The Power of Touch (typing)

When I was about twelve, my mum insisted that I learn to type. We had one of those heavy, bulky type-writers which hurt your fingers if you mis-hit the keys. She dug out a manual with the very basic drills which I practised over and over… At the time, I didn’t actually want to learn – but I didn’t have too much say in the matter.

My mum was a quirky, slightly unconventional person who was always incredibly busy walking the dogs, looking after us four kids and a husband, and cleaning, ironing, cooking – the usual. She sang joyfully, out of tune, and embarrassed me often, as only mothers can. But, she did teach me how to iron my school shirts, what deadly nightshade was, and, how to type. I think she’d worked at Tate and Lyle in a typing pool and considered this to be something she could pass on. She’d encourage me while she washed-up so I banged away – jkl – sdf – until my fingers bled. OK, that last bit is an exaggeration. Just checking.

We didn’t have computers at school then, not really, everything was handwritten – and yet she insisted. I’d fall asleep at night with my fingers twitching, ‘typing’ up my thoughts as I thought them, until I fell asleep – I remember that, lying there, what must be at least thirty-odd years later, so the learning must have been pretty meaningful, even though it wasn’t being meaningfully applied, at the time.

I used to work with somebody who believed that as soon as a child could hold a pencil, and mark-make, they should be taught an appropriate pencil-grip. Potentially,  a ‘proper’ pencil-grip can make all the difference to the legibility of a child’s hand-writing. Subsequently, taught letter-formation supports accurate spelling – and the memory of spellings – and improves fluency and speed of writing.

But the idea that a two-year old should be taught pencil-grip struck me as interesting – that’s rather young to be worrying about that, isn’t it? And then, thinking about it, I thought, ‘Why not?’ It certainly isn’t going to do them any harm if it’s encouraged gently.

Typing, for me, is the same. We do now expect our children, from the age of about four or five, to use keyboards – is it reasonable to insist that they’re taught about the home keys? How to position their hands? To encourage that they adopt this position every time they’re using the keyboard? To provide regular opportunities to practise?

The thing is, if you never teach a child how to hold their pencil appropriately, every time they write, they consolidate how not to hold their pencil appropriately. If you only begin teaching children how to touch-type in Year 6, they’ll have potentially consolidated the bad-habits that come with one or two-finger typing for half their lives.

The problem is compounded when they’re given typing targets which prioritise speed over the accuracy of touch-typing – kids will learn how to type pretty fast with two fingers – especially if there’s no expectation not to – so they now have two habits to break: the motivation of speed over (much slower) accuracy, and the physical patterns of typing with one or two fingers.

It seems a bit bonkers not to teach a child how to touch-type properly doesn’t it? In the priority rankings of computer skills, surely this should be at the top of the list? A teacher-friend said recently that he almost considers it a ‘right’ to be taught how to touch-type properly – imagine if all our kids knew how to – and felt the confidence that comes with that.

Incidentally, I found out much later, that the deadly nightshade my mum often pointed out, wasn’t actually deadly, or even nightshade. Still no clue what it was – probably just some innocent and harmless cluster of orange berries – but when she said that learning to type would be one of the best things I ever did, she was right.

It is.



Sable’s Penguin

I wasn’t sure whether the title of this blog should be ‘Sable’s Penguin’ or ‘Finn’s Penguin’. And if you’ve seen Austin’s Butterfly, you’ll know what’s coming, sort of. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a look.

Austin could see what he needed to do – to draw an accurate representation of a swallowtail butterfly – but he lacked the scientific skills of being observant and looking carefully, as well as the fine-motor skills to readily draw what was in front of him, rather than the simplistic idea, already in his head, of what a butterfly looked like. Through several drafts and supportive peers who gave him feedback during the process, he was encouraged to develop these skills – and the comparison between the first and final draft is kinda breath-taking.

Austin, as far as I can tell, didn’t have somebody modelling how to draw the butterfly; there wasn’t an artist on hand, saying, ‘Watch what I do and notice how I’m drawing the lines…now you have a go.’ His peer-group didn’t attempt to show him how to do it with their pencils; they simply gave him verbal feedback. And I get it – modelling how to draw the butterfly might have taken something away from the individuality of Austin’s process.

I remember speaking to an Early Years teacher a while ago – she said that she was trained not to model (how to draw a frog). She would, instead, ask questions like, ‘What shape are the eyes? She might discuss its colour or prompt observations but she wouldn’t model how to do it. The children wouldn’t see this bit. She summed it up with something along the lines of, ‘It might end up looking a bit rubbish, but it’s their rubbish.’ And that maybe says a lot in itself.

I get it – I think – but I wanted to look at this from a different angle – and this is where Sable, and her penguin come in. Sable is eighteen and she likes to draw – she’s good at it. Finn is six and he likes to draw. And he’s pretty good at it, too. So, with paper all over the place and the beautifully illustrated book ‘Animalium‘ open on the table, on the penguin page, they each drew one, and Sable’s is the one above.

