The Duck Wedding

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I once asked the kid who her favourite ever teacher was. Yes, I know I shouldn’t have, because all of her teachers have been great, and it’s not a competition. But I was curious about what her answer would be.

“Mrs L,” she said, without hesitation.

Mrs L was her teacher when we lived overseas, briefly. “Okay,” I said, “and why is that?”

“Because she gave us gummy bears when we did good work.”

“Oh. That doesn’t sound too good for your teeth. Did she do anything else?”

“Well.” The kid paused and thought for a moment. “She was kind, and she was beautiful, and she told us stories about where she came from in Canada. How old do you think she was, mummy?”

“I’m not sure,” I said. “Do you think she was older or younger than me?”

“Oh, she was definitely younger than you, mummy.” (This was upsetting since I’m pretty sure Mrs L was in her early fifties and I was still in my forties at the time.)

By this point I was wondering if she was going to get to the teaching methods, so I gave her a nudge. What did Mrs L do that helped her to learn, I wanted to know.

“You remember. She got me reading by myself, by challenging me to read a bit of my book every night and write about it in my diary. We had a garden where we grew things. And then of course there was the Duck Wedding.”

To cut a long story short, Mrs L got the class two ducklings. They took a vote on names and the ducklings ended up called Billy and Quaa-Quaa. As the ducks got bigger (and I suspect more amorous) Mrs L decided that they needed to hold a wedding for them. And so it was that her class held a Duck Wedding, which I assume involved some duck wedding related accessories. In this random and completely non scientific manner, Mrs L became my kid’s favourite teacher (although all her teachers have been great and she has loved them all). But what would Nick Gibb make of a teacher who held a Duck Wedding? What possible contribution to a child’s store of knowledge could a Duck Wedding make? And did Billy and Quaa-Quaa ever recover from the experience? I’m not sure, but the lesson I take from it is this. You can take a duck to water, but you can’t make it swim. And you can lead your children to knowledge, but it’s the teacher who makes them want to dive in.

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Responsible

People don’t tend to come into teaching for the money. At a pinch, they might come into it for the holidays, but mostly they have higher motives. They want to make a difference for the children in their care, inspire children to love all the subjects, and change the world a bit at the same time, if they can. They want to help children make more of their lives, support families in bringing up their children, and create a love of learning that lasts a lifetime. When I think of the teachers I know, they mostly do it with their hearts rather than for their wallets. Otherwise they would probably give up and go do something easier, particularly in the climate that exists in education at the moment. Unfortunately, one side effect of this desire to make a difference is that other people can get away with making you do things that you shouldn’t really do. You are so keen and willing to do good that you end being leaned on much too hard and taking on far too much. You end up forgetting that it is not your job to change the world; that this is what we vote in governments for.

Here’s a partial list of all the things that schools are now being asked to achieve.

* Exam results
* Social mobility
* Mental health
* Well being
* Child protection
* SEND
* Behaviour
* Physical health
* All above average
* Identifying radicalisation
* Eating healthily
* Cleaning teeth properly
* School readiness
* Careers
* Employment
* Limiting the use of exclamation marks
* Correctly sloping commas
* Memorising quotes
* Learning about sex and drugs (but not rock ‘n’ roll)

Most of these things are completely admirable goals, and achieving these things is the reason why many people come into teaching. But I think we need to be asking ourselves whether government is actually playing its part, or whether they have stopped thinking they have to. And if they have stopped thinking they have to, whether that is because when they handed the buck over to us, we held out our hands and accepted it. We are at a point where teachers are being held responsible for pretty much everything that happens in society. The government is saying ‘teachers can do this’ and I reckon teachers need to start saying: “Some of this is as much your job, as it is mine.” Because if we don’t, it won’t be long before we are held responsible for all the things on planet Earth. And that includes Trump, Brexit and Climate Change as well.

