Trying to Catch Butterflies

It takes all kinds of progress to make a world. And at the centre of it all is the child. Everything we do must be done to improve things for the child, otherwise it’s completely pointless.

If you think back to your own school days, as I do so often, I hope you will remember at least one teacher who changed your view of the world and of the possibilities for you within it. For me, it was Valerie. She gave me confidence in my own voice, the belief that I had something valuable to say. This is a kind of progress that simply cannot be measured. Trying to measure how she did it is like trying to catch butterflies. She just believed in me. You can’t make a spreadsheet out of that.

Equally I had teachers who tried to stamp me down. I was so terrified of two of my teachers, that I refused to go to school for many months. School made me feel sick. I didn’t have the emotional resilience to cope with it. These two were ‘old school’, shouters, bullying children into submission. Yes, we have made ourselves a difficult bed to lie in when it comes to behaviour, but it’s infinitely preferable to the way I was educated as a child.

I’ve been reading the #blogsync posts on the subject of progress with great interest. I particularly enjoyed reading Chris Hildrew’s take here and Debra Kidd’s detailed and carefully evidenced analysis here. I did get a bit cross with Tessa Matthews, blogging here, for her insistence that it is once again all about the ‘skills -v- knowledge’ debate. Do we really have to choose between the two? Isn’t ‘learning how to retain knowledge’ a skill in and of itself? Yes, ‘retained knowledge’ is easier to measure than other things but it doesn’t mean anything unless you can use it.

I’d like to offer a slightly different take on the subject of progress, by putting my parent hat on to write this blog entry, rather than my teacher one. As a parent, what kinds of progress do I want the teachers to achieve for my children when they are at school? What kinds of progress really matter to me?

Above all else, I want my children to be happy and to feel safe within their school: for the natural process of growing-up to continue smoothly. That in itself is a kind of progress. I’m not obsessed with results, honest. That will come. First, I want them to look forward to coming into school to learn. I want you to help them become confident learners who can persevere, take risks, enjoy learning for its own sake. I want you to give them space to be creative, and to develop the love of reading that we’ve managed to foster. I want you to help them learn to make their own judgments, but also to know when they have to sit still, listen and play the game, for the good of the majority. I want you to maintain order, but encourage individuality. I trust you to get this right, and I know it’s not easy.

I’ve talked to both my children about how sometimes they might have a teacher that isn’t so great, but that they must still work hard and focus. That sometimes lessons and subjects will be boring, and tough to get, but that effort is still worthwhile. Life isn’t always a smooth road. That’s a lesson in and of itself. Those two terrifying teachers taught me everything I need to know about how not to teach, I guess. I just wish they hadn’t done it in that particular way.

Knowledge is fine and good. My children go into class not knowing some fact or other, then they come out at the end knowing it. Voila! progress has been made. Tick the box. Ofsted will be pleased. Yadda yadda yadda. Just a few parental provisos (Mr Gove, are you listening?). If I ask my child about that fact in a week or a month’s time will she remember it? Has this knowledge been embedded into her view of the world, has it become part of her ‘cultural capital’ as the current buzz phrase goes? Can she use and build on this knowledge or is it just something she has to regurgitate to ‘give evidence for’ progress?

Some knowledge ‘sticks’, some doesn’t, and a great deal of that is to do with how it was taught in the first place. (This is where relevance and engagement come in, surely?) I’m not talking about relevance in the ‘popular culture’ sense. It’s endlessly surprising to me what children find relevant: we underestimate them at our peril. A great teacher and brilliant resources can make pretty much anything seem relevant and engaging to an inquisitive child. My seven-year-old can still tell you all about the Great Fire of London, and Samuel Pepys. She can do this because of the way her brilliant teacher taught the subject to the class, and because of a fantastic book I got her, which she read a million times. My son could tell you every fact you would care to know about dinosaurs, reptiles, tsunamis, Pokemon, because he loves to read and because he’s interested in it and sees it as relevant. Again, this is progress as a butterfly. You can’t pin down the way you create a love of reading, but it opens the world of knowledge to you instantly.

Now let’s think about skills. A lot of this is hard graft, plugging away until you get something deep within your physical memory. A lot of it is the parent’s responsibility, in theory. You encourage your small child to do up buttons, you teach your older child to tie a bow (I put that one off for a long time, Velcro has a lot to answer for). Yes, I know there are parents who don’t get these basic skills in place, and some that are easily missed (scissors was my downfall). This is where all those dedicated early years practitioners come into their own, because they help set your child on the road to learning.

At school learning to read and write are the key skills to all that follows. Go ahead and measure this, I understand the urge, but to be honest it doesn’t make it happen any quicker or easier. Building spoken language skills is critical as well, they are the foundation stone for learning. It’s surprisingly hard to play catch up when the early bit didn’t happen at home – vocabulary is all! Again, relevance and engagement is critical – children will talk if they are interested, if they feel curious, if they are allowed to use their imaginations. They will practise handwriting for a teacher who has it as an expectation. Skills are typically easy to quantify, give a teacher a list and he or she will crack through them – yep, done that, doing that one next week. This is the meat and bread of the working teacher: easy to measure, reassuring for politicians. Often, the acquisition of skills is all about repetition and reinforcement. Doing it over and over until you get it right. Progress is slow but measurable.

Some types of learning (a.k.a. progress) are far more nebulous. This week, my daughter’s teacher got her class 2 ducklings and 2 chicks. The children are hugely excited, using language in lots of new ways (there are lots of second language learners). There are plans afoot to get creative and start making poetry and pictures and all sorts of exciting things. The children will learn to take responsibility, about how we should treat living things, and what they need to thrive. Creative, fluffy, child centred nonsense? Or massive jumps in progress, caused by her teacher’s creative thinking and willingness to go above and beyond for her children? You decide. These are the kind of relationships that Gordon Baillie talks about here.

This might sound like heresy, but isn’t there any chance we could just look at teachers and go ‘yep, he/she knows how to do it’? I can give you conclusive proof that this teacher is good: my daughter loves her, she’s happy, she’s learning, she’s reading, she’s writing, she’s asking questions. When did we stop trusting teachers? When did we agree that if it can’t be measured, it isn’t happening? Who got to make up that rule? Let’s please get at least some trust back and temper all that data with a sprinkling of humanity. Good, outstanding, does it really matter? It’s all just semantics in my (parental) view.

Do we really have to spend all our time and energy proving progress, trying to catch and pin down all the beautiful, colourful butterflies? Couldn’t we just help them learn to fly?

This entry was posted in Creativity, Knowledge, Parents, Pedagogy, Progress, Skills. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Trying to Catch Butterflies

  1. debrakidd says:

    Oh I really enjoyed reading this Sue and isn’t it weird how being a parent informs your teacher self? And vice versa. Weird and wonderful.


  2. redpeffer says:

    Absolutely brilliant post. You echo almost everything I feel as a parent. Thank you.


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