And as we pottered about around them, I began to think about the impact, that drawing with somebody else (who is better at it), can have. But it can’t just be anybody. Finn looks up to Sable – he likes being with her – she’s not his sister but could have easily filled that role – somebody more able, somebody kind but who willingly pointed out where he was going wrong, somebody who demonstrated how to do it better – who didn’t just talk about it – but who also did it with him.

For Finn, simply having the Animalium book open in front of him, wouldn’t have been the same. I could have looked over his shoulder occasionally and said something like, ‘Look at his beak, is it long enough?’ but, having Sable there with him, drawing beautifully, made him want to be better. It was a relationship thing.

These are Finn’s penguins. Sable taught him, in particular, how to shade.


I see it myself when I model how to do something for my seven and eight year olds. The moment I sit down with them, and they gather round and watch, it somehow becomes a better situation. Giving it a go myself helps them, I think, to see me as (usually) confident to demonstrate – I make mistakes, I might have to rub something out – and they hear me reflect on what I’ve done – and watch me try again – they comment – and I believe that all of that helps them to feel more confident in doing it themselves.

An example of this is a recent Science lesson in which we were thinking about being observant. I wanted them to attempt to draw accurate representations of flowers before we got into the nitty-gritty of carpels and stamens. I modelled one – I could almost hear them thinking, ‘Well, if Mrs Young can do it – so can I.’. I think, too, that we may have reached our goal a little quicker and certainly more confidently than if I had just talked to them regularly. Here are some of their flowers.


Having an exemplar already prepared is one thing – and reflecting regularly is vital -great – but if you can actually model how to do it at some point too, or at least have a go, I think that’s valuable – for so many other, maybe more important reasons.

It’s a bit like trying to coach somebody how to throw a ball – you’d stand next to them, or behind them, you’d guide their arm into the correct position – and guide them slowly through the motion, explaining as you go – you’d practise it a few times slowly, they’d watch you – they’d get an idea of your movements, how you approach the throw, they’d get a feel for the speed you were traveling and hear the sound of your footsteps, feel your effort, you’d tell them that right at the last minute, it’s all in the wrist and you’d model it. You wouldn’t stand next to them with a photo of somebody about to throw a ball and ask them what they noticed about the shape of the arm – well you might, but it wouldn’t achieve the same result – by not modeling it, they’d lose a heap of other sensory information. And then, you wouldn’t justify it by thinking, ‘Doesn’t matter if it happens to end up as a naff throw – it’s their naff throw.’, would you?

And to be ever so slightly controversial, just had a fleeting thought that perhaps, the idea of ‘not modelling’ might, at least in part, come from our own lack of confidence or perception of inability in the very skills we’re trying to teach our children. Is it possible that somewhere in the historical depths of national policy making and curriculum delivery, somebody (who couldn’t perhaps draw a frog) said, ‘I know! Let’s get rid of the idea that we should actually teach our children how to do something by modelling it – instead, let’s just all talk about it – while we look at a picture. That’s still good teaching, right?’

And I’m not saying it isn’t – after all, Austin’s butterfly was so good it could have almost flown off the page – and they all learned how to reflect, compare, give and take feedback – all great stuff. For Austin, it worked – eventually. But Austin’s butterfly is recognised as a good example of this approach because it turned out to be a good example – but what about Pauline’s butterfly, or Ahmed’s?

We learn so much from copying each other – it gives us confidence if we watch somebody else do it first – it can give us a real sense of aspiration – as in Finn and Sable’s case. If the objective is to draw an accurate representation of a frog, or a penguin, or a flower or whatever – why would you not model how to do it?

And that’s why I called this blog ‘Sable’s Penguin’.




Does Curiosity + Compliance = Engagement?

Had an interesting conversation with a colleague the other day about compliance, curiosity and engagement. He’d observed some older pupils in their learning…just getting on with ‘doing Maths’ and far more independently than our younger pupils do. Ours seem to need more; we have to contend with white-board pens that have run out of ink (already?) and stepped-on fingers; we try not to make a fuss about the puddle on the floor from a leaky water-bottle or the clatter when pencil-pots get knocked off desks, again. They ask questions – completely random ones at times – and  they don’t have any looming exams to motivate their learning…yet.

What he observed was what, I’m guessing, comes from growing up – and all that that means – it’s an age thing, at least in part, and it’s where our eight year olds will be in a few years time. These older pupils just get on with it – and so do their teachers; they can teach because they have excellent subject knowledge, pupils who are delightful (and compliant) and who have exams to pass – at some point in the not too distant future.

But, I asked him whether he saw curiosity or only compliance? It turned out to be a tricky question to answer. We wondered whether because they seemed engaged, this naturally meant they were curious…they must have been interested to maintain their engagement. Or, were they simply engaged because they were compliant – or needed to be compliant to pass that exam?

Can you be engaged without being curious? Can you comply without being engaged? Does being curious mean you’ll naturally want to comply? Is that what he observed?Is there such a thing as willing compliance? If so, is it compliance? Maybe it’s called independence. And controversially, perhaps, does it matter, provided you reach your goal?

If we relied solely on curiosity, without developing any compliance, would we get very far? If we depended purely on compliance, would anyone really engage? Doesn’t the formula for learning, and the recall and demonstration of it, require both?

