By their very nature, small children are full of energy and movement. They fidget, they wriggle, they flit from place to place. They play constantly, because they are filled with a burning desire to explore and discover the world around them. Their small bodies are still developing, and growing stronger, and this need for constant movement is part of that process. The focus and control that we see in (most) older children does not come out of thin air – it comes out of the learned ability to regulate their own behaviour, and out of the gradually developing ability to control their bodies, and their emotional state. When you teach small children, this need for constant movement can feel frustrating – if only they would sit still and listen, then you would feel so much more in control of your classroom. You could focus on ‘getting through the learning’, if only small children weren’t quite so ‘small children-y’.
Small children respond very well to routines – routines give the children a sense of security and they help to create a safe environment in which to learn. The routines form a ‘buffer’ between the children’s current levels of self control, and the ‘real world’ realities of the classroom environment. The routines help the children learn how to regulate their own behaviour. Even as adults, we often live our lives by routines – we set the alarm clock to get us up for work, we put out the bins on the right day each week. Routines help us to impose a sense of order and control on our lives. There are many ways that you can incorporate routines into a classroom environment. You can use visual reminders, you can gently encourage the children to follow them, you can make the routines seem fun to use, by giving them an imaginative element. Or you can ‘train up’ the children to do exactly as you want them to do, in a kind of ‘Pavlov’s Dogs’ approach to education.
When I watch video clips like the one above, I feel very uneasy indeed. Although I am told that Doug Lemov’s approach ‘doesn’t look like that in real life’, this is not the point. The point for me is a set of ethical questions about what is going on. I can see how these routines help the teacher – the sense of control is palpable. I can see how these routines might make it easier for some kinds of learning to happen, because the children are taught to focus their attention. But it is what I can’t see that really worries me, because these are children. Where is the choice, the fun, the flitting, the wriggling, the laughter, the joy, the sensitivity, the nuance, the playful interactions, the movement, the gradually developing self-regulation? Where are all the completely normal behaviours that we would expect to see in a group of five year old children? Are we clear about the long term impact of this approach on the children’s mental and physical health? Is it ethical to ‘train up’ small children from low income families in this way, with the justification that it will get them into college? And have we stopped to ask ourselves the question: at what cost?