Puzzle

puzzle

Williams Syndrome is joyously puzzling.

Those with the Syndrome, caused by a microdeletion of between 26 and 28 genes on  Chromosome 7, have a strikingly asymmetrical intellectual profile. While musicality is often enhanced and speech and language are comparatively strong, mathematical and spatial ability are profoundly impaired.

You can see it in this Oliver Sacks documentary, in which a charismatic, articulate child with Williams’ Syndrome with many gifts is completely stumped by a fairly simple mechanical puzzle.

My daughter has Williams Syndrome and this doesn’t bother me at all. I’m very comfortable with my daughter being better at some things than others.

It doesn’t bother Robert Plomin either. This recent TES article suggests he’d go further and tailor school curriculum to the individual genetic profiles of children.

This seems like a good idea. Why insist my daughter do loads of maths or Resistant Materials if it is clear she has no aptitude in these areas? Why insist a child with a small working memory struggle through vast tracts of things he will never be able to write essays about? Wouldn’t it both more pragmatic and kinder to tailor a curriculum to the inherent abilities of those who study it?

But Bessie loves doing puzzles.

She has a favourite. It has twelve pieces and has a crocodile on it. It comes in a wooden frame. When she wants to do it she carries it to me shouting “PUZ-AL! PUZ-AL!” She likes to empty the pieces on the coffee table she calls “DA PUZ-AL TABLE.”

Of course, whether it is because she has Williams Syndrome or whether it is because she is a toddler, she is no good at it. Not at all! I have to put the pieces in the right place for her.

But Bessie doesn’t care she isn’t good at jigsaws. She likes to press those pieces down anyway. She likes me to tell her what is on each piece and she likes the moment the little pieces suddenly emerge into one picture and she can announce “Ooooh! Crod-o-dile!”

It would be awful if we stopped because she isn’t good at them. Bessie’s entitlement to jigsaw puzzles is predicated on her entitlement to enjoy them as a little girl, not on how good or bad she is at putting them together.

This is what the argument for the genetic personalisation of education, at least in the way I have interpreted it, fails to understand.

And it is a catastrophic misunderstanding.

What is on our curriculum is not the reserve of those with the natural ability to ably perform tasks based on it. It is a human inheritance. Homer’s epics and the work of Maya Angelou belong to everyone, from the illiterate who are read their works aloud to those who will study PhDs on them. If we were to turn our backs on this principle where would we end up? Would we stop the genetically poorly co-ordinated from playing football in a Sunday League team? If we discovered certain genetic combinations typically correlated with a lack of appreciation for modern art would we remove this from the curriculum for these people?

We would not. Because to do so would be to end up with the most reductive curriculum it is possible to envisage – one in which we cage our destinies in a double-helix.

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What does knowing your class mean?

markbook

For the particularly obtuse who wouldn’t twig otherwise, the Teacher Standards make it explicit teaches should have an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the pupils in their classes. Knowing your class is such an obvious feature of good teaching that in itself it can’t ever be much more than an irritating truism.

Unfortunately, as is common with broad and uninterrogated truisms, practical interpretations of this very basic fact can far too often result in nonsense.

For much of my career ‘knowing your class’ actually meant just knowing the numbers and information attached to pupils in the past. It meant knowing whether they were a High, Medium or Low attainer. It meant knowing their reading age. It meant knowing how they scored on the tests they sat at the end of primary. It meant knowing their dreaded ‘target grade’ and being able to parrot off all this information at the drop of an Ofsted inspector’s hat.

Knowing this stuff was how teachers proved they did indeed know their classes.

Which is silly.

Firstly, a lot of this data is historic with some being years old. For example, the data used to assess a pupil as High ability is often drawn from SATs tests completed at the end of primary. This means that by the time the child reaches Y11 the information, even if it was once accurate, is at best outdated and at worst now unrepresentative of how the child has changed in the intervening years.

Even if the child had not changed at all, the numbers attached to them tell us nothing about why they scored as they did. Are the Low Ability because they have a small working memory, or are they Low Ability because they weren’t taught well in Year 5? Do they have a low reading age because a teacher didn’t have a good grasp of phonics instruction, because they have EAL, or because they find tests boring and don’t bother doing them properly? The numbers tell us nothing without the story and when we overemphasise the importance of supposedly empirical facts we deprioritise the most powerful information and lose nuance.