Think it might just come back to balance. Again.



You can’t check your phone…yet.

I heard recently that teachers, somewhere or other, were being advised to plan ‘tech-breaks’ into their lessons in order to reduce pupil anxiety. Apparently, this anxiety was being caused by not being able to check their phones. A tech-break, scheduled in, every 15 minutes or so, solved the problem. I thought, ‘Really? I’m never going to find any evidence of that online…’

Found it. It’s one of many articles, I’m sure – but I got the idea pretty quickly so didn’t read any others.

I’ve had some good conversations recently about ‘habits’ – as teachers, we have opportunities to develop good habits – habits which promote learning, promote a good attitude to learning and develop ideas about how learning happens. We have the opportunity, and surely the responsibility too, to grow concentration spans. How does providing a tech-break develop the ability to concentrate? To learn how it feels to not be distracted? To be present? We’re talking about young adults who can’t seem to focus for longer than 15 minutes – that sounds like a bleak future, if you ask me. And what about the kids who can go longer? Shouldn’t we be differentiating timings…?

Sarcasm aside, if you do a quick Google search, you’ll find out that the average person checks their phone about 150 times a day.  I’ve heard it’s more like 250. Hang on a minute…

I’ve seen entire families on individual devices while having a meal out at a restaurant. Together. You can buy a potty that has an iPad slot… You can bottle-feed your baby using the ‘Swipe and Feed’ – a contraption that allows you to clip in the bottle and more easily use your phone at the same time.

I read a recent article by A.J.Juliani about ‘What it’s like to Teach and Lead in 2017 (Hint: it’s exhausting)’. In it, he explains how 3400 devices had been handed out to pupils – a ‘powerful experience’ as well as how exhausting it is – ‘exhausting’ is used many times. He quotes a verteran teacher who says, “I keep thinking things might get easier. But, they never do. I guess I’m hoping for the wrong thing. Instead, things are getting better for our kids. They are having new experiences we could never have offered 5, 10, 15 years ago. It’s not easy for us, but it’s the right thing to do.”  

Is it? What if, along the way, we’ve lost a whole heap? What if, by providing every kid with a device, we are actually denying them something? What if, we didn’t always automatically assume that just because it’s ‘technology’, it’s better than what we used to do? What if we didn’t necessarily equate being exhausted, with doing a good job for our pupils? What if it’s not always the right thing to do?

But, I get it – unless I go and live in a caravan somewhere, or in one of those ‘off the grid’ homes where I get to grow my own vegetables and keep chickens (I’ve been tempted…!), I have to accept that technology and devices will probably be part of my everyday experience. How much, is, of course, up to me. But, I think this is, partly, because I’ve never really had the opportunity to form a habit – I don’t become anxious when I can’t check my phone – but there are people – children – who do. Is it fair, on them, to be providing opportunities which reinforce that? Or reinforce the idea that it’s acceptable to constantly check your phone regardless of who is in the room with you?

If we are, in effect, going to provide our children with opportunities to grow the habit of ‘connecting’ in this way – maybe there’s actually no escaping it – I think the very least we can do is also provide opportunities to teach them how to disconnect. To switch off. To absolutely leave the phone alone.

I have a sneaky feeling that there might be a whole heap of real connecting going on, if we did.



Am I Michaela?

So, after discovering Michaela, by chance, earlier in the year, listening, fascinated and intrigued, to several of their teachers talking online about Bootcamp, Dead White Men and Family Lunches, as well as reading their book, ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teacher’, I visited – in early July.

If you’ve read a few of my previous blogs, you’ll know that, all that is Michaela, has challenged my thinking – massively. I’ve since realised, somewhat miffed, at times, that my training was solely ‘Progressive’. I was taught to believe that child-led, and all that that means, was the only way. Being a facilitator of learning was a good thing; being the fountain of all knowledge was bad – as was assuming a position of expertise and clear authority in the classroom. If my children were not engaged in their learning – I probably wasn’t doing something quite right; if they were disruptive or did not demonstrate good manners, well – I guess that was my fault, too.

All this thinking and questioning on my part could not be kept to myself and a few of my colleagues heard all about Michaela, that all the staff were on the same page; that there was complete consistency across the school regarding discipline and expectations; learning happened as the result of drill and didactic teaching; there was no group-work at Michaela, pupils learned in silence, they moved around the school silently. Behaviour was impeccable. Honestly, their faces said it all – wide eyes and raised eyebrows. How can that be? It all seemed so very far away from what we had always done – what we were all trained to do. But I was excited about this different way of doing things; this was a school that was challenging the status quo and in doing so, providing an education for inner-city children and seemingly making a difference in the process.

So, with all this in mind (and with a very open mind), I arrived at Wembley Park Station on a sunny July lunch-time. I grew up in Wembley and went to school nearby; I remember being at bus-stops at home-time and watching elderly people being shoved out of the way by boisterous, senior-school pupils – but I had learned that Michaela children were different. I signed-in and was informed about my visit; I was presented with ‘Dos and Don’ts’ – the expectations of me, as a visitor – for example, I was not to act surprised when the children told me that they liked their school; I was encouraged to talk about my university experience and training.