Posted in Social Mobility, Teaching | 2 Comments

The Contented Little Baby

Like most new parents, within a few weeks of having my first baby, I was completely and utterly desperate for sleep. Sleep deprivation is a strange thing – I can see why they use it as a method of torture. You start to feel like you are living in a half world, where nothing really makes sense and your brain just won’t work properly anymore. You become clumsy, and you can’t make the simplest of decisions. You ache for the chance of a decent night’s sleep. When someone you know tells you that their baby slept through the night at a few weeks old, you feel like you might want to punch them. Anyway, some of the people in the online baby group I belonged to were talking about a book that they reckoned might help. It was called the Contented Little Baby Book by Gina Ford. Apparently if you followed the rules in the book exactly, you could get your baby to stop screaming to be fed all the time, and make it take regular naps, which meant that you could get a decent amount of sleep yourself. No longer would you be woken up in the night by a baby demanding to be fed. Some of the people in my baby group were scathing about the methods described in the book. They reckoned it was cruel. But, tantilised by the prospect of sleep, I swept any concerns to one side.

Having purchased the book, I set about making it work. The book told me that you had to wake your baby up at a set time even if you and/or the baby were actually asleep. When my partner caught me doing this, he raised an eyebrow but sensibly kept his mouth shut. Then you had to feed your baby for a specific amount of time, have a little play with it, wrap it up in a specific way and then make it go to sleep by the specified hour. If you needed to pop out to the shops with your baby, you mustn’t let it fall asleep in the process. The problem was, though, that my baby was having none of it. He wouldn’t fall asleep at the correct times in his cot, but he was more than happy to crash out in his car seat. He didn’t want to feed at the times the book told me and he was perfectly capable of letting me know about it if he didn’t get his own way. The idea of controlled crying was making my heart break inside, and if anything I was getting less sleep rather than more. When my partner caught me studying the book as my baby screamed, having not been out of the house for five days, he threw it out of the window and he told me that he would burn it if he ever caught me looking at it again. That Friday, I met the girls from my antenatal group at the pub for lunch, we lined our sleeping babies up in their car seats along the wall, and we had a chat and a laugh together. I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.

The idea that there could be a system that would get a child to do exactly what you wanted it to do, at exactly the moment when you wanted, with no potential downsides, might seem appealing. This would be especially so if the child was refusing to do what you said and you really wanted the child to do that thing. One of the problems is, though, that there is only one way to create a system that will make a child obedient at all times. And that is to wrap yourself and the child up so tightly in a set of rigid structures, that you barely have room to breathe. If the child refuses to comply, you must have a method to achieve the compliance you desire. You must put your own need for control of your child ahead of your instinctive reactions about what feels right. You must make the child fit into your vision of what matters, and not react to the child’s immediate needs. In the end, my baby figured out for himself how to sleep through the night in his own good time and I wasn’t permanently scarred by a few months without much sleep. I relaxed into the idea of being a mum, and grabbed forty winks whenever my baby took a nap. As a friend once wisely pointed out to me: he won’t still be waking up in the night when he’s fourteen. And she was right; he’s not. These days it’s all I can do to get him out of bed.

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If Detentions Worked

One of the ‘problems’ for schools with the use of punitive measures to control behaviour is that they are not exactly armed to the teeth with options. In the (bad) old days, when I was at school, the threat of violence was available. A lot of us did as we were told because we were scared of being caned if we didn’t. The moment the cane was banned, schools were basically left with one main punitive option to help them manage behaviour: detentions. Unfortunately for schools, some young people aren’t particularly bothered about being given a detention, or even about being given lots of detentions. What tends to happen is that you end up with the same young people getting detentions over and over again. The detention hasn’t ‘worked’ in the sense of changing the child’s behaviour, although it might to some extent have controlled it or stopped it getting worse. I remember once years ago asking a child to give me his planner so I could write in a detention. He told me that he couldn’t “fit me in” that day, nor the next, but he had a space I could book on Friday week. It struck me that it was no wonder the child had so much excess physical energy in my lessons; he barely ever got a playtime to expend it in.

In some instances, and for some children, detentions work perfectly fine as a deterrent or as a control measure. When my kid started at secondary school, he was a bit disorganised, in the way that many tweenagers are at transition. He forgot his PE kit on two occasions, and on each occasion he justifiably got a detention and some negative behaviour points. After two times of suffering the consequences, he learned his lesson and he hasn’t forgotten his PE kit since. But if he was still forgetting his kit and getting detentions for it two years later, it would seem obvious that something else might be worth a try. From his teachers’ reports, his behaviour is fine in lessons, but this is not because of any fear of getting a detention. It is because we have brought him up to know how and why to behave. In schools where there are lots of children who haven’t been taught how or why to behave, there may be a lot of problem behaviour, and therefore a consistently applied system of consequences may mean that a large number of detentions have to be given. But if these detentions were ‘working’, in the sense of helping you to manage and change behaviour, you would normally hope to see the number gradually tail off.

