Catch up? Make schools cooler in summer.

There are some sorts of answers we like more than others even when the other answers are better.

A while back a Head of Department (I’ve forgotten who so please let me know so I can credit you) wrote a brilliant blog post on this. The central plank of it was his memory of being asked at interview what he’d done as a Head of Department that had most improved results. His answer was that he’d adjusted the time allocated to different parts of the course so the component in which children traditionally scored worst got more time.

This was not the answer his interviewees were looking for.

They wanted something buzzy about CPD he’d done on questioning, or dual-coding or tier two vocabulary or something else cool.

There is nothing wrong with any of these things but I wonder if too often in schools we overlook simple, logistical and mechanical fixes because they don’t sit neatly within the mental contexts and frames of references in which we are located.

Too often we forget there actually isn’t a very clear line between what is operational and what is strategic and so miss powerful instrumental and technical fixes.

I’m thinking about this today because it is getting hot and I am remembering the many, many very hot classrooms I have taught five period days in. I am remembering steadily rising temperatures that peak after lunch when it feels almost unbearable. I am remember sweating all day and the constant smell of teenage deodorant. I am remembering paper fans and the almost shocked exclamations of “oh it’s hot in here” from every adult ducking in to pass on a message or collect a child. I am remembering headaches on the way home and a sort of intellectual curiosity about how awful the day was likely to be on the drive in.

As I’m remembering I’m wondering how many hours were lost to this temperature – how much learning didn’t happen because although we did our best it was really just too hot to remember anything much at all. I’m also wondering how many thousands and thousands of hours this would add up to if we totted up all the time lost in English classroom every summer and how much more we would all learn if we just got bloody air conditioning, or built classrooms that weren’t the sort of glass boxes that look great in an architects drawing but are a nightmare to be in.

What a superb spend of any extra money this could be. Almost certainly more impactful than an interactive whiteboard in every room or funding for tutoring for a handful of kids who probably don’t need it. Something that would last forever, continuing to have a positive impact for years and years to come.

But we won’t will we? Yes partially because it would be expensive but also because it isn’t the sort of answer we like. It’s too simply. Too logistical. Not the sort of answer we want.

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Nothing works everywhere (Wiliam)

There’s been some interesting discussions on Twitter this week. After a thread I tweeted on starting lessons blew up a bit Adam Boxer raised a concern about pupils copying Do Now questions if they don’t know the answer.

His issue was some pupils might not try to answer because it is easier to mindlessly copy than think hard.

Around the same time Tabitha McIntosh began a revealing and thought provoking discussion around cold calling with this tweet.

Both contributions were important and helpful.

Adam and Tabitha have good grounds for anxiety – I can very well visualise both my suggested strategy and cold calling going very wrong.

Imagine a hypothetical lesson which begins with pupils completing a Do Now. The teacher tells children if they don’t know they are to copy the question. Imagine the class is a top set with a large proportion of highly motivated perfectionists who know the teacher will go through the answers. Almost all copy without thinking for themselves. They want to be right and they want their books to look perfect. To them putting down anything they are uncertain about just doesn’t seem worth the risk – especially if it means crossing out. Plenty of children in this class know the right answer but don’t try to remember, which means they don’t get the benefit of retrieval or the testing effect.

It’s even easier to envisage a scenario in which cold calling could go really wrong. I’m picturing a class in which there are complex and troubling relationships between children and there have been many historic instances of cruelty and even bullying. I’m imagining a poor child being called upon for an answer and their horrified crawling hot blush as they go blank at badly suppressed sniggers behind them.

In this instance the teacher certainly should not have cold called.

Any strategy can be the wrong strategy.

When the wrong strategy is deployed issues often emanate from a lack of thought – sometimes the lack of capacity to think – about why it has been selected in the first place and what conditions need to be in place for it to be effective.  

In both strategies I’ve described the purpose is to raise ratio and maximise the chances all children doing the thinking rather than just a handful.

