Hungry

I am bad at being hungry.

When I forget to eat I don’t realise I am hungry and get irritable and short-tempered. I snap at people and do things poorly. I don’t listen properly to what people tell me and I make silly mistakes.

When this happens it really is all on me. My hanger is a result of my own carelessness, of knowing what I’m like, but not doing the things I need to do to stay productive and tolerable to be around – a failure to exercise my autonomy responsibly.

And I am much better at managing myself these days.

I have a lunchbox and a thermos and think about what will go in it a lot. I think about different sorts of sandwiches and fruit, and crisps and soup. I browse recipe books and the internet. I make stock from roasted bones. I discuss and salivate and fantasise.

I spend a lot of time thinking about what I’ll eat and drink for dinner each evening too, for breakfast each weekend and – especially – for lunch on Sunday. This thinking is not at all about staying alive. It is about pleasure and the sense that because I work hard I deserve affirming treats. I am part of a family in which decision making about what we’ll eat on Friday evening can begin on Monday morning.

Perhaps it is because I am such a shameless glutton stories about families not having enough food to eat, or having to eat unpleasant food, bother me so much – even more so since having two children of my own.

I try to imagine not being able to manage my mood when I’m hungry by eating. I imagine not being able raise the mood of my fretful child by feeding them, worrying constantly about what their hunger might mean for their growth and development. I imagine how incessant hunger would devastate my productivity, my relationships and my minute-by-minute existence – how all I’d be thinking about was when and what I’d eat next.

I try to imagine working fourteen hours a day on minimum wage at a physical job and being told by newspaper journalists I should eat a meal of brown rice and wonky veg stew at the end of it. I imagine being judged for taking pleasure in a delicious pizza or curry instead, and how smug and sneery suggestions of weakness might make me feel when I was already giving my best.

Imagine not being excited about the food you eat, or worse not having enough, or still worse not being able to properly feed your children.

I can’t. Not really. Can anyone who’s never lived it?

Being poor is not a crime. There is no shame in it.

Everyone is entitled to enough food and everyone is entitled to enjoy eating it.

We should never become numb to this, especially not now.

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Miracles all the time.

If he hadn’t died on a beach of an asthma attack when he was eleven he’d be twenty-eight now.

I was his Tutor. A twenty-three year old boy whose job it was to steer myself and my traumatised form through a grieving process none of us knew how to do.

This experience remains the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my professional life. For most of the time I was doing it I didn’t think I could do it.

And I could not have done it on my own, but I was never on my own.

The school community – my friends – they held me through it all. They were there watching me for the unexpected moments of shocking physical breakdown on corridors and in meetings. They were there to tell me what to do at what moment so that this forty year old who was once that twenty-three year old child can look back and feel what was done was done right. That within the sphere of what I could control no big mistakes were made.

I hope I’ve paid this forward. I hope I’ve also been hands that hold up. Times when I’ve plunged into a classroom after seeing a friend with stuff going on sitting forlorn in a staffroom with fearful eyes that say without words “I thought I could but I’ve just realised I don’t think I can teach 9E right now.”

All of us do this don’t we, all the time?

When it comes down to what’s most important what makes the impossibly complicated business of running schools even in the most ‘normal’ of times work aren’t the spreadsheets or the policies or the pro forma documents. What keeps them running is the network of personal relationships and the drive to do what needs to be done properly – the power behind the paper.

Never in my career have we been drawn upon as much as we have since March. The shutdown; the safeguarding; the free school meals; the laptops; the remote learning; the exams; the risk assessments; the tiers; the bubbles; the staffing.

At almost every step the systems have been lacking and yet, by some kind of every day human miracle that shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows about schools and the adults who work in them, against all odds, it’s all held together.

All the things that have needed to be done have been done, and all in the face of ignorant criticism, cruelty and the sense that nobody has really got enough credit for what has been achieved.

And now this.

A Christmas break that no longer feels like a Christmas break for many of us at a time when it really, really does feel as if we’re at some sort of unprecedented crisis point.

But we my bet is we will navigate this crisis and that we won’t break. Somehow, against all odds, again we will manage. Once again we will draw on oceans of compassion and competence and find answers to impossible questions. We will work out how to do this next bit, and when this next bit is over we will work out how to do the bit after that, and after that and after that.

