Astroturf

Grass is an amazing plant. It thrives in the toughest of conditions, it doesn’t mind if you step on it, or if you cut it once a week, or even if you ignore it and let it grow into a tangle. (Although if you do let it grow into a tangle, you are going to regret it, because you will have to go through a lot of ripping up of long grass before you can actually cut it, otherwise it will tangle itself all around your mower or strimmer.) There are hundreds of varieties of grass – from the lawn grasses that are so familiar, to tall grasses with fluffy plumes at the top, such as Miscanthus. When you dig up the land to make an allotment, one of the most important things to do is to get rid of any grass, because it competes with everything and it always wins. Couch grass is a particular nuisance because of the long, fibrous roots. Most of what I had to clear to start making an allotment was clumps and long roots of grass. And as I dug out my allotment into formal rectangles, taking out all the grass and covering it with gravel paths, I finally got to a bit in the far right hand corner that I knew would be my seating area. It catches the late afternoon sun, it’s next to the pond, I can see my house and the valley that it sits in. It’s a lovely, secluded spot (especially with a cutting flower garden all around it). The main thing I didn’t want to do, though, was to sit in my quiet corner and look at weeds, and especially not grass. I wanted a break from reality.

Luckily for me, a friend had some spare astroturf. I’ve tried to recycle as many materials as I can, so I grabbed a few pieces, and an hour and a lot of cutting later, I had made a small, clean, weed free, intimate and low maintenance seating space. Now, everything is perfect where the astroturf lays. No weeds can get through the thick synthetic layer to find the sunshine. The reality of couch grass can be forgotten, for a time. I have placed my table, so I can drink my tea, sit for a while and forget the truth of growing things. But as I sit there, relaxing in a brief moment of autumn sunshine, and I look out at the open ground where nigella, marigolds, verbena bonariensis and foxgloves all self seed in abundance, I know that the place I am sitting is sterile ground. For all its clean look and its apparent benefits, nothing can grow under a blanket of astroturf. And what I really want is to plunge my hands into the dirty muddy soil of life. Because that is where the flowers grow.

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Posted in Allotment, Gardening | 1 Comment

Faultlines

The subject of the relationship between teaching and learning, and behaviour, is so fraught, tangled and complex that I hesitate even to talk about it. Notions of blame and responsibility quickly get wound up together, and before you know it, if you even dare to talk about this subject you are accused of saying that it is ‘the teacher’s fault if the children misbehave’. Logically, if we stop to think for a moment, it cannot possibly be a teacher’s fault when a student misbehaves, because the behaviour is not situated in the teacher, it is situated in the child. The behaviour belongs to the child, not to the teacher. If a student stumbles into your room, ten minutes late, firing off a volley of swear words as though they are bullets, this cannot possibly have anything to do with your lesson. If a student refuses to do some work, despite your perfectly reasonable request, this is nothing to do with you, and everything to do with them. But at the same time, this does not mean that you are completely powerless. That you cannot examine your own approaches and consider whether you might adapt what you do in order to get a better outcome for everyone concerned. Because, when it comes down to it, the teaching and learning is the thing over which teachers have most control.

Consider this. When a new term begins, there will often be a flurry of tweets complaining about poor quality INSET. Stories of sitting in a room, wasting precious preparation time listening to someone read out a series of powerpoint slides that had no relevance to anything you might want to do in your classroom that year. Although as an adult you probably won’t directly disrupt the session (especially if SLT are in the room), it could be the case that you lose focus and drift off, send a few sneaky emails on your phone under the desk, or get out your planner and start to organise your lessons, on the pretext of pretending to make notes. For sure, you’re not firing off swear words, or being deliberately defiant, but you are behaving in a way that we would not accept from a student in a classroom. Although your behaviour belongs entirely to you, to say that there is no link between how you are behaving and the quality of the INSET session is not correct. Your behaviour in this situation is (at least in part) a response to the way you are being taught. If I notice that the teachers in one of my INSET sessions are losing concentration, or if they are not finding what I am doing with them to be useful, it is up to me to reflect on it to make it better. The behaviour is not my fault, but I share an element of responsibility.