Furthermore, many of the numbers are generic. They don’t tell us anything about what on our curriculum our pupils know and what they do not. They are not starting points in most subjects. They don’t tell us what a child needs to do to get better. Even when teachers keep detailed records in their own subjects these are often of little use to anyone else, because a third party will not know the conditions under which assessments were done or the amount of preparation and help pupils received, or what was going on in the complex life of the child when they did the work.

A lot of this is unknowable which means the only way to act upon it is to make assumptions we probably shouldn’t – for example that a child is unintelligent or hardworking – before we’ve had the time to know the people the numbers are attached to.

It is for all these reasons that I am comfortable admitting to mild sacrilege; for the first month or so of taking over a new class I deliberately avoid looking at any data about them apart from SEND needs. Instead I pay very close attention to work, ability to read, scores on my tests and quality of extended writing. I ask who is left handed and adjust my seating plan if I need to. I work out who is comfortable volunteering answers and who I’ll need to prod. I focus on what they can do in my subject and what they struggle with.

I record all this. I make mental notes. I annotate my handwritten register. I scribble on my seating plan.

Only then, only after I’m confident that I know my group will I look at the centrally held data. Where does it match what I thought? Where is it clearly wrong? Is there anything I need to do differently in light of it? Does it give me answers to questions I had?

For unless we have rules about how to navigate the ocean of information available to us it is all too easy to drown in it.

 

 

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Rules are not temporary.

rules

As my attitude to teaching has changed over the years I’ve had to spend lots of time and thought consciously weeding out some of my internalised beliefs and habits.

One of the most pervasive was that a productive learning environment meant classes in which children always demonstrated visible enjoyment and enthusiasm. This meant lots of discussion, jokes and good-humoured banter even when reductively engaging activities such as group work and marketplaces for their own sake are put aside.

It is a tempting thing to think. Classes in which pupils make witty comments, shout out occasionally but then stop when told not to, are comfortable sharing their opinions, and innately know the line between acceptable and unacceptable are an absolute joy.

But in sixteen years of teaching I’ve only ever had a handful of classes able to self-regulate this well, and earlier in my career my attempts to make all my groups work like this caused me many, many problems.

My misguided efforts invariably followed the same pattern. I’d start strict to show my charges I meant business. No shouting out. No talking while I was talking, ever. Sanctions for forgetting equipment or homework. Usually this worked in creating a calm, purposeful and quiet environment. I now know this is where I should have left it, but too often I took this initial compliance as evidence this was ‘a good group’, and so then began to systematically undo all my previous good work in an attempt to create the lively, buzzy and fun room I thought was the undisputed idyll.

For a week or so, sometimes, my relaxed rules did indeed result in the environment I wanted. Pupils would shout out a really good answer proudly, which nobody minded me letting go. A pupil would interrupt me but then apologise, which I’d say was fine. Pupils did look crestfallen when I told them I was disappointed they’d forgotten their pen, then thank me charmingly when I provided one. But before very long more children we shouting out more and then arguing when told not to. Half a term later whole swathes were forgetting pens, demanding them from me and complaining if I ran out. Before I knew it I was reading up and asking for advice on classroom management without ever twigging if I had just carried on doing what I was doing I wouldn’t have had to bother.

As my stress levels rose, I soon stopped looking forward to these classes. Eventually, invariably, I’d lose my temper, raise my voice, then belatedly try to pull the pupils back to order by going back to my original standards, often delivered in a dreaded ‘expectations lessons’. Of course this was now too late, with pupils used to more supposed freedom resenting the rules because they were now perceived as punishments.

A good class had been ruined and I had only myself to blame.

Rules and routines in schools should not be seen structures that eventually wither away. They are not necessary evils to feel squeamish about. They are not punishments. They are the mechanism by which we keep order in a complicated, dynamic context, which exist in the same spirit we have rules for how we drive our cars on the road. They are the means by which we keep things safe, orderly and fair, and we should not feel bad about scrupulously upholding them at all times even when – actually especially when – this means children can’t do whatever they want whenever they want to.