We will do it right even when we are told we are not doing it right. We will find problems nobody predicted and we will find solutions to those problems. We’ll pass those solutions on to others. We will do it because we have become so used to performing miracles we no longer even recognise them as miracles. We will do it by helping each other and watching out for who needs help.

Our past record of success should be enough to help us rest – not because our work is over or we have all the solutions we need now, but because we can have faith that these solutions will be found.

Happy Christmas everyone. We deserve it.

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Managing Means of Participation

Doug Lemov calls the different ways pupils join in with a lesson The Means of Participation.

Effective management of Means of Participation means being specific and explicit about how pupils are supposed to contribute to lessons, and then being consistent in maintaining these rules.

Examples include waiting to be Cold Called, writing – and perhaps most importantly of all – properly listening.

Clarity and predictability around Means of Participation results in better lessons; better behaviour, clearer teaching and children who learn more. It results in pupils who accept the rules around lesson contributions as non-personal organisational routines that create a fair and purposeful environment in which the opinions and views of everyone in the room are equally valued.

In the abstract there is little controversial about this – but as much in life is easier to believe in than do every day.

The purpose of this – hopefully practical – blog post is to explore reasons it is often hard to manage Means of Participation well, and how these obstacles might be overcome.

  1. Low expectations

Low expectations has become something of an umbrella term now so truthy it’s pretty meaningless without context and examples.

Low expecations around Means of Participation can begin when teachers believe pupils are not capable of regulating themselves to an extent that allows them to abide by common rules set for joining in.

For teachers who hold such beliefs it is very hard to manage Means of Participation – trying to force children to do what they are not capable of doing seems pointless and even cruel.

Such assumptions lead logically to the notion it is better to allow children to decide on their own means of participation, based on their own circumstances and context.

As well-meaning as such beliefs might be they are a recipe for chaos in classrooms.

Any space in which large groups of people all decide as individuals how to contribute towards what should be a shared goal are loud, unfocused and inefficient. In classrooms competition between children in the room for attention, and lack of clarity over how the teacher decides on who gets it incubates resentment and ,makes the environment really stressful for the most vulnerable.

The longer such cacophony and disorder goes on the harder it is for teachers to believe children in the room are capable of better, or indeed for children themselves to believe it. This makes low expectations around Means of Participation self-fulfilling and can cause teachers to despair.

I know this because I’ve been there, and it is a miserable place to be in.

As pervasive and sometimes understandable as such low expectations can be they are usually wrong – children are almost always capable of understanding and abiding by explicit Means of Participation.

This can be seen in pedagogically variable schools where children behave very differently in the rooms of teachers regarded as ‘strict’ to how they behave in rooms of teachers they perceive to be soft or even weak. The same is true about most children summoned to the Headteacher’s Office, or given a formal award at a ceremony – in these contexts few shout, interrupt or behave erratically.

These examples suggest the idea large numbers of children are simply incapable of regulating their responses regardless of where they find themselves is wrong.

Believing otherwise would be an existential challenge to the way almost every school in the world operates.

If rules and routines are clear and have purpose almost all children will understand and respect them

But often they are not

2. The Means of Participation are not made clear.

It can be sobering to appreciate just how much we assume pupils can infer from actually quite vague instructions about how to join in lessons.

For example, saying to pupils ‘write this down’ does not make it explicit when, where, how or whether they are allowed to talk or not while doing it. Saying to pupils, ‘put your hand up if you know the answer’ doesn’t make it clear whether pupils can also shout out the correct answer without putting their hands up. Saying to a noisy class ‘be quiet while I am talking’ does not make it obvious whether this means to stop talking altogether or just to lower voices.

Of course some ‘misunderstandings’ pupils make can be disingenuous but whether they are real or not, the way to tackle them is the same; be very, very clear and explicit about what the expectations are, anticipate areas of ambiguity and pre-empt them. Scripting can be really helpful – for example “when I am explaining I want you to stop talking, look at me and put anything in your hands down. Do not put your hands up while I am talking, because I want you completely focused on what I’m saying.”