Some commentators take the position that children should ‘just behave’ – that there should be no link at all between the way that the teacher teaches, and the way that the children react to that teaching. That the school should have a system that ensures behaviour, and that the teacher does not bear any responsibility at all for this aspect of the job. (This does rather ignore the existence of the Teachers’ Standards, but that is probably a subject for another time.) For me, though, this not only misunderstands how human beings operate, but it puts a higher expectation on children than we hold for adults. And it also negates and under estimates my role in the process of teaching and learning. For sure, it is not my fault if the children mess around, but if I hold up my hands and claim that nothing I do has any influence on how the people in front of me behave, and that I should therefore take no responsibility at all for it, I am effectively saying that anyone could do my job, so long as they had the requisite subject knowledge. I absolve myself of any responsibility, but at the same time I absolve myself of any skill.

When I think back twenty five years or so, to my first teaching practice, I can remember completely misjudging the conceptual complexity of some work that I did with a group of children. I wanted to talk about ‘the world’ using a globe; the children didn’t have any concept of ‘the world’ because they had never been outside the town where they lived. At first the children simply looked puzzled, but then they began to shuffle around and fidget. Before long they were losing focus completely. They certainly didn’t learn anything from the time they spent with me that day. If, after that lesson, I had decided that the problem behaviour was entirely the fault of the children, and that my planning had not contributed to the situation in any shape or form, then I would have learned nothing as a teacher. Last school year I did a lesson in which I managed to get the children completely over excited, and then had to claw back the situation before it got unsafe. Their over excited behaviour might not have been my fault, but I certainly felt a measure of responsibility for it. When people say that part of the job of a teacher is to ensure well structured, carefully paced and suitably pitched lessons, that is not the same thing as saying that it is their fault when the children mess around. Yes, the behaviour definitely belongs to the children, but the magic of making them forget to misbehave? Well, I’m perfectly happy to take the credit for that.

Posted in Behaviour, Teaching and learning | 3 Comments

Do What They Told Ya

“And now you do what they told ya, now you’re under control”
Killing In The Name
Rage Against the Machine

It must be very frustrating for the DfE (and its ‘behaviour tsar’) to find that teachers still “argue … whether or not children should behave“. But, but, wait a second, I hear you say, who on earth are these teachers who think that children should be allowed to misbehave in class? And, perhaps even more to the point, what the hell are they doing in a classroom? In over fifteen years of working with teachers and schools on behaviour, I’ve never met a single person who believed such a thing. (Clue: this is because no one does.) The debate is categorically not about whether or not children should behave in school; the debate is about what their behaviour should look like, what ‘good behaviour’ means, and how we should go about getting it. Frankly, I find the idea that behaviour is not political amusing. For sure, it’s not necessarily party political (although beliefs do tend to vary according to which side of the political spectrum you are on). But to suggest that this is not a political as well as a practical discussion, is to deny the truth of the matter. The personal is very much political, it cannot be anything but.

If I try to empathise for a moment with the DfE – to put myself in their shoes, as is my wont – I can see how a simple solution to behaviour would be very attractive. Surely, our civil servant friends must wonder, the answer should be straightfoward? If only those (damn leftie?) teachers would have no excuses, maintain extremely high expectations, and then punish any child who dared to breach them, then we could get this behaviour thing sorted and out of the way, once and for all? If only we would just get all the kids to shut up and do as they are told, then we could get on with filling them full of the ‘right kind’ of knowledge. If only we would stop making excuses for them, all would be fine and dandy. On days when I’m feeling particularly cynical, I imagine I can hear the whispers in the corridors of the DfE about whether it might not just be possible to reintroduce corporal punishment, this being the ultimate in punitive consequences. Surely that way we could get back to the ‘good old days’ when children knew their place and understood exactly who was in charge?