All over the country at this time of year there will be hundreds of teachers working hard to set their expectations high. My advice would be that nobody think of this as a period of high battle alert which will end once the fight is won. This is not a war and the rules are not weapons.

There is nothing wrong with a quiet, hardworking class who never shout out and rarely if ever get to have a laugh for the sake of it. Many children actually prefer them to the loud, boisterous and visibly enthusiastic classrooms I once yearned to teach in.

I know this is true because as I’ve become comfortable with this, more and more pupils, especially quiet ones, have told me so.

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Expectations lesson! (Again)

Disruption-010

For much of my career the start of the school year was a very stressful time. While some of this stress was unavoidable, I now think the unpleasant tension associated with delivering expectations to my classes was unnecessary.

For many years teaching my first lessons, particularly with classes known to behave badly, felt like going to war. It meant pupils copying a slide with a list of rules such as “don’t talk while the teacher is talking”, and then detention after detention for pupils who broke them. It meant raising my voice, and getting hot and sweaty with supressed nerves and directionless anger. It meant wrestling with the fight or flight reaction in situations in which flight wasn’t an option. It meant lost learning time when a whole class had to redo an “expectations lesson”, and feeling guilty about this because there were children this was very unfair on.

Some readers will want to jump in now: “Oh you were doing it wrong,” they’ll be chorusing, with ever-so-nice but still condescending smiles. “No wonder you had problems! You should have had an open discussion with them and perhaps agreed some class rules. If you’d involved the pupils your pupils would have behaved!” Please take my word that I tried this sort of thing for years, and then when it didn’t work and changed approach felt guilty about it for years more. I really did try, in so many different ways and if anything it made things worse.

My method, while far from ideal, was necessary in the context I was in. When teachers are told the management of pupil behaviour is solely their responsibility, especially in when they are told this in schools in which bad behaviour is normalised, teachers have no choice but to use punitive sanctions and force of personality to manage their classes.

It does not have to be like this. In good schools where SLTs take primary responsibility for behaviour, teachers can just get on with teaching. At the Nuneaton Academy we begin the year with assemblies in which all pupils are told expectations, routines, rules and the consequences for both good and bad behaviour. These basic expectations are the same in every classroom, which means there really is no need for teachers to go through these all over again. All they need to do is get on and teach, and follow our simple, centralised system.

Of course, it won’t ever be quite as smooth as this. Because some of our pupils and teachers are new, and some of our pupils forget rules, and because some will naturally test the boundaries, SLT spend almost all their time in the first weeks walking the corridors, constantly dropping in and out of classrooms to reinforce, model, encourage, coach and support both pupils and teachers, with the question “everything to your satisfaction?”, repeated so often it becomes almost a mantra.

It’s about showing our staff and pupils that we take responsibility for managing behaviour so that teachers and pupils can get on with teaching and learning free of stress, anxiety and the sort of stomach twisting nerves that make you behave in ways you’ll later be embarrassed by, even if they sort of work in the short term.

All in all, it’s just a much more civilised way to work.

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Genetic diversity

genetic diversity

We stand on a precipice.

Soon we may see the eradication of types of people who have been part of us for as long as being us has meant being human.

People don’t like talking about this.

I know that. The morality of this is complicated and overlapping.

It is bound to be uncomfortable.

But we have to talk about it because when we don’t, when we hide behind ‘it’s a difficult personal decision and nobody else’s business,’ we know already it is genetic diversity that loses.

90% of parents who find out their child will be born with Down’s Syndrome choose to end pregnancy. As tests for DS and other genetic differences become less intrusive and dangerous to the foetus this percentage will rise.

In Denmark where such tests have been available for longer the abortion rate for children with DS is 96%. In Iceland it is nearly 100%. As DS and other examples of genetic diversity become rarer it is increasingly less likely mothers pregnant with such children will give birth to them. This is because knowing your child with DS may never get the chance to meet another person with DS drastically changes the grounds on which decisions are made.

Having any child is scary. Having a different sort of child is very scary. Knowing you and your child have to make this journey alone may prove to be too much for many of those who might otherwise have been open to it.