If this is not achieved by copying the question or cold-calling then the strategy has failed regardless of how successful this strategy might have been in other places and at other times.

Aping practices without fully understanding the purpose of them is at best risky – it’s like an untrained cook throwing disparate and uncomplimentary ingredients into a stew because they know that these are tasty things in themselves. It might not be noticeable (bay leaves), might result in an accidental culinary miracle (peanut butter and chocolate), or it might produce something inedible (chopped apple in school dinner curry).

It’s why a skilled teacher, like an experienced chef, is able to switch ingredients when the first choice isn’t available and still produce something good to eat – as Mark Enser points out in this post, reasons and thought structures behind strategy matter more than the specific strategy itself. If a chef knows they are looking for something sour they know they can replace tamarind with vinegar, just as teacher could replace cold calling with mini whiteboards if the class have a poor culture for error.

There are further complexities too.

Nobody likes to accept a compromise – I even wrote a blog post about them which appropriately nobody read. But as much as we may hate to do it, a middle ground has to be found. Both the imaginary scenarios I described earlier in this post were extremes and rare in real life. A combination of both classes is more realistic and this makes things even more difficult – the teacher cannot make decisions with any one pupil in mind – they must choose a best bet compromise that might not actually be the best thing for lots and lots of children in the class and they must often make decisions in the absence of important information.

Such is the life of a teacher.

If this is challenging for experienced teachers it can seem ridiculously so for trainees and teachers in the early years of their career. Every seemingly simple magic bullet ‘top tip’ comes in an invisible cloud of ‘buts,’ ‘make sures’ and ‘only ifs’. The end result of such an approach would be saying that because not everything works everywhere we shouldn’t advocate for anything – we’d condemn our least experienced teaches to invent effective teaching all on their own – a journey which takes decades and has an appalling attrition rate.

The answer must be to share ideas and strategies that do work and then find ways to unpick and understand the structures beneath them so when they are effective we know why, and when they are not effective we know why too, or at the least know the questions to ask.

To do this we need to be Adam and Tabitha.

We need to be open about our concerns even (especially) when it feels as if they’ve become uncontested pedagogical canon. Whether it’s copying questions in a do now, cold calling, retrieval practise, dual coding or anything else we have to stop to think about what we hope to achieve, what context we need for this strategy to be successful and whether something else might do the job better.

And we have to start somewhere even when our starting point might actually be the wrong one.

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How I start a lesson

1. Before lesson begins, do now on board. PP, visualiser or handwritten on whiteboard. Doesn’t matter what as long as clear and appropriately pitched for hard thinking and a high success rate. Make sure everything you need for lesson is to hand. 

2. Stand on threshold with one foot in classroom and one in corridor so by turning your head you can see both. 

3. As children arrive tell them to stand behind chairs and get out exercise books and equipment and place on desk. Smile at them and greet. If anyone says something lovely like ‘good morning’ or ‘how are you’ make sure you respond effusively. 

3. Use some hammy Be Seen Looking to make sure children know you’re checking. Don’t be too fussed about quiet chat. The lesson has not begun yet and you don’t want to be unreasonable. 

4. When critical mass has arrived (approx. 80%) Move into classroom and stand in centre. Tell them directly to ‘stop talking’ and to look at you. 

5. Front Load Means of Participation. “When I say ‘go’ sit down, write date and title and begin the do now. You don’t need to write in full sentences. If you don’t know the answer copy the question”. 

5a. Copying question if don’t know is VERY important. It means that you can work out the difference between ‘don’t know’ and ‘cant be bothered’ as copying the question takes longer than writing an answer.
Also it means when you do go through answers notes are coherent. 

6. “Does anyone not know what to do when I say ‘go?” “Marcel can you tell is what you’re going to do when I say ‘go?’ 

7. “3, 2, 1 go!” Now start the timer. Show the time to brighten lines and create urgency. 