Some were playing with balls, others were sitting on bench-tables talking. Uniform was smart. Play looked sensible and considerate. I approached a member of staff on duty and introduced myself. He began outlining the school’s ethos and philosophy. He was friendly and open. Out the corner of my eye, I noticed another member of staff speaking sternly to a pupil – a boy. The conversation was quiet and seemed respectful (although the member of staff had his hands in his pockets)…I know, I know – it feels petty to mention it – but I expected exemplary modeling of behaviour, too – but never mind.

After a few minutes, the children were called to line-up to go in for lunch. A male member of staff spoke loudly and sternly, reminding pupils of expected behaviour, how they were to walk inside. Eyes forward. One boy turned his head and looked sideways and received a demerit. I should have expected that, but I found myself trying to reason / justify what I’d just seen – it wasn’t easy.

Inside, after a quick shake of the hand by Ms Birbalsingh, she led us to a table at which I was invited to sit for the Family Lunch. The space was clean and organised. Pupils filed in silently and stood behind their chairs. They were led by Mr Porter in singing ‘Jerusalem’ – they hadn’t practised it much, apparently. God Save the Queen was better.

Lunch was served by the pupils. It went something like this, ‘Servers 1 and 2 – on my ‘Go’…Go!’ We were told what to discuss during our lunch (along the lines of Andy Murray’s motivation and commitment in order to get to Wimbledon). The pupils closest to me were confident in attempting to articulate their opinions. They responded to my questions about what they wanted to study at University and demonstrated good manners throughout the meal. Fifteen minutes later, another ‘Servers 3 and 4, on my ‘Go’…Go!’ and the clear-up process began. I was literally about to place a fork-load of vegetables in my mouth but thought better of it.

After lunch, pupils were encouraged to offer a few sentences to explain something for which they were grateful. This happened several times and after each, all pupils gave a two-clap applause, together, in response. Pupils spoke audibly and confidently. I got the feeling that for at least one pupil on my table, he had simply learned to play the game – he had asked me my name and where I’d come from, early on in the meal and had worked out that thanking me for visiting would be appreciated – I’m not sure it really mattered to him whether I was there or not, but I could be wrong – and I’m willing to acknowledge that all children (and adults) learn to play the game one way or the other.

The transition after lunch, into lessons, was outstandingly efficient and orderly. We were allocated two guides who would take us around the school. They were given a timer which would beep, we were told, after 20 minutes, after which they would go back to their lessons and we would be free to walk around the school and pop in to any lessons we wished to. The guides, a boy and a girl spoke confidently and the girl in particular, was clear and eloquent in her explanations of how the school was organised, what each of her badges represented and what ‘SLANT’ stood for. We were led into several classes; pupils were well-behaved, were sitting up straight (mostly) and raised their hands before contributing. Teachers stood at the front. And taught.

I walked around Michaela afterwards feeling as though I needed some time to process it all. I heard a teacher warn pupils that many of them were very close to receiving a detention. I walked past another in which one pupil had just been given a demerit for having lost his place in a text when called upon to read. I walked past another and sensed that some pupils, if allowed, would quite like to sigh deeply and stop listening for a bit… I watched other pupils enjoying a teacher’s joke and having a good laugh and the boy who lost his place in the text – well, I watched the girl on his left kindly (that’s the perfect adverb), point out where he should be.

To be honest though, I was relieved to sign-out and end my visit. I messaged an ex-colleague and told him that I wasn’t sure whether I liked it. He asked, ‘Too army?’ which, I think, pretty much summed it up for me. Much of what Michaela stands for does resonate with me, however. I have realised, thanks to their example, that some of the ‘Progressive’ stuff doesn’t necessarily enhance learning and some of it, absolutely doesn’t. Throughout this process, I’ve thought heaps about discipline in schools, expectations of behaviour, responsibility of pupils (and parents), good learning habits, relevance of content, the balance between knowledge and ‘finding out’, who we are actually doing it all for, as well as teacher work-load versus actual impact on learning.

I think that Michaela’s passion for changing the education system in order to better-serve some of Brent’s children, has to be respected; I’m fairly certain that many of their pupils will be, if they’re not already, hugely thankful for their Michaela opportunity. I have certainly learned a lot and hope to be a better teacher because of it. To answer the original question, though, ‘Am I Michaela?’, I felt (and it was definitely a feeling), from the first moment I stepped through the doors, that no, I’m not. Although I am thankful for the experience, and thought at one point, that yep – that’s me – and I could definitely work in a school like that – I just didn’t warm to it. I am, however, going to make some changes in my classroom…but not too many.

To all the staff and pupils of Michaela, thank you for welcoming me.

Remember, remember..?

I’ve had a lot of conversations recently about knowledge (and more specifically, remembering knowledge). I’m sure most people would agree that whilst Google and Sat Navs, for example, have often saved the day, it’s been at a price. There’s no need to pay attention to sign-posts or remember landmarks anymore – no need to learn that fact or that capital city – we can just look it up. Sadly, though, through this process, I believe we’ve also lost a respect for memory – something which we should be actively developing and challenging, rather than passively, perhaps, buying into strategies which may actually be compromising it.