Those of us who believe Down’s and Williams’ Syndrome represent different sorts of people rather than diseases should all be alarmed.

There seems little chance law will step in. Our only hope in keeping such people with us is to convince those with babies who test positive to continue with their pregnancies.

It is very easy to see why most choose not to. The whole language around people of genetic diversity is slanted to portray them as problems. Tests outline the ‘risk’ of having a condition and parents who are deemed ‘at risk’ are typically presented with an alarming list of deficits, from learning difficulties, to physical ailments all the way through to a limited lifespan.

Despite this we all at least pretend to be positive about genetic diversity. We like videos of such children walking for the first time, or being helped by their abled peers, and we love to cry together when we see videos of them singing karaoke with their mums in cars.

My suspicion is fundamentally we really do want people to have children like these but we really don’t want it to be us that has them.

A significant reason for this is the voices of those sharing lives with the genetically diverse are too quiet. We hear little about day-to-day experiences and what we do hear is often slanted towards challenge not joy, with parents of such children seemingly doomed to lives of noble suffering. Which is a shame, because sharing life with someone who sees the world in a radically unfamiliar way is amusing, fulfilling and inspiring.

A fortnight ago my two-and-a-half year old daughter left our table in the pub to go and eat dinner with a stranger. She got down from her chair, marched over to someone who was dining alone, clambered up into the chair opposite and helped herself to their chips. All the while she babbled, cooed, scribble talked, and laughed and grinned until her dining companion was utterly in love. My wife and I still collapse into helpless laughter when we remind each other of it, which we do a lot. A week ago my daughter approached a couple at the village fete and made them dance with her. She led the moves and wouldn’t stop until they’d copied them all, while her grandmother and I watched with a pride so fierce it brought us to tears.

My daughter’s condition means she’s likely to still be doing stuff like this when she’s sixty. To me, a person who often feels so awkward with new people at parties I struggle to look them in the eye, this sort of behaviour is an unfathomable wonder. Of course it may be tougher to manage when she’s older but I don’t think it’ll be any less of a joy.

And however challenging it gets it won’t change how endlessly fascinating it will all be.

We are blessed with an unusual child. One whose wires are connected differently. A person whose notes are arranged to play songs in a different key. A person who sees the world through lenses we will never see through no matter how hard we might try. Instead of empathising we get to pay attention. We get to watch and to wonder, to marvel at the mysteries of creation in its fullest sense.

Knowing all this how can we not be sad and angry when we hear there are less and less people like my daughter being born? Knowing all this how can we do anything but shout as loud as we can about how wonderful it is to walk the world with someone who sees things utterly differently to the rest of us?

Long before Bessie I wondered what it would be like to know someone whose brain worked in a completely different way to those of most people. I used to wonder what it would be like to see the world like an Einstein, Mozart or one of the Shelleys.

My world is one in which I don’t imagine.

I live with a person like this and for all the challenges life with her may bring the gifts she brings are too grave and joyful to ever want to change.

There she is in the room next to me. I listen to her breathe as she sleeps, as I go on thinking endlessly about the great mysteries of humanity.

This must not be a warm but empty feelgood piece.

There has to be a sharp ending:

If you believe in genetic diversity and you find yourself with a decision to make, and you aren’t sure what to do, please think ‘if not us, then who?’

Remember if you choose to go on, you won’t be alone. We’re here. We’ll always be here.

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What should I do?

niva

Back when my wife and I lived in Ethiopia we took our 4X4 Lada Niva out on an adventure to the Bale mountains. We broke down in perhaps the most inconvenient place imaginable to break down. The nearest city was miles away and for a week we found ourselves stranded in a one café village.

Lots of people tried to help but nothing worked. We became so desperate that at one point we almost allowed an ancient Landcruiser to tow our Niva onto the edge of a small ravine so a rickety bridge made of splintered wooden planks could be used to move our car onto the back of a truck.

With images of our car dropping twenty feet into a ditch and being smashed into pieces, at the last minute I halted what, with hindsight, was a plan we should never even have considered.