8. Take Pastore’s Perch. Narrate positive. “Super! Half of you are writing already! Now three quarters..”
Then anonymous individual correction.
“Just waiting for four people.. three.. just one.”
For the last few use The Look. 

9. All settled? Take the register. Say good morning/afternoon to everyone and if they say it back say it to you at their name say it as if you are DELIGHTED. (Of course you are) 

10. Once register is all wrapped up more Be Seen Looking. Circulate if you can and have a look at what success rate looks like. 

11. BEEP BEEP! Timer is up. Frontload MoP again. “I’m going to write the answers up now. If you got it right tick, if wrong don’t worry. This is a quiz not a test. Just cross out and write the right one in. If you wrote nothing write the answer under where you copied it.” 

12. Check for understanding again. “When I start putting answers up what will you do? (Pause) Dani can you tell us please?” 

13. Go through the answers. At the end of each one ask ‘did anyone get anything I didn’t that you think I missed?’ (Miss stuff deliberately to raise ratio) 

14. “OK hands up if you got at least one right. Well done! Keep it up if you got two, three, four.. full marks! Super!” 

15.  Brighten lines and front load MoP for next task.

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Teach them the moves

Years ago I saw a ‘documentary’ about a lottery winner spending his millions trying to be a pop star. He hired vocal coaches, stylists, songwriters and promoters and then a camera crew followed him to film the ensuing car crash.  

It was all very sad – although the camera never caught any specific instances I felt like the professionals he’d hired were laughing at him behind his back – something knowing and unpleasant lurked in their sychophantic eyes and smiles. It was a salutary lesson on how much money can’t buy. He seemed unhappy throughout – I suspect he knew he was on a hiding to nothing but was so committed it was harder to pull out than to keep going.

The most uncomfortable part was a bit when he was working with a choreographer, trying to work out a dance routine to go on the video for his single. What he really wanted were specific steps – or ‘some moves’ as he described them.

The choreographer did not want to do this. He said it didn’t work like that and – in a particularly excruciating sequence – tried to get the newly minted millionaire to ‘feel the music’, ‘move with the beat’ and ‘improvise.’

I wish I could see unsee it.

I think the choreographer got this wrong. I hope it was that and not just cruelty. I imagine because he was a skilled dancer himself and used to working with experts he hadn’t understood how impossible this was for his novice student.

Teacher training and development, particularly of early years teachers, should give teachers ‘moves’ – specific things that lead to order and calm even if the reasons behind these things are not understood by those deploying them to begin with. Examples of this might be Doug Lemov’s ‘be seen looking’ or ‘cold calling.’ It might mean a trainee teacher using Wrexler’s ‘because, but, so’ even if they don’t really know why this is often effective.

I can hear the howls of indignation. I am tempted to join in myself. Isn’t this the epitome of cargo cultism? Aren’t I specifically advocating for brainless implementation and the damage it continues to do to schools and learning?

I quite agree this is unsatisfactory and if it were the end point it would be unforgivably so.

Teachers who implement strategies without knowing the reasons for them will never see the full benefit. Their pupils will not learn as quickly as they should. The history of education in England from Blooms to WALT and WILF, from Growth Mindset to metacognitive strategies, is littered with the green-bin rubbish of reasonable ideas pulled uncritically from the gardens they grew in.

Action without thought would be totally unacceptable for any teacher if there was a better alternative. But in many contexts I am not sure there is. Teachers are increasingly trained on the job and even those who have had PGCEs or excellent initial teacher training of other types can’t be expected to understand the reasons behind everything teachers do all at once. It takes time and will take longer if they are at all at sea in their classrooms not knowing what on earth to do because nobody has told them how to start a lesson off or the best way to ask children questions. This is something – incidentally – that was well understood by Florence Nightingale who had little time for germ theory. Her point was that whether or not it was true it did not add anything to the work of her nurses. They knew keeping things clean reduced infection and – for the situation they were in – that was quite enough.