At preschool, we don’t have any ‘detentions’. For a start, it is totally inappropriate at this age. The parents wouldn’t stand for it, and there is no time in the preschool day when it could happen. But more importantly, the children wouldn’t understand it, and it would make no difference at all to their behaviour. We don’t believe that a system based on rewards and sanctions is the right way to help young children learn to regulate their behaviour; we prefer to analyse the behaviour and come at it from the direction of the child’s needs instead. Clearly this is far more difficult to do in a larger setting, such as a primary or secondary school, but in the end the goal will always be to change behaviour through helping the child learn how to behave, rather than simply trying to manage it. If there was a simple answer to behaviour, we would have alighted on it years ago. In the 20 or so years that I have been writing on and talking about behaviour, and working with schools in this area, I have never come across a ‘solution’ that was easy or straightforward to put in place. The complexity of behaviour in schools is caused by the complexity of human beings. And although consequences can be useful, they cannot take account of that.

Posted in Behaviour | 4 Comments

Carrots

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Ever since I started growing vegetables, I have been a dab hand at growing carrots. In the first few years that I grew them, the children would form a queue for the place where they could pull up handfuls of baby ones. The carrots would get a quick rinse and then the kids would munch them down, smiling at the sweetness and texture as they did so. At that time, I thought I had the exact formula for growing great carrots. It was obvious really. My carrots were better than everyone else’s, and I had plenty to spare. I could smile the smile of the person who knows how carrots grow best. As I told anyone who cared to listen, all you needed to do was dig the well drained soil on the allotment over to a fine tilth, make a shallow line, water the bottom of it, sprinkle the seeds as thinly as you could and then cover them over with a dusting of compost. Put some fleece over them, until they get going (and to keep off carrot fly). Water well in dry weather and you’re sorted. Carrots-r-us.

How wrong could I have been? 

A few years into my carrot growing career, I realised that my perfect formula actually wasn’t so perfect after all. The carrots weren’t doing what I wanted them to do anymore. They were being all temperamental. They were slow to germinate and prone to carrot fly despite my efforts to keep it away. 2016 was a particularly bad year. We didn’t get to eat a single carrot I had grown myself last year, despite me sowing loads of seeds. Perhaps it was the weather. Perhaps it was the two million slugs that invaded my allotment. Or perhaps it was just, you know, 2016. But whatever it was, it showed me that I am not invincible. That I do not know it all and that I still have much to learn. Certainty of outcome is not a given, when you’re dealing with something as complicated as a carrot.

Today as I dug over the allotment in preparation for a new growing season, I came across a lone carrot. The one brave survivor of the Great Carrot Growing Disaster that was 2016. Despite all my attempts to manipulate the environment to get the carrots to grow, that one seed had gone on and grown despite, not because of me. As a gardener, it is tempting to over play my role in growing plants, and to underplay the role that the plants have to play in growing themselves. To take a bit too much of the credit for myself. If I was so inclined, I could use chemicals to up my yield, and to make sure that nothing came between the sowing of the carrot seeds and the outcome of a plate of shiny unblemished carrots. But in the end, the carrot is going to do what it has to do. I smiled as I dug out that carrot. It was grubby, the carrot fly had got into the end of it, and it wasn’t going to win any prizes at the local flower show. But it had got through without my constant intervention. And I admired it for that.

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Bad Attitude

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I’ll admit it. There are some things towards which I have a bad attitude. Brexit is a big one. As is lots of high stakes testing. And anyone telling me how I must teach. I reserve the right to say that these things are wrong. I have to, or I would go mad. If I understand the ‘Why?’ behind the thing that people tell me to do, I am generally very compliant. I drive at pretty much the right speed because I know that people get hurt by cars; I pay my taxes because I know we need a system that supports everyone; I put out my recycling on the correct day because it’s the right thing to do. But if I don’t think the thing I’m being asked to do is right, both for me, and for everyone else as well, I need to be able to stand up and say that I think it is bad idea without getting shouted down all the time. The thought that I have had to listen to people telling me how bad the EU is for 40 years, and then I should shut up and get over it in 6 months is incomprehensible to me. I’m not a ‘remoaner’; I am the person on your shoulder who points out that you made a bad decision. Don’t you dare blame me if I’m right.