The problem though (or perhaps it’s the solution?) is that we live in the twenty first century now, not the nineteenth one. Children have rights. People generally don’t believe that the harsh and constant punishment of children is the best solution anymore; many of us don’t even believe that it is ethical, given the legal duty of inclusion, the statistics around the number of children with SEND who are excluded from schools, and what the data tells us about the young people who end up in prisons. Our liberal sensibilities make us wonder whether there might not just be a better answer, one that involves building relationships, working with young people to help them learn how to behave well, as far as we possibly can. Not just to control them, and get them to conform and obey, but to encourage them to think about their behaviour and its effect on the rest of the community. And if that’s not political, I don’t know what is.

Given all the above, it is interesting to consider why it might be that the narrative coming out of the DfE is about teachers who don’t want children to behave. These presumably being the same ‘progressive’ teachers of ‘the Blob’ against whom Michael Gove was so given to railing. Ask parents how they actually feel about the teachers who work with their children, and they will typically tell you tales of admiration, of trust, of support and of approval. (Ask them how they actually feel about politicians, if you dare!) The vast majority of parents feel that their children are being loved, and cared for, and guided in the right direction by a hard working and dedicated teaching workforce, often against all the odds. And this is why I can only believe that this is an example of ‘gas lighting‘ – a way of making anyone who dares to question the ‘do what we told ya’ narrative feel like they are saying something strange, and wrong, and odd. But we are not. And we must continue to refuse do what they tell us, to refuse to conform with this narrative, if we feel that what they are telling us to do is not the right thing for our kids.

Posted in Behaviour | 4 Comments

A View with a Room

If you’re lucky, summer is a time for looking outwards, for escaping the close scrutiny of the working week and allowing yourself to breathe. A time for seeing the big picture, spending long nights with family and friends, relaxing. I’m a complete sucker for a view, and the summer holidays are the perfect time to kick back and take one in if you are fortunate enough to get the chance. Whether it’s a beach, a river, the ocean, a mountain range, a bustling city, a desert island – whatever floats your boat and your wallet allows – any view that isn’t our usual one draws us out of ourselves and our worries and gives us space and time to think. All too soon, the summer will be over, and we will be back into the minutiae of our daily lives. I grip onto the view like a drowning woman, at the moment when I must leave it. Just let me stay one more moment. I promise I won’t be long.

The way that you set up your classroom creates a view for your children, that much is inevitable. Most of the time, you’ll want them to focus on you and what you’re saying or doing – that’s mainly how teaching works. But if you have a great view (or maybe a rubbish one), this can also offer up its own opportunities. The amazing thing about teachers is that they have a habit of knowing what will work best for their children (if only we would trust them more than we seem to at the moment). If you were studying the history of the railway, and you had a train line outside your window, of course you would take the time to look at it. If you taught three year olds, and you had trees on your doorstep, the natural thing would be to go and explore them. Taking a moment to stare at the view and wonder what is going on in it, is part of how we all operate as human beings – we are all just looking out and wondering what the hell is going on. Whatever your classroom is like this year, I hope that you have a great time in it. And I very much hope that you get a view with your room.

 

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Nothing More Than Feelings


Secondary School here I come …

On the way home from work today, I listened to an interview on Radio Five Live with Robert Webb, about his new book How Not To Be A BoyThe programme focused on the relationships that we have with our parents – how our emotions are affected by the way that they behave towards us, and the circumstances that beset them, and how it might be a good idea to talk about how that made us feel. Webb’s book deals with his relationship with his father, and with the sudden death of his mother. The message seemed to be that we should not necessarily see stoicism as a positive, if it actually means that children are suffering. The interview linked to the Being a Man event on the South Bank about masculinity and male mental health. Penny Ten’s blog today was on a very similar topic, and the emotional honesty of her writing shines through like a beacon. Don’t forget that children have emotions as well as intellects, seems to have been the message of my day.