In an ideal world – of course – training would allow lots of time for the sort of thinking that gives meaning to action.

But we do not live in this ideal world and we gain nothing by pretending we do. Those responsible for teacher development must be realists and must not allow teachers to face a class with nothing in their armoury.

I may be accused of erecting a straw man. I really hope I have but I am pretty sure I haven’t. I acutely remember standing in front of a class watching them talk and talk and talk, desperate hot and prickly, absolutely no idea as to how to stop them, dreading teaching the group once the timetable rolled back onto them again. This went on for years with some classes because while I got lots of training on thinky things like assessment for learning I got precious little on specific things I should do in a lesson. Most of what I did learn I picked up watching others and then trial and error.

It does not have to be this way. Nobody must be the tragic millionaire swaying awkwardly in front of a mocking audience. While it is important teachers understand the purpose behind what works they shouldn’t be left all alone before they do. By all means, use strategies such the ones identified and explained in this excellent blog post by Adam Boxer to make the transition between doing and understanding faster, but don’t expect novice teachers to develop this understanding quickly all at once.

And until they do for goodness sake teach them the moves.

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Leave her at the hospital

He is a good old boy.

What might once have been called a gentleman farmer. Ruddy cheeked, brusque and jolly in tweed and a flat cap. Part of the hunting set.

He has had a good day. The weather’s been fine. The guns have shot well. There’s a nip of whiskey on his breath as he leans to my ear in a kitchen packed full of men and dogs and the smell of the outdoors.

“I told her to leave her at the hospital and forget about her.” He says. He looks me in the eye. “I’m ashamed I said that.”

Although I don’t know him very well, he doesn’t look like the sort of man to which shame comes often. He has an air of thrusting confidence.

But I believe him. The way he fixes my eye makes this moment intense and the deliberate way he says ‘ashamed’ makes me sure he is telling the truth.

“I told her to leave her. To have another one and forget about her. It’s what everyone said then. It’s what you were supposed to do. She didn’t listen and now..” He breaks off and for a heartbeat I think he will cry. He does not and carries on. “I’m glad she didn’t listen. She’s a wonderful girl. Like other little girls. My granddaughter. She lives in Canada now but we visit all the time.” He pulls a phone from his pocket and shows me photos of a beautiful four-year-old on a beach, in a park, with her family.

A beautiful four-year-old with Downs Syndrome.

I don’t think this man knew he was making a confession or that he was in small way trying to atone. But I think it was what he was doing. He was also – of course – offering me kindness in the early months after our own daughter was diagnosed with Williams Syndrome. Trying to comfort me. Telling me things would be OK.

This sort of thing happens to me quite a lot.

More now as the curriculum I’ve written and the website I’ve created goes out into the wild and begin to connect with people. What was once a trickle is becoming something of a flood. People stop me on corridors and send me emails. I get messages from the website and Twitter DMs.

As hard as they are to hear receiving these stories is an honour.

Whispers that rhyme with whispers I’ve heard before.

“They made us send him away.”

Nobody wanted to talk to us about it.”

“He’s embarrassed to tell anyone.”

“We couldn’t visit her.”              

“They just carried on around him like he wasn’t there.”

“They made us do it.”

“I feel ashamed, angry, bitter.”

Tales of love and loss. Of people who have loved and still love people with learning disabilities fooled into acting against their human instincts by tricksy words and sighs and meaningless platitudes like “it’s the best thing, it’s all for the best, move on, have another.” People who did what they were told was right but knew was wrong. People who hurt themselves by doing what everyone said they should do. People who were told not to love their own children.

The people who confess to me are confessing sins that are not theirs but have scarred deeply nonetheless.

There is something in our own humanity which knows all of us are sacred but we often struggle to find words to explain the reasons. Because we lack the words to defend people with learning disabilities awful things happen and it is because we know how wrong these things are that the horrors – whether this is T4 in Germany or the death rate from Covid-19 – disgust and appal us.