Awareness of Means of Participation should also be brought to planning – having considered in advance exactly what pupils need to do to join in and then scripting the explanation of this so there is no room for either wilful or genuine confusion makes lesson flow much smoother.

3. Pupils are not used to having their means of participation managed.

Even when they are sensible new rules are very frequently controversial especially when they mean changing embedded behavioural habits.

Individuals in a class who have become accustomed to shouting out or not listening when a teacher is talking often feel that – as implicit judgements on their prior behaviour – the imposition of new rules is punitive. This can cause significant kickback in the early stages of managing Means of Participation with some pupils failing to honour new rules because they genuinely keep forgetting, and some deliberately refusing to comply because they don’t like being made to feel how they behaved before was wrong.

To get over this obstacle it is important teachers and leaders in schools focus on more transparency, explaining Means of Participation clearly in ways that make the purpose very clear. This shouldn’t be done confrontationally and unless there are compelling reasons not to, it’s usually best avoid dredging up past examples of bad behaviour to justify the shift. Such an approach very frequently ends up in mutual recrimination and accusation. It is usually better to be clear about the benefits orderly, predictable and clear rules have for everyone, explain the consequences of not sticking to these and then being resolute and consistent about their application.

4. Means of Participation are not consistently managed across a school.

While I am an advocate for subject specificity and autonomy wherever appropriate I feel a consistent approach to managing Means of Participation across a school is a real advantage for most teachers in most subjects.

When there isn’t consistency – for example some teachers taking shouted out answers but others not – then it is very easy for children to feel rules around Means of Participation are personal and arbitrary rather than just the way things are done. Teachers who do try to organise their classrooms in ways in which joining in is regulated can find themselves cast as school villains, which is unfair.

Of course very charismatic teachers can get away with having fewer explicit rules. Children will not notice or overlook a lack of consistency if they are swept away by inspiring teaching. But being charismatic is too high a bar to set if we want to be reasonable, and by allowing mavericks to play fast and loose with what should be consistent across a school the system is undermined for all, which is ultimately to everyone’s detriment.

It is hard to manage this because challenging ourselves or our peers on not following school rules and routines consistently is awkward, especially if they sit above us in the hierarchy.

As awkward as it is, it is also essential.

If agreed rules and routines aren’t applied in the same way by everyone in a school then they lose their power, influence and purpose. If we do not abide what we profess to hold in common then there really is no point having agreed ways of doing things at all.

We should all of us – regardless of our role or status – accept our human fallibility and avoid defensiveness when an oversight, such as ignoring a pupil who isn’t writing down what the rest of the class is, is brought to our attention. Consistency needs to be cultural and for this we must be able to discuss it collegiately and pleasantly.

And the longer we avoid doing this the harder it becomes to start doing so.

5. Teachers flex rules for particular pupils.

One of the things that makes pupils who receive many sanctions in school most angry is how many of the infringements of those who receive fewer sanctions are overlooked.

Very often they have a point.

Often the flex teachers put into consistency around Means of Participation is not evenly applied and is subject to our human internal biases and prejuidices; for example, a usually delightfully behaved girl gets a raised eyebrow rather than her name on the board when caught whispering during an explanation, whereas a boy known for being rude gets a sanction for the same infringement twenty minutes later.

While the reasons for these adaptations may be really clear to the teacher they are often opaque to pupils, and this creates the perception that Means of Participation are different for different children, with the reasons for these differences mysterious.

At best this is highly confusing while at worst it can make it seem as if the teacher is picking and choosing how each child should join in on based on how much they like them.

School routines, including those for managing Means of Participation, are based on consent built upon the shared belief that while aspects of a way of doing things may be individually inconvenient at times, ultimately they are what is best for the community as a whole.

It needs to be clear what is said by the school applies to everyone does actually apply to everyone, especially around something as fundamental as how to join in.

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Nothing new under the sun: Futurism in Education.

Until university I was a Marxist, or at least thought I was – I genuinely believed socialism in its purest sense, applied properly, would lead to greater fairness and overall happiness for humankind.

At university I studied it more critically and became concerned at the lack of examples of success in its revolutionary form. Much more commonly – even typically – attempts to apply revolutionary socialism to actual societies seemed to result in misery and even barbarism.