Research shows that memories and learning, are laid down through repetition – practice – habits. I was taught a song when I was about seven – The Books of the Bible – 66 titles, tricky in parts – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy…’ I still remember that song thirty-odd years later. Sure, occasionally, I’ve had to think hard in order to recall it but I can. It wasn’t learned under duress, nobody forced me – it was modelled and we just sang it – repeatedly.

Some would argue, ‘Well, what’s the use of knowing that?’ – I’ve sometimes asked myself the same thing – but I’m not sure that’s the point – or maybe that’s exactly the point. At the time, there wasn’t a reason given – nobody said ‘learn this and you’ll impress your RE teacher…’ (it did), or ‘it’s a super party trick – a real ice-breaker…’ (wouldn’t know, never tried it) – we just learned it. We don’t always need to have a reason to remember something. We just need the opportunity and perhaps more importantly, the expectation.

I have often, with somewhat of a guilty conscience, explained a lack of pupil memory with self-talk like, ‘maybe I’m not making this engaging enough…maybe this isn’t what they’re interested in, maybe I’m not doing something quite right.’ So, instead of demanding my children develop memory and recall (and giving them the opportunities and expectation to do so), I perhaps, compromise it further; over time, I have stuck up hundreds of words on my walls, coloured card, laminated, pretty. I’ve hung things from the ceiling (which often just got in the way) and I’ve spent ages creating word-mats and other resources which I then have to remind them to go and look at when they get stuck.

Is this helping them or holding them back? Is there just so much ‘stuff’ everywhere, that they don’t actually see any of it? Is it efficient or is it simply a crutch? I can’t be the only one to have created these kinds of resources only to observe pupils paying very little or no attention to them whatsoever.

I’m not questioning the good intentions of such resources or that in some cases, they are helpful – what I am questioning is whether there is a better way – a more efficient way. If the words are on the wall, they won’t need to memorise them – they’re on the wall – and even then, there’s no guarantee that they’ll make the effort to stop what they’re doing and go and look…why would they? That requires an interruption to their current thinking – their train of thought. It’s frustrating. They have to stop, get up off their chair, walk over to the wall, find the right word, go back and sit down and pick up where they left off…possibly having disturbed others around them on the way – are we advocating this process over simply teaching them to remember the words that they’ll need and providing them with the opportunities to recall them?

I get that over time, there’s a hope that they’ll remember stuff because it’s on the wall – that it’ll somehow be absorbed – but I’m not sure ‘hope’ is an adequate strategy. Is it really too much for us to expect our children to remember and verbally recall, by heart, a bank of adverbs, a bank of synonyms for ‘said’ or whatever…? I don’t think so. And yet…

Consider the lengths that we go to, to ensure that memory is not optimised – not challenged. We print, photocopy, laminate, display – we cover walls, literally, with bits of printed paper, which often can’t be seen from where pupils sit anyway. We cover walls with words that could quite possibly, be memorised through repetitive, rhythmic chanting, through singing, through saying them, spelling them, over and over. This doesn’t have to be dull – it can be a positive experience, it can build confidence through a collaborative, happy ‘noise’. Yet, we continue to resort to printing and laminating hundreds of words for display – year after year, in thousands of classrooms, in hundreds of thousands of schools, all over the world. Think about that for a second. From an environmental perspective alone, this should be considered outrageous, regardless of whether or not it actually made any difference to children’s learning.

Our memories are absolutely incredible and whilst I don’t, and probably never will, understand how it all works, I do know that if I don’t use it, I’ll probably lose it. I really can’t see any harm in expecting a child to learn, rhythmically and off by heart, ‘quickly, quietly, carefully, cautiously’ or ‘grumbled, mumbled, stuttered and yelled’ – or whatever. Why does it have to go on the wall?

Reading this back, it does sound like a bit of a rant – it’s not meant to. I just think that sometimes, the very things we do, because we’ve always considered them ‘good practice’, and because we’ve always done them that way, are the very things we should be questioning. I guess we owe it to our children, and to ourselves, to remember to do that occasionally.


Making learning fun – the trap of jazzing it up

My dad used to get irritated when he’d hear somebody say, ‘Look at the choo choo train’ or, ‘That’s a dicky bird.’…he’d exclaim, ‘Why teach a child a three-syllable word when they only have to learn one?’  He was right. Why teach a child to say ‘Ta’ (cringe), when ‘thank you’ is what they’ll be expected to use later?

Playing ‘Crazy Eights’ the other day with small children – on the cards were pictures of weird looking vegetables – with eyeballs. I’m guessing that the idea of gamifying a game (!) – jazzing it up to dumb it down – was to encourage young children to play – to somehow make it easier… weird looking vegetables, after all, might be appealing to some – especially if playing with family or friends is somehow not enough (why not?). So, instead of just learning to recognise diamonds, hearts, spades, clubs and numbers, they were also processing (and possibly being distracted by) the eye-balled vegetables.