Our passions will not bend to our reasons.

We may think we have succeeded for a while with our clever thoughts and words but the illusion can’t hold for long. Soon the smoke evaporates and the mirrors crack, and when the damage is revealed it is too late to do anything but live with a pain that drips down through generations.

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The compromise classroom

Traffic laws, conventions and regulations do not perfectly suit many people. There are some excellent drivers who could safely exceed the speed limit on motorways. There are some drivers who have slower than average reaction times for whom even sixty miles per hour is much too fast. In the middle of the night there really is no reason why motorists could not safely park on double-yellow lines in some areas.

The laws, conventions and regulations we have are best-fit compromises – inevitably imperfect for an imperfect world in which there are a near-infinite number of interested parties with often conflicting aims.

We all understand and accept it has to be this way. The alternative – to personalise traffic laws to every motorist’s individual context – would be preposterously complicated and chaotic – worse for everyone overall.

We are not as good as accepting this about education despite the problem being effectively the same.

If we were to set up education to meet the individual learning needs of each child what we’d come up with probably wouldn’t look much like schools today. It might involve highly trained personal tutors for every child or at least for small groups of similar children. Teaching might start and finish later than most schools do today. It could mean no formal grades at all at any point.

Such an uncompromising approach to education – or a different one looking entirely different might – or indeed might not – increase overall learning.

It would also be incredibly expensive with the country having less money to spend on health or pensions. It would probably be a tough political sell and a party proposing it likely to be heavily defeated at its next election. It might pose serious childcare issues for families. It might also mean destinations using less transparent and more mysterious criteria than exam grades to make decisions about who to admit.

This is not comfortable. Nobody likes to compromise or even consider compromise about things we care a lot about. Doing so can feel like a moral failure and an admission of defeat. And most of us don’t have to do it. When we are responsible for only part and not the whole of the puzzle we have the luxury of not considering the trade-offs and can safely argue we want more or less of something without thinking about what the impact of this would be on other things. We can argue for exponential increases in school budgets without having to propose where proportionate cuts should be made. We could make a case for schools staying open late into the evening without worrying about how pupils will get home.

Others – those responsible for putting all the pieces together – do not have the luxury of such moral purity. These people make choices knowing in a world that’s never zero sum, advantaging one individual or group disadvantages others, and the relative merits of each proposed strategy or policy must be carefully and dispassionately assessed. This can be very unpleasant and disturbing work but it has to be done because not doing it means making huge life-changing decisions on whims without oversight, which sadly but inevitably often ends up damaging the most vulnerable in society most of all.

This is – of course – not to say bets are always right or those responsible for making them are always the right people. Very often they are not and often the consequences of the wrong bet can be catastrophic. My recent interest in the history of people with learning disabilities has provided me with many awful case studies of this – but doing better cannot mean thinking about the wider consequences of our decisions less.

All of this is as true for classroom teachers as it is for high falutin’ decision makers. What is best for a whole class may not be best for any of the individuals in it. The way children prefer to read is a good example – some individuals may like to read on a beanbag while listening to music while others may like to sit at a desk in silence. Both children cannot get their preference in the same classroom without making other adaptations that create further complexities. The teacher has to make a decision which will be a compromise which recognises many interlocking and moving parts and might not give any one person exactly what they want.

This is not to go as far as saying there is no place for very radical proposals. To say so would be to place blind trust in authority it can never be deserving of and precludes the possibility of paradigm changes from which huge numbers of people benefit. Those those making cases for dramatic change must also account for all the wide-ranging consequences of them and pre-emptively find ways to mitigate against the worst while allowing room to adapt to the inevitable unexpected.

