of children passing the phonics test. He seems certain that phonics will eventually filter through so that all children can read at the expected level when they leave primary school. It’s worth remembering that governments have pushed for a focus on synthetic phonics since The Rose Report was published in 2006. In 2011 schools were given extra funds to invest in training and resources for teaching systematic synthetic phonics. Although there was a steady increase in Key Stage 2 reading results, this seems to have stalled. To quote the DfE’s statistics for 2015: “There was no change in attainment at level 4 or above in reading.” When I learned to teach reading on my BEd course back in the 1990’s, we were not given a specific ‘system’ for approaching the task. Certainly, it seems useful to have a set of guidelines, in the form of a coherent, systematic approach. (Although I disagree with mandatory SSP, I suspect that simply having a ‘system’ of any kind is useful in its own right.)

Earlier this week there was a flurry of tweets about the phonics test (sorry, the ‘phonics screening check’). Two of these tweets particularly caught my eye. First, there was this one from Becky Allen:

It’s surprising to see it written down like that, isn’t it? The idea that a school would teach four year olds to blend nonsense words when they haven’t even learned to read yet. Or to ponder the similarly weird notion that some schools narrow their curriculum and spend terms preparing their Year 6 classes for SATs. Surely we should all somehow be ‘above’ that kind of thing? Shouldn’t we just send those children into their phonics check or their Key Stage 2 SATs and find out what they know? It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this is a direct result of the pressures on schools, and particularly on primary schools, to ‘pass’ these checks or run the risk of a failed inspection and academisation. (Of course secondary schools don’t have any National Tests until GCSEs, but we have seen similar stories of ‘gaming’ going on with those too.) Just because you hope that schools would not try to ‘game’ the system, doesn’t mean that they won’t turn to such approaches when faced with high pressure and high stakes.

And then there was this tweet from David Didau:

I often see expressions of surprise online about the fact that some children leave primary school unable to read at the expected level. I’m not sure whether David was being serious with his tweet, but the suggestion that it only takes a few weeks to teach a four year old phonics totally misses the point. You could in theory teach phonics as quickly as you want; you could narrow the curriculum so that mostly all your four year olds did for their first six weeks of primary school was chant phonemes. (Although you’d have hell to pay with the parents, that’s for sure.) But until children have retained the sounds, and can use them in the context of reading a book, they have not learned them. It is a bit like teaching your Reception class to chant their times tables up to 12 x 12, and then expecting them to get 100% in a times tables test.

One of the results of the statutory screening check seems to have been to exacerbate the frustrations between primary and secondary teachers – something I see far more of these days than I used to. There is no reason why secondary teachers should not comment on the teaching of reading. But until you have tried to teach 30 tiny children to read, alongside all the other subjects, it is hard to understand the enormity of the task. This is especially so if you do not have helpful parents, if your class has more than 30 children in it, or if you do not have any in-class support. Telling primary teachers to ‘make it happen’ or imagining that it would be simple if they just ‘did it right’ is rather missing the point. Often it is not about the method, or the teacher, but about time, behaviour, absence, vocabulary development, the child’s home life, SEND – a whole multitude of factors.

The ‘phonics wars’ seem to have reached a stalemate. One group of educators is wary of the unintended consequences of the Government’s approach – the thought of children saying ‘I hate phonics’ is too much to bear. Another group of educators says that the method is not working for everyone because the first group of educators are ‘not doing it properly’, and that further training and oversight is the answer. (This does rather seem to me to be like having your cake and eating it, since the prior increases were attributed to the method itself.) As far as I can tell, both groups of educators are united in their animosity to the idea of children being ‘taught’ nonsense words, as though this somehow equated to ‘learning to read’. I’m mainly confused and concerned about the fact that we are telling children as young as five that they have ‘failed’ a test and will have to do it again next year. And the fact that, despite Ofsted being told not to mandate methods, we appear quite happy to do so with this particular approach.

By dint of some impeccable timing, a bit of home schooling, and being out of the UK at just the right moments, neither of our kids has ever sat any kind of National Test. No two year old check, no Reception baseline, no phonics test, no Key Stage 1 or Key Stage 2 SATs. They have made their way through their schooling blissfully unaware that such things exist. Their results have never counted towards a league table, an Ofsted report, a teacher’s class data or a school’s reputation. The first National Tests the older kid will ever sit will be GCSEs. There is no ‘baseline’ for his secondary school to progress from, so he won’t even be counted in their GCSE results. I’ve also offered the younger kid the option of a term of home schooling to avoid Key Stage 2 SATs (it seems only fair). But if my children were tiny again, and about to face three different tests in their first few years of schooling, I am clear what I would do. I would say to my partner that education has “schtopped may king senz”. I would choose to home school them. And eye wood teech them too reed bi miself.