Next week, our youngest kid starts secondary school. Our home is a hotbed of emotions – the frenzy of preparation, the trendy new haircut and the pinchy shoes, the excitement of a big challenge just over the horizon. When we face these moments as children, especially if we’re in a difficult family situation, the emotions that we feel can scar a line skin deep into our psyches. This is not always a bad thing – it can challenge us and it becomes part of who we are, anyway. But it is a ‘thing’, and it’s not something to ignore, in a hurry to get children to memorise facts. I don’t just come to school to learn, I come to school and I feel. The problem for the idea of a successful ‘science of education’ is a very simple one. You’d think a simple problem would be simple to overcome, but thankfully the problem is that the children are the confounding factor. Someone joked with me today about how schools would be great if there weren’t any children in them – it’s a line I’ve used myself, because it sums up exactly the situation. It’s all great in theory, when your lesson is planned and your seating arrangements are all in place, but nothing can beat the hot, beating heart of a school when children, lifeblood pumping in their veins, rush into it on the first day back – all full of stories, and hormones, and hopes, and emotions. Just ask the kid, she’ll tell you. We are all emos now.

 

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Shift Happens

In an attempt at a digital detox, I’ve barely touched my computer for over a month. Apart from dealing with a handful of emails that couldn’t wait until the end of the holidays, and reading a few blogs that interested me, I have hardly put finger to keyboard. This has left me feeling a lot less stressed than normal, and with an awful lot of spare time on my hands. I’ve filled this time with important holiday related matters, such as going to the beach or the pool, eating long lunches, drinking ice cold beer or warm red wine, spending time with my family and staring at the view. And I’ve also spent my time reading. I’ve read a big pile of crime novels, and a number of children’s books that I’ve wanted to read for ages – Private Peaceful, The Lie Tree and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. I’ve also just finished reading A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich. As September gets closer, I am dipping my toes back into the virtual world, but it has been refreshing to step away from it for a while. ‘Detox’ seems to me to be exactly the right word – although there are many positives about social media, there is a poison to some aspects of it, that you barely notice is hurting you, until the moment you stop taking it.

Towards the end of A Little History of the World, Gombrich describes the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the world as a whole, but more particularly on the lives of ordinary people. This was a moment when a massive sea change took place – when the existing world order was tipped into chaos for a time, as people adjusted to a new reality. Gombrich describes how “Everything was turned upside-down and hardly anything stayed where it had been … [the workers] woke up one day to discover that they weren’t needed anymore.” During my lifetime, a similar sea change has occurred; indeed, is still in the process of occurring. This time it’s a technological revolution, rather than an industrial one, but it will have a similarly profound impact on our lives. Where, twenty or thirty years ago, I had to go to a library if I wanted to look something up, these days all the knowledge in the world is at my fingertips. Where, twenty or thirty years ago, I had to use a landline to phone people I knew, and leave a voice message if they weren’t home, now I can talk to pretty much anyone, anywhere in the world, at any time of day or night. Where, twenty or thirty years ago, to share my ideas with a wider audience, I had to get them in print, these days I can make my ideas heard via social media, the moment I think them. There are major breakthroughs in the field of Artificial Intelligence as well. Technology is causing a fundamental shift in how we experience our world.

One interesting thing about the technological revolution is the way that educators have responded to it. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, we have taken to the new medium in our droves. Those of us who make a living sharing knowledge, ideas and opinions in a classroom feel completely at home doing the same thing online. The language of computing has infiltrated the vocabulary of education, so that people talk about ‘working memory’ and ‘storage’ and ‘processing’ as though the human brain is some kind of super computer. While some educators embrace technology in classrooms, many of the loudest voices in this brave new world call for a return to the past. The idea that new technologies might lead to new ways of working and thinking is scorned. (‘Twenty first century jobs? Pah!’). We cannot ‘just Google’ things, we are told, we must memorise them instead, if we are to be able to think. At a time when the Internet has opened up a vast world of knowledge, democratising where we learn, what we learn, and how we might learn it, the DfE holds fast to the idea that memorising bits of knowledge, and regurgitating them in a test, is the most important thing for children to do. In the DfE’s world children should ‘know their place’ and ‘do as they are told’, lest they do something dangerous like think for themselves.