Whether it’s ending exams forever, individually personalising learning or reducing holidays those advocating the idea must also have ideas about all the things that happen because of their decision and not just the good bits they’re excited about. They must understand all big decisions have losers as well as winners and they must be willing to speak calmly and rationally with those who will be negatively affected. They must recognise not doing this and making out their idea is a sort of panacea is at best disingenuous.

If we want thinking and conversations about change to lead to actual meaningful change we must have them in the context of the world we live in and avoid utopian pontificating – interesting in the pub on a Friday night but no good at all in a meeting on Monday morning.

Failing to do this isn’t bravery or conviction. It is wilful ignorance.

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Dear celebrity homeschoolers

Dear Homeschoolers

I’d like to begin by telling you what big fans of yours us teachers are! We love your books and your columns. We love your music and your acting. We admire your expertise. We think you are great!

We think it is brilliant you are taking such an interest in what your children are being taught remotely. It would have been nice if you’d been as interested before you were at stuck at home with them but I suppose – like all of us – you only have so many hours in the day. All that book and column writing, all that music making and all the acting must take up a lot of time.

We know children can be quite reticent about what they’ve done with their teachers when they get home and in the rush to get dinner on the table it’s hard to have a proper conversation with them about it. Still – if you ever really want to know what’s on the curriculum we’re always available – just send us an email or call. We think parental involvement is important. We’ll make time.

We understand you have a right to make your opinions heard about what your children learn. Just as we have the right to say what we like about your work, we also have the right to say when we think you’ve done something that isn’t as great.

And we don’t think the newspaper articles you are writing and the tweets you are sending about what children do in school are very good at all. We think they’re poorly informed and recycle old arguments as if they hadn’t been made many times already. Although we are sure you mean well it’s making our job harder at an already tough time.

The first thing you should be aware of is criticisms of what and how schools teach are not new. We’re quite accustomed to celebrities sticking the boot in. Every year Jeremy Clarkson tells all our pupils and us how little exams matter and uses descriptions of all his expensive cars as evidence of it. “I did terribly in my exams and I am rich! Don’t worry if you fail!”

We’re used to Jeremy now but as fond of him as we have grown we feel a responsibility to point out where he’s gone wrong. The thing is passing exams might not have been very important for him. His parents owned a business which meant he had a secure job after school and they sound very much like the sort of go-getters who had the capacity to support him really well in all sorts of ways.

But as you of course understand not everyone who fails exams is Jeremey Clarkson. Most aren’t. Most benefit from the wider range of choices that good exam grades provide.

What I’m getting at here is our school system is not set up just for children with lots of advantages. Children from all sorts of backgrounds sit in the same classrooms together. If a child is lucky enough to be born with natural intelligence, has access to loads of books and has parents who have time to spend reading to her perhaps it isn’t as important she learns about fronted adverbials and graphemes. Perhaps they might be able to learn a lot of the principles behind these sorts of things by a sort of unconscious osmosis – as you may have done too.

Lots of children – actually most – don’t have these advantages. It is these children we worry most about. We use terms like fronted adverbials and graphemes and other things you intuitively understand but not know the words for because they allow us to directly teach the things more fortunate children might already be confident with.

It might also be helpful to consider the concept of expert induced blindness, which happens to us all when we become – as you are – brilliant at something. As experts it is very hard for us to remember what it was like to not know a lot about the stuff we now know loads about. This is why a world class mathematician might struggle to teach someone simple multiplication and find someone else’s method of doing so bizarre. If this happens to you a little humility might be in order – try to remember although you may be an expert in maths you are probably not an expert in teaching maths to eight-year-olds and admitting so in no way undermines your professional standing.

This isn’t for one second to say what schools do is always right or always done well or you haven’t the right to ask questions. Sometimes practice isn’t effective and sometimes you might have very legitimate concerns about what your child is being taught in school. But do remember what I wrote earlier – you could always contact your child’s school and ask for clarification. You might learn what you thought was nonsense makes sense when the way it fits into the wider curriculum is explained to you. Or you might still be unsatisfied with the answer and want closer involvement with the school.