Posted in Children, Phonics, Teaching | 3 Comments


Author Marketing 101
Part Two: *Visibility*

First, take a deep breath and have a quick look at the number of new book titles published this year. Yes, I’m afraid it’s true. When your book comes out, it joins a massive pool of other titles published in the same year. This is without even taking into account all the other books that were published in previous years. These days, publishing a book is like chucking a single grain of sand into the sea and hoping to find it again. So, if you want to actually sell any books, it’s really important to understand how to get them to be visible. You want your book to be an interestingly shaped shell that people might stumble across, rather than just another grain of sand. One of the key things you need to know about is how people’s buying habits work. Who buys the most books? How and where can you help them find yours? A lot of us tend to buy books online these days, but you can also send your books out into the world yourself. If you are publishing with a traditional publisher, when you negotiate your contract, you will get a discount on your own books. Make sure you ask the publishers whether they will remove the ‘no resale’ clause that is in most standard contracts. (They usually will – it’s no skin off their backs.)

Another way to get visibility is to understand how searching works, and how you can get your book seen in ‘Top 10’ lists and other highly visible places. Study the categories on Amazon – you are often better off in a niche category than in a bigger one where your book will get buried. If you self publish your book you get the chance to add your own categories and key words, so take time and think carefully about these. Your title is part of search visibility too – there are all sorts of complicated algorithms going on in the background. Book covers play a key part in visibility – you want a cover that looks clear and striking at thumbnail size, because that is how a lot of people see books these days. The other side of visibility comes via your public presence, but that’s a big topic which merits a section of its own. So on that note I’ll leave you with a useful link, a useful book,  and a piece of advice: Throw off your Cloak of Invisibility and deck yourself out in a Coat of Many Colours.

Posted in Books, Writing | 2 Comments

Reader Magnets

“There’s no money in poetry,
but there’s no poetry in money, either.”
Robert Graves

If you want to make a living as an author, you have to get past the bit where you don’t want to ask for money for your writing. It feels embarrassing at first, because it’s like you saying “I’m good enough for you to want to read what I write.” You don’t have an option though, because it’s either that or not make your living as a professional writer. One thing you must do to earn your crust is to create what is commonly referred to as an ‘author brand’. It’s not the most attractive term, but essentially that’s what you’re doing. Although the majority of people probably become writers because they can’t stop themselves from writing, in the end everyone has to earn a crust. If being an author is the way you’d like to earn that crust, then welcome to Sue Cowley’s Marketing 101:

Part One: *Reader Magnets*

You want your readers to stick to your writing, as though you are a magnet, because that will help you sell your books. But your readers are not going to stick to your writing, unless you give them something to stick to. Partly, this is about your voice – do they want to listen to you? Partly, it is about the ideas you bring to the table, and how useful your books will be to them. But it is also about visibility within a crowded market. And this is where “Reader Magnets” come in. These are all the ideas that you take the time to write and collate, and then share widely. People love lists of helpful things, such as my 100 ideas series. Blogs and websites draw people in, and free giveaways as well. You can share snippets of your books too. And if people come back to you, because they like what you say, then you have completed Part One of this course. You have created your very own Reader Magnets.

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I’ve been thinking about Twitter timelines, ever since I read Bodil’s Isaksen’s blog asking what people want to get out of Twitter. (Thank you for the inspiration, Bodil.) One of the weird things about Twitter is that you exist in your own timeline, but for other people you exist via your tweets in theirs. People form an impression of you, not by what you see in front of you, but by what they see in front of them. Their mix is not the same as yours. People kind of form groups, but there are splinters and loose edges, where different voices filter in. My timeline is full of early years ideas and sharing. There is humour, hugging and shoes. I have poetry, and much talk about the value of play. I ask questions, which means there are a lot of answers on my feed. I enjoy images of the world in all its majesty – castles, weather, the natural world. There is quite a bit of volunteer preschool charity stuff. Then I chuck in a sprinkling of facts, some debate, but not too much. Oh and kittens. There should always be space for kittens. We create an atmosphere for ourselves on our timelines; a place we want to be. There may be some things on my timeline that other people wouldn’t want in their own lives, but there are many wonderful things on my timeline to give me pleasure in mine.


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Eradicate Excuses

Dear Nick,

I saw in your speech yesterday that you said it was possible for kids to have “No Excuses methods injected into them”. I’m a parent, and I can tell you – I need some of that stuff! Perhaps you could tell me where you get hold of it? You see, in our home, it’s all “I was just finishing my game” and “I didn’t mean to spill it”. The kids are always saying “It’s not my turn” and “I went first yesterday”. We get “She made me do it” and “It’s not that late”. And most regularly of all “I forgot”. So, as you can see, we’re in desperate need of whatever it is these people are injecting. If you could let us know where to get hold of that stuff we’d be grateful. It’s the weekend tomorrow, so if you could answer quickly that’d be great.

Many thanks,

Posted in Behaviour, Government | Leave a comment