Years on, Amber and I can laugh about this, but at the time it wasn’t funny. It was stressful because we just didn’t know what to do, and the stress of not knowing what to do led us to consider crazy things we wouldn’t have otherwise even thought of.

Not knowing what to do is stressful. This is why starting as a teacher, starting a promoted role or even moving schools is difficult.

Whatever a person’s role, working in a school is indescribably complex, with large numbers of decisions having to be made each hour. Having to think individually about each decision is exhausting and so, as time goes by and we become more experienced, we automate some of these decisions and so free up working memory to think about other stuff; before we know what to do we need to work it out.

For example, when we know the system by which we get photocopying done, we might send off an email without thinking. Before we know the right person to email we have to spend time finding out who the right person is, how the request should be formatted and perhaps even making do without, which then causes knock on complexities later in the day.

Similarly, not understanding a school’s behaviour policy can also cause a great deal of stress. For example we may know children are not allowed phones out in school and needed to be confiscated if they are seen. However, we may not know what to do if the child refuses to hand the phone over and walks away from us. If we know what to do in this situation – for example emailing a centralised on call system to pick up the child later – we are unlikely to be unduly stressed by it, but if we don’t we may end up arguing with the child or even following them around the playground in a sort of undignified game of cops and robbers.

Some contexts are easier than others. When there are simple, clear systems and procedures followed by everyone then it doesn’t take very long before we find ourselves automating our decisions and can begin to think more strategically. When there aren’t clear systems, or worse when there are on paper but nobody actually follows them it takes far, far longer. When things are most chaotic the best that can ever be achieved might be our own individualised procedures and systems which have to be continually reiterated to pupils who experience different systems elsewhere.

It is important SLTs prioritise the development and maintenance of these clear and simple systems. Without these all staff will find themselves wasting too much time in making knee-jerk reactive decisions, dealing with the repercussions of these and then becoming frazzled. It is also well worth remembering anxiety and stress make bad decisions much more likely and can, on occasion, contribute to unprofessional behaviour. In chaotic contexts the best achieved by many teachers will be day-to-day survival, making proper strategic decision making impossible. CLT is useful here – as an SLT member would you rather your teachers are thinking about curriculum, teaching and learning, or what they should do if a child is found truant during lesson time?

Staff lucky enough to work in a context in which there are strong, clear systems should learn and use them. Often the cause of stress is just not knowing what to do, and the best way to avoid becoming stressed is just to find out.

This is probably as true of life in general as it true of schools. My wife and I, after a week of worry, resolved our car issue by just phoning an Ethiopian friend who immediately told us we just needed to hire a mechanic from the capital city where we lived, who would travel down to us, fix the car, then drive it back for us when the work was done. Apparently it happened all the time and there was a clear system for it.

Looking back it seems so obvious. The reason it wasn’t was we were so stressed about not knowing what to do we weren’t thinking straight.

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Magic in the hinterland

Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth exhibited 1842 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

At TNA all classes begin with some form of retrieval practice. This is usually a short low-stakes quiz, self-assessed by pupils as their teacher goes through the answers once it is finished.

The benefits of this are now widely accepted. The testing effect makes children more likely to remember things they are regularly quizzed on.

Done well, there are other benefits too.

This week I was in a lesson in which one of our art teachers turned retrieval practice into an opportunity to teach new, inspiring hinterland knowledge so well it left me a little giddy.

Tej’s quiz was on impressionism, with one question on the purpose of the techniques Turner used. The correct answer, which all pupils got, was to give a sense of feeling and emotion. Tej could have stopped there but didn’t. Off the back of it he stepped gracefully into a developed exposition, telling the probably apocryphal old story of Turner lashing himself to the mast of a ship in a storm at sea, and finished with an overview of method acting so vivid it drew gasps from his class.

None of this was core knowledge.

All of it was important and inspiring.

The hinterland perfectly framed the core, adding magic, colour and wonder, shoving us out of our stuffy rainy-day classroom and connecting us to the great mystery of human creative endeavour.

Earlier this week I saw someone tweet something about being worried if we kept challenging teaching techniques soon all we’d have left would be dry knowledge organisers and boring tests.

I’m not worried about this in my school.

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