Perhaps you might even consider becoming a parent governor and playing a really important role in the education of hundreds of children?

But we know you are busy.

We understand why you might find time to write an article or tweet a criticism you might not feel you have enough to really get to grips with why things work like they do in schools.  If that’s the case perhaps it would be nicer if you demonstrated a bit more trust of the people who teach your children every day of the week for years and years rather than shaming them to your huge audiences?

You have a right to your opinions but a responsibility to ensure they are well informed. Look – we know how hard teaching children is and how stressed you must be but please try to avoid using your platforms to let off steam because the reasons for something your child has been asked to do aren’t immediately obvious to you.

People listen to you. If you are wrong there may be some without the advantages you’ve provided your children who stop supporting their child with tasks they really need to do.

You wouldn’t want that.

Kindest regards

Ben

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Disabled? How have people with learning disabilities been seen in societies in which they lived?

A young girl with Williams Syndrome – a genetic irregularity that is often associated with learning difficulties

Introduction

As long as there have been people in the world there have been people who have not been able to learn as quickly as others.

Sometimes the cause of this is an accident that changes the way a person’s brain works. Sometimes people are born with genetic differences which makes learning more difficult than it is for other people. Sometimes we don’t know the reason.

Today if a person’s ability to learn is limited compared to others and this is part of who they are rather than a specific issue they have that could be overcome, we describe them as having learning disabilities. Perhaps you feel you have learning disabilities, or have friends or members of your family who do and you are thinking about them right now.

People with learning disabilities are made vulnerable in societies that do not include them, and deny them rights others take for granted. Tasks may take them longer and they may need help to do some things others can do on their own. They may also need help to stay safe, to make and keep friends, to care for themselves and to stay healthy. When thinking about this you should remember all of us have disabilities when we are compared with others – for example, you probably would be classed as having a learning disability if compared with Albert Einstein. You should also be aware that how people have defined learning disability has changed over time and is dependent on the values and beliefs of the past society. People who are regarded as having learning disabilities today may not have been regarded as having any disability at all in some past societies.

Just as people without learning disabilities are very different so people with learning disabilities are very different to each other too, with disabilities that range from very mild to very profound and complicated by associated separate conditions that affect health. Like all people they have likes and dislikes, ideas, dreams, hopes and fears. Like all of us they find some things funny and other things sad.

In this enquiry you will learn about how different societies at different times and in different places have regarded and treated people with learning disabilities and reasons for their beliefs and actions. Finding out about this is often difficult – people with learning disabilities can struggle to communicate in ways that are easily understood, which means we often rely on records left by others. These records – often called sources by historians – also show the impact people with learning disabilities have made on those around them and by paying careful attention to this we can hear their voices too. Here we see upsetting examples of cruelty but also humour and deep affection. 

As well as telling us about what people thought about those with learning disabilities, these records also tell us very interesting things about past societies – what did they care about and value? How did they decide who had learning disabilities and who did not? How did they explain and see difference? How did they treat people who needed more help than others? What were the reasons for their beliefs and actions?

This enquiry is about people with learning disabilities, but it is not just about people with learning disabilities – it is also a history of the societies in which they lived.

People with learning disabilities are human so their stories – which are just as interesting and important as those of other people – are part of the human story. You are human so the history of people with learning difficulties is not just their history – it is yours too.

A note on language

 The words used to describe people with learning disabilities in the past can seem offensive to us today.   Sometimes the people who used these words meant them as insults but at other times they were not intending to be cruel. In order to be historically accurate this enquiry contains some of these words.   What was meant by them at the time will always be explained.   You should not use words we regard as offensive and insulting outside of their historical context. This means you should not use them unless you are talking about history and you are certain the person you are talking with understands your meaning.   If they do not understand and get upset, it is you who is in the wrong.   If you are not sure about the correct use of a word you should check with your teacher before you use it.   Using words to describe people with learning disabilities as insults is very wrong and disrespectful of the people you are learning about. In many cases it is also against the law.  
Don’t do it.  
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Fanny and Thomas. Two stories about young people with learning disabilities in the 18th century

Stories adapted from Simon Jarrett’s Those They Called Idiots. The idea of the disabled mind from 1700 to the present day. Buy it.