In The Lie Tree, Faith finds herself deeply frustrated at the idea that, as a girl in Victorian times, she cannot be a natural scientist like her father. Darwin’s ideas are challenging the very basis on which religious society is built. The best Faith can hope for is to marry well, or to get a man to publish any finds she makes on her behalf. A woman’s head is smaller than a man’s, she is told; women must therefore be less intelligent than men. Women should know their place, and keep their ideas to themselves. The people who want her to stay ‘in her place’ are motivated by fear and ignorance. Little more than a century later, a fundamental change has happened in the way that women are viewed, and in the chances on offer to them. Although inequalities still persist, prospects for my daughter are better than they were for me, and I in turn had more chances than my mother. It’s scary when things change, but we cannot hold back the tide of progress. A century from now, the way that we educate our children is likely to have changed out of all recognition. The idea that schools will continue to exist in their current form seems improbable at best. We can cling on to the vestiges of the past, fearful that our role as teachers must change, but we cannot go backwards. Just as in Gombrich’s book, history moves around us, sweeping us along on its tide. Shift happens, even when we choose to step outside of it. So now that I’m well and truly detoxed, I’ll see you on Twitter next week.

Posted in Knowledge, Learning, Technology | Leave a comment

Don’t PISA Me Off

In a week that has been dominated by talk of testing, yesterday brought what felt to me like the final straw. As if it wasn’t bad enough that correctly placed semi colons have been marked incorrect, for no obvious reason, and that the DfE apparently has an obsession with the slope of commas, they have now announced that 300 of our youngest school children will be taking part in a pilot of PISA tests for 5 year olds. I can almost feel my blood boiling as I write that sentence. The reasons why this is a bad idea are almost too numerous to mention, and I’m sure that I’ll miss loads, but I need to offload so here is my starter for ten. It’d be great if people could add to the list in the comments thread.

1. The use of a tablet based test for children of this age is developmentally inappropriate and cannot possibly capture the complexity of early child development. This message was sent home loud and clear to the DfE when schools rejected this kind of test for a proposed baseline, and a huge majority went for an observation based approach. Why is the DfE not listening to early years educators on how inappropriate and unreliable this test would be?

2. We have seen the political manipulation that takes place over the PISA results for older children. Talk of our ‘international rankings’ has been used to justify impositions by ministers, while they blithely ignore the contexts in which these rankings are given. Can anyone honestly tell me that this will not end up being more of the same?

3. Any test done on children in Reception needs to take account of the fact that there may be up to 364 days difference in their ages. A child who turns 5 on 1st September is 25% older than one who turns 5 on 31st August.

4. If a child is 4 years old, they are not in statutory education, and it would therefore seem to me to be unethical to include them in a test of early learning.

5. If there are children taking the test who have English as an additional language, any language based test is a test of their grasp of English rather than one of their development.

6. A tablet based test will inevitably favour those children who spend a lot of time on tablets. The DfE might want to think about the message that sends to parents as well as to schools.

7. It is almost inevitable that any ranking of countries according to how their children ‘perform’ at this age will cause a downwards pressure on early years settings. It is surely only a matter of time before ‘Prepare your children for the Baby PISA test’ materials become available.

8. Those of us in the early years have seen exactly what happens when early years ministers take a liking to approaches that are used in other countries. (If you’re in EYFS you might remember Liz Truss’s admiration for the French approach and the stories of nurseries with tennis balls on chair legs.)

9. Perhaps one of the reasons why only the US and England have so far signed up to this pilot, is because in the vast majority of countries children are not even in statutory education at this age.

10. And the idea that a tablet based test of a 5 year old could ever be a useful way to track the complexity of a child, and to show their progress and development to the age of 15? Well, that just PISAs me off.

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