One of my eight-year olds used to become tearful when she couldn’t quite get 20 out of 20 for our daily multiplication quiz. She went home every day and, supported by her parents, put in a huge amount of effort to learn them. She made dramatic progress. Other children didn’t and, despite encouragement, still don’t; as a year group generally, we deployed several layers of incentives; we issued certificates, badges and occasionally, there’d be a special appearance by ‘Maths Man’.

For this one child, the certificates were nice…but her intrinsic motivation was always present and that’s what drove her. She didn’t need any of that jazzed up stuff – the learning was the reward. All children, surely, have that intrinsic motivation – well, they do before it becomes eroded by the learned expectation of ‘getting something’ in return. Even when they knew they’d receive a certificate if they did well, for some of them, it wasn’t an incentive. It’s not a fail-proof system. What are we missing? Maybe parental support? A certificate might fix that temporarily but it isn’t a long-term solution. Intrinsic motivation? How did they lose it in the first place?

As adults, do we think that a child can’t learn something new, or something better, without those external incentives? It’s a genuine question – the funny vegetable on a playing card, that Maths badge, or the sound of a relatively more playful word such as ‘choo choo train’? The thing is, that sooner or later, those extrinsic motivating layers fall away – if they motivate at all. They’ll have to play with a real pack of cards (why not start with one?), somebody will point out, ‘Dicky bird? What?!’ Or their teacher will forget the certificate… Do we want to lull children into that trap? Surely, when they’ve experienced success – when they’ve earned it – when they’ve seen and felt the difference it can make – when it becomes internalised and remembered, a certificate is rather a weak substitute, actually. A step further would be to say, that if the certificate or badge or housepoint is seen as the culmination of learning – the reward – then we’re definitely off track.

Learning is not always easy. Sometimes it’s incredibly difficult – but these little people we have in our care are designed to do just that…they’re the perfect age and we have them – the world’s best learners – in our classrooms, every day. The assumption that they’ll learn only if I make it fun, or if there’s a badge on offer, is possibly rather patronising. The problem is that as soon as you offer an incentive (other than the learning itself), bad habits can develop. It’s a bit like hiding the vegetables under the pizza in the hope that both will be eaten… If you want the vegetables to be eaten, don’t serve pizza.

I’ve always harped on about extrinsic motivation versus intrinsic and in my (idealist) head, we really shouldn’t have to be jazzing up teaching and learning in order to make it accessible to, or engaging for our pupils. We shouldn’t need to turn learning into games…and we shouldn’t be spending inordinate amounts of time trying to make things ‘fun’ because we’re concerned that children won’t engage if we don’t. What does that say about them? What does it say about us? What does it say about the content we’re teaching?

‘We played this really cool game in Maths… ‘OK,’ I say, ‘but what did you learn?’ Hmmm.

What happens when the ‘fun’ stops and they’re suddenly lost, having never needed to dig deep, internalise motivation or without any memory of actually feeling that deep-down success? If our pupils are asking, ‘Why didn’t get a badge?’, we might need to rethink what we’re actually teaching them. It’s a precarious system – not only because it doesn’t necessarily prepare them for the real world, but also because of the inevitable inconsistencies that come with trying to manage it. It’s a distraction – and if we’re constantly distracting our pupils from the business of learning, they might actually leave school having not learned much at all, really.

So, what’s the answer? Well, whilst I think making learning ‘fun’ isn’t necessary, I do want it to be fulfilling, satisfying and ultimately empowering. If we’re passionate and have high expectations, if they have good learning habits, if it’s meaningful, if they get to change their world with what they’ve learned, even just a tiny bit, why do we need to jazz it up? ‘Having fun’ isn’t necessary. Children thrive on learning stuff, they love knowing stuff, they love finding out more and applying all they’ve learned in clever, creative and meaningful ways.

That’s got to be enough, right?

Tangerines, Toast and Teaching to the Test

OK – I’ve realised that it’s all in the title; I reckon that if my title includes foodstuffs (the more alliterative, the better), my blog stands a better chance of being read. I asked my five year old (who is, as I’m writing this, drawing the world’s flags and labelling each one – paper and pencils all over the place), whether he could think of a food beginning with ‘t’. He answered, ‘Tangerine.’ Then I thought of ‘toast’ – et voila, I had my blog title – quite like the rhythm of it, too – alright, it’s a daft title but I hope to make a vague point, linked to it, a bit later on.

Tangerines and toast aside, ‘teaching to the test’ is one of those things that we’ve all probably done at one point or another. There will always be a temptation to drill what we know will be in the test, because the results may be indicative of whether or not we’re doing a good job (of drilling, not necessarily of the teaching of learning). I’ve known teachers who actively track exam questions year on year – they predict which ones will ‘come up’, and then teach, mainly to those questions. And our pupils too, are learning to ask, ‘Will this be in the test?’ – if it’s likely, well, then they’ll make sure they learn it. If it isn’t, they won’t worry so much.

What we are learning to do here, is to play the game – teaching (and learning) to the test – it’s not right and it’s nothing new, but it is understandable – if that’s the hoop, then I need to learn how to jump through it, right? Really?