Fanny’s story[1]

In 1764 a baby girl was born to a rich and well-connected family near Bath. They named her Fanny. It soon became clear she was not developing the way typical children did. She couldn’t count to twenty, didn’t know her left from her right hand or the names of the days of the week. Once while out walking in thunderstorm, delighted by a bolt of lightening, she asked her companions to “do it again”. Even as a young adult she needed help dressing and protection from dangers like the garden pond.

In 1786 when she was twenty-two she was kidnapped by an army lieutenant called Henry Bowerman, who tricked her into going to a nearby village by telling her there would be strawberries and cream. Here she was separated from her trusted companions and taken to France, where Bowerman tried to find a priest who would perform a marriage ceremony so he could take her inheritance. Bowerman struggled to find a priest to do this because it was clear Fanny did not understand what was happening. Eventually Bowerman and his co-conspirators got an English priest drunk enough to agree to conduct the service.

We can only imagine what Fanny’s mother went through.

When she found out where her daughter was, she sent four investigators to locate Fanny and bring her home. The investigators found her and, accompanied by three French Cavaliers, they took her away from Bowerman and returned her to her mother.

Bowerman appealed to court, claiming the only reason Fanny did not understand what had happened was because her mother gave her alcoholic drink and that the marriage should be considered legitimate. The court quickly rejected this ridiculous excuse after it became clear Fanny could not give logical answers about who she wanted to marry and how much property she owned.

Fanny’s mother reluctantly agreed to have her daughter declared an ‘idiot’ so she could have official guardianship of her and so legally protect her. She had not wanted to do this before “on account of her maternal affection and extreme tenderness for her daughter,” which meant she loved her so much she did not want to do something that might embarrass her.

The marriage was annulled. Fanny was returned to her mother who now had legal guardianship of her.

Thomas’ Story[2]

In 1780 a poor young skin-gatherer who worked in a London meat market appeared in court accused of taking part in a riot. Regularly teased by other boys, Thomas Baggott was accepted to be an ‘idiot’ who did not really understand the value of money and would do no work unless he had to.

Witnesses claimed he had been seen drunk helping destroy a house. Shocked by the level of violence in the riot the government encouraged harsh sentences. Thomas could be hanged. His life was at stake.

At Thomas’ trial six witnesses appeared in his defence, which included his workmates, his employer, his sister and his mother. Three other people provided character witness statements.

All the witnesses provided Thomas with alibis – claiming he had been with them at the time of the riot. The only thing consistent about the statements was that Thomas wasn’t at the riot. He couldn’t possibly have been with all the people who said he was with them at the same time!

The judge clearly knew this and warned the witnesses they could themselves get into trouble for perjury, which means lying to court. He told them to be careful. They did not change their stories with one saying “I am very careful, and very sure he was employed in the yard until dinner-time.”

It seems pretty clear Thomas had in fact taken part in the riot but the jury chose to go along with the stories and acquitted him. Thomas left court free and went back to his life in the community.

Thomas’ life was not perfect. He was teased and probably often treated badly. But when his life was at stake the people who knew him were willing to risk their own freedom to stop him being punished for committing a crime they knew he might not have really understood.

When push came to shove, he was one of their own.


[1] Simon Jarrett. Those They Called Idiots. The idea of the disabled mind from 1700 to the present day. Reaktion Books. 2020. P38

[2] Simon Jarrett. Those They Called Idiots. The idea of the disabled mind from 1700 to the present day. Reaktion Books. 2020. P46

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