Europe has insinuated itself into my life in a surprising way. Not via my ancestors, but through the connections I have made during my lifetime. Once you get to know people with European heritage, you can’t really help it. I have friends with Polish heritage, family with a Portuguese background, and a sister living in France. To tear the UK away from the continent is like tearing away a part of my life. Europe is a beautiful place. It ranges from snow capped mountains to sun baked olive groves. It has islands, and volcanoes; strange traditions, and beautiful languages. It has rivers, and lakes, and all kinds of amazing foods. And fantastic people, too. (All the other continents have similar wonders, it’s just that they are not a short ferry ride, plane ride or car drive away.) I think it is a really bad idea to leave the European Union. I think it will do damage to our country in the exact same way that SATs are doing damage to the curriculum. And I don’t plan to stop saying that, even if people think I’ve got a bad attitude when I do.

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Cleavers

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“The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making,
the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” 
Donald T. Campbell, 1976

If you were after a single sentence description of the effect that high stakes testing has on schools, you couldn’t really do better than Campbell’s Law. When decisions about how well a school is doing come down to the results of a set of tests, those tests can start to distort the process of education. If your livelihood depends on children doing well in the tests, then you can’t really ignore them, unless you are supremely confident that your children are going to do well. If something is in the tests, you’d be daft not to teach it. How well your children do at the tests depends on your school’s context, as well as on your teaching skills, and even a single context can vary widely with different cohorts over the years. From what I can tell, the vast majority of schools are doing the best that they possibly can in the circumstances for their children. But at the same time it would be hard to deny that the curriculum has narrowed for many children. That no matter how hard people might try, schools are influenced by thoughts of SATs, as well as what is best for the child.

One of the most telling things for me about SATs is that private schools don’t use them*. You can be sure that they would, if they were a good thing for the children or the teachers, or if parents really ‘wanted’ them. When I see the Government eulogising private education, I wonder why they cherry pick the bits of it that they like. Even the DfE fully admits that SATs are not about children, but about schools. It’s not like GCSEs, where there is a clear outcome for my child as well. If I feel that these tests are potentially doing damage to the state education system, and to the teachers who work within it, I can’t just sit back and say nothing. If people tell me that their children find the testing stressful, then I have to take that seriously. Even if my child is doing fine, because of her context, her school, and her confidence as a learner, it doesn’t make it okay when someone else’s isn’t.

I’m told by secondary teachers that target grades are set on the results of SATs. Even if they teach Art or Music, that number that gets attached to my child and will end up distorting the system, rippling out into her secondary career. Not only does someone’s livelihood depend on my child now, but someone’s pay rise five years later might depend on how she performed in a warm classroom on a May day in 2017. That seems like an awful lot of trust in a measurement, to place on a single child. When you put a target grade on a child, then you inadvertently put up a barrier between primary and secondary. The higher the SATs mark, the harder it is for the secondary to move the child on. And so, instead of being the gentle handover of a child, it starts to feel like passing on a ticking bomb.

We have a lot of Cleavers in our garden. The children love to play with it. It’s that sticky weed; the one that if someone throws it on your back, it sticks like it’s made of velcro. You can chuck it at someone when they’re not watching and they won’t even realise it’s there. Sometimes there is so much Cleavers in the garden that the kids get into a massive sticky weed fight with it. There comes a point when you have to shout, “STOP!”, or someone is going to get really upset. And that is basically the point I have reached when it comes to the way that testing is going in schools. Because the biggest problem with Cleavers isn’t that it is sticky; the problem is that its stickiness is how it propagates itself. And I’m starting to think that it’s just about time that we stopped spreading the seeds.

 

(* I’m told by those that know, that some private schools do use SATs. However, this is the school’s choice and not a statutory requirement for accountability. This article is a useful read on the opinion of most private schools on the subject of SATs.)

Posted in Testing | 3 Comments