But there’s also more to it than this. I have a problem with how we test; if our pupils have been learning through conversation, through discussion, through bouncing ideas around and exploring, it seems unfair that we would then test them in a way which is completely alien to this process. Why do we value data that is generated through silent testing, in the abstract, and in the absence of voice? I don’t want to change the way my pupils learn just because of the way they’ll be tested – but occasionally,  I have done because if that’s the test, then I want them to pass it – of course I do.

I’ve had some great conversations with a colleague about this – data from traditional testing pales into insignificance against learning that is evidenced and demonstrated in a variety of more creative ways, doesn’t it? Whilst there may be a (small) role for traditional test data, we all know how easy it is to pick holes in it (unless the data is really impressive – in which case, we won’t pick at it too much). Potentially, it just seems such a fickle process; if it’s good data, we’ll go along with it – if it’s not, we won’t. I have a feeling we can do better than that.

So…what to do? I guess we officially change the test.

If learning is dynamic, exploratory, vibrant, meaningful – embedded in conversation – in other words, a very human experience, then we need the way we test, to reflect this (assuming this is the way we feel pupils learn best…). The idea of teaching to the test then, suddenly becomes a good thing because we’re not haphazardly changing the way we want to teach to support the way we test, but rather, changing the way we test, to complement the way we believe our pupils learn best.  

Innovate testing – innovate teaching – innovate learning. Think it works if you say it backwards, too.

Anyway, I’m aware that I’m getting close to that looming final paragraph. Still trying to think of a way of bringing all this together in a way that links back to my title. Thought about saying something like ‘food for thought’, but that sounds cheesy.

I guess my point is, that whilst I may have learned how to come up with a vaguely interesting title (a hoop that I’ve learned to consider jumping through in order to pass the test), it isn’t necessarily reflective of the content, or quality(!) of the blog itself. It took me a few minutes to come up with the title. It took me ages to write the blog – and regardless of what judgements you make about what I’ve written (you may have been either pleased or disappointed that toast didn’t get much of a mention), at least you did take a moment to look beyond the title.

Incidentally, my five year old is still drawing his flags and labelling his countries. His learning is everywhere – literally – in the papers strewn around, the maps he’s drawn, the lists of countries he’s written and re-written – it’s in the conversations we have, in the facts he tells me and in the questions he asks (the ones he knows the answers to already – to see if I know – and the ones he doesn’t).

Whilst I may want to teach him explicitly what the capital of Venezuela is, in order to be able to answer that question when I ask it, there is absolutely no doubt that he is learning – and demonstrating it. And yet, he has no concept of what a test is or that at some point, he’ll have to take one in order for somebody else to determine his learning. The learning is his motivation, not the thought of a test.

Change the test. We’re here to grow learners.

Empowered or Patronised? Why it all Hangs in the Balance.

If you read my last blog, you’ll know that I’ve been thinking – a lot – about balance – and whether the balance between teaching knowledge and learning through curiosity and discovery (in my classroom), is optimum. I’ve also learned this week, that there is a debate in education between ‘traditionalists’ and ‘progressives’… I learned this, I think, through a combined process of discovery (I was curious), being taught (reading blogs and articles written by people who know more about it than me) and then thinking about what I’d learned.

I talked to a Year 6 pupil yesterday about a project she had designed as part of Global Day of Design. She had re-designed the layout of our school’s cafe. She spoke about her ideas and the reasons behind them; she talked about the cramped lay-out and how she wanted to reduce the amount of packaging which came with the sandwiches and drinks. I asked her whether she’d considered encouraging people to bring their own reusable packaging. We discussed how this might work. I knew (in my head) that there might be a possibility to incentivise customers by offering a discount if they brought their own packaging; a sandwich would cost less if they did. But this idea wasn’t in her head…yet. Could I have simply told her this? Could I have taught her that this is a practice adopted by some coffee-shops? It would certainly have saved some time.

But I didn’t. And, we had one of those cliched but precious light-bulb moments where her face lit up as she realised what the solution might be. Her realisation. Was this process patronising or empowering? I like to think it was empowering.

A couple of weeks previously, I had presented my pupils with a visual stimulus designed to generate questions about volcanoes, of which there were many. The intention was to ‘find out’ answers to their questions – we were going to ‘log-on’ and visit the library. But one pupil asked me – specifically. I don’t remember my answer exactly but it didn’t answer her question. I think I said something along the lines of, ‘Well, let’s go and find out – where’s the fun in me telling you?’ Upon reflection, I realise she was asking me – the teacher – because she considered me as being just as reliable and efficient (if not more so), than ‘researching’ her question elsewhere. But I didn’t tell her and she had to wait. Was this empowering? I don’t think so. I think it was patronising. It was certainly frustrating for her. This was an opportunity where adopting a more traditional approach of ‘just telling her’, in that moment, would have been wise.

Can I expect to get the balance right all the time? Unfortunately, absolutely not. Would it feel safer to consistently adopt one approach or the other? Maybe – but I’m not sure ‘safe’ is a reason to do so. I want to believe that there can be a balance between the two. How you arrive at that balance and what it looks like, will depend upon what you’re aiming for and will evolve as the needs of your pupils evolve.

There is a fine line, perhaps, between pupils feeling patronised and feeling empowered – a fine line that doesn’t necessarily become easier to see, just because the needle on the scale hovers more towards ‘Traditionalist’, or more towards ‘Progressive’. Teaching knowledge empowers. Learning through discovery is empowering. Remembering – in order to demonstrate an understanding of what has been taught and discovered, is powerful. There is a balance to be had – and that’s the trick.

At the end of the day, maybe we should, with respect, put the labels aside (I’m not really keen on being given one) and just get on with respectfully empowering our pupils with knowledge, the skills to discover more of it and the confidence to explore and demonstrate it – how ever that might look and in what ever ‘measures’ suit them, the ones in your classroom at this moment.

Marmite, Michaela and Making a Difference

Over the weekend, perusing somewhat aimlessly on Twitter, I stumbled across ‘Michaela’. Apparently, it’s a school which can be compared to Marmite; you either love it or hate it – a free school situated in Wembley Park (I grew up down the road), established with an intake of 120 Year 7 pupils in 2014, and founded by Katharine Birbalsingh. Places at Michaela are awarded by lottery.  They believe in a knowledge-based curriculum, where the teacher is proudly and passionately, the fountain of all knowledge. Pupils sit in rows, facing the teacher. They invest in books instead of Smart-Boards. Behaviour, from all accounts, supports this type of curriculum delivery – silent classrooms, silent corridors, children who are taught to open doors for others, shake hands and make and maintain eye-contact – children who are making excellent progress academically – teachers who are all on the same page with regards to what they believe is best for their pupils and who do not feel over-worked.

I haven’t visited the school (yet – and they are very used to visitors, too) so can only go on what I’ve seen on YouTube but I’d recommend having a listen if you’re curious. They talk about a range of issues from the ‘nonsense’ in the teaching profession, to ‘Dead White Men’ and cultural literacy, family lunches and Boot Camp. I was, and am, absolutely intrigued. If you flick back through my last couple of blogs, you’ll see why I find myself surprised that I’m now wanting to know more about a school with a ‘knowledge-based’ curriculum, where ‘learning by child-led discovery’ doesn’t happen. Pupils learn habits which are conducive to being taught; they are taught explicitly not to slouch, to actively listen, to raise their hands before speaking – habits which enable the teachers to teach. All teachers are consistent in enforcing the rules. All pupils understand the reasons for the rules. They ‘sweat the small stuff’ and the ‘big stuff’ is rare.

So – what are the implications? I haven’t processed it all yet and I expect that I’ll continue to think hard – but it does occur to me that in my own practice, I may not be dedicating enough time to the learning and recall of ‘hard-facts’. Are some of my pupils ‘floundering’ in confusion or grappling with distraction during learning through discovery? Have I got the balance right between teaching knowledge, curiosity-led learning and encouraging diverse application of it? I want my pupils to be able to demonstrate their learning in flexible and creative ways but have I taught them enough to be able to make adequate (or even powerful) links between ‘knowledge’ in order to do this?

For example, do I want my pupils to clearly define, when asked, what a quarter is? Yes. Might I have to ‘teach’ them to articulate that a ‘quarter is 2 eighths’? Yes. Might I have to reinforce the memorisation of this fact through regular repetition? Probably. Do I want them to remember what a quarter is, next year? In 2 years? Yes. Do I want them to be able to demonstrate this factual learning with cubes, drawings, explanations? Absolutely. And of course I want them to explore (and explain) further relationships between quarters and eighths which may not be explicitly taught but instead, learned through curiosity, discovery and through exploration. Is the latter ‘learning’ likely to happen without the former ‘teaching’? Possibly. Is it likely that pupils will feel more confident exploring having been taught facts (and to regularly articulate them) first? I don’t know for sure.

Maybe I’m over-thinking (I’ve been known to), and perhaps it doesn’t matter which comes first – as long one complements the other. At the end of the day, I do want my pupils to ‘know stuff’, to remember it, and to be able to articulate what they know with confidence and clarity. But I also want them to be able to demonstrate this knowledge in a variety of meaningful ways and have opportunities to explore beyond taught knowledge, to be challenged with making connections, to struggle through problems where the depth of mental processing goes beyond recall of learned facts. It’s interesting stuff!

So, all that Michaela seems to be, is challenging my thinking – massively – it is exciting to be presented with different ideas – in Michaela’s case, a ‘different’ way of doing things seems to be making a big difference to children who very much need to feel that they too, can make a difference.  The thing is, though, if it wasn’t for my sense of ‘finding out more’, my sense of curiosity, and my desire to discover – because I wanted to – I wouldn’t have delved deeper. I wouldn’t have watched over 3 hours of Michaela’s staff explaining their thinking on Saturday morning. I wouldn’t have asked questions and I wouldn’t have written this (and potentially reached all 3 of my reader-base!). Equally, though, if I had been taught during my training, that a ‘teacher-led, knowledge-based’ curriculum was an ‘actual thing’, and a potential alternative to being ‘progressive’, (didn’t know I had this label, either), I would already know about it…assuming the teaching had been memorable (and I had been listening).

Ms Birbalsingh – I’d like to visit!