This depressed me so I tried to find explanations to justify why historical failures did not mean the theory itself was flawed. I spent a long time doing this because I was so desperate for revolutionary socialism to be the answer for the world’s ills. The idea we could quickly restructure and reorganise society and economy along the lines of co-operation and support for the greater good rather than the flawed selfishness of humans was so bewitching it clouded my thinking.

“We just need to do this better,” I thought.

Gradually and painfully my position moved to where it is now; still a socialist but a democratic one, with the belief problems with revolutionary socialism and communism are in its own ideology and the way it regards people, not that attempts to express it have always been flawed.

I now believe socialist revolutions can’t achieve their aims because of inherent problems in the theory itself.  

The ideas, as wonderful as they are, don’t work in the world we live in regardless of how sad people like me find this.

I don’t think any of this is particularly controversial. I think beyond the fringes we’d find few who would profess to being committed to revolutionary socialism. Nonetheless we see the same sort of problematic utopian thinking in plenty of other areas.

The pandemic and the ways in which schools, teaching and assessment has had to reorganise itself in response have turned up the volume on arguments for wholescale, arguably revolutionary change to schools which have existed for a surprisingly long time, certainly decades and perhaps hundreds of years. Again we are hearing rehashed arguments for greater use of technology, more project based learning in place of lessons taught in traditional subjects, the teaching of transferrable skills and a reduction or perhaps even elimination of exams in assessing pupils.

The argument seems to go that the scale of the changes forced upon us by circumstance mean there has never been a greater opportunity to completely restructure what we do permanently; a hope that 2020 could be a sort of year zero gateway to a brand new and better paradigm.

These ideas are being picked up by the national press and gaining more coverage on social media – at least outside of fairly niche education circles – than they have for years.

This is dangerous.

The first thing it is important to understand is these ideas – greater collaborative work, the organisation of timetables on the basis of projects, continuous and varied types of assessment instead of exams – are not new and have been mostly unsuccessfully tried many times in many places before.

For example, when I first began teaching it was common for schools not to teach some subjects at all in Year 7, instead giving time to programmes in which pupils worked in groups to develop generic learning skills. In very recent memory whole chains of schools have devoted large proportions of timetables to project work outside of core subjects[1]. The history of assessment in English schools is a chequered one which has in the past included coursework, controlled assessments, project work, continuous teacher assessment and modular examinations.

All of these ways of working have serious problems and have – in England at least – gradually been abandoned. This short post is not the place to go into all these and the reasons they are problematic, but they are not hard to find; the best places to begin looking are Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths about Education and Daniel T Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School?

Unfortunately though, memories are short. Some things that should not have been forgotten were lost, and there are always those who believe this time their ideas will work.

But my bet is they will not.

Like revolutionary socialism the problem with radically restructuring schools and curriculum to make them more ‘relevant’, ‘engaging’, or ‘creative’ or whatever is flawed in ideology not just application. This is a more controversial claim to make and it is possible I am wrong. I would be interested in a convincing rebuttal of Christodoulou or Willingham’s work, or any examples of specific scalable instances in which futurist ideas have led to measurably better outcomes for pupils within constraints in which schools must work. As a teacher and school leader I have little time for abstract arguments about how ideas would work if we lived in a very different sort of society. This is not to say such arguments aren’t interesting or politically relevant, but as they aren’t within my gift to do much about I think my professional position on this understandable.

I don’t expect much of a response to my request for specific examples. Here loud advocates for revolutionary change usually either fall silent or argue against the validity of measures used to assess school effectiveness. Some go as far as to imply that we shouldn’t be looking at practice in schools to work out how to make schools better.

Fair or not none of this moves us forward.

A comparable silence is heard when teachers and leaders who work in schools ask questions around the practicalities and logistics of making proposals for radical ideas work. Some of those making such calls are not directly involved in education in schools themselves (interestingly some of these seem defiantly proud of this which is revealing in what it implies about the place such arguments come from) so perhaps they feel this is out of their area of interest and expertise. If true this is understandable but regrettable, because in the practical problems ideological fractures also become apparent. For example – if project work is to be a key component of the way a pupil is assessed how are we to ensure credit is shared fairly among all members of a group who have contributed unequal amounts? Or – if pupils are to be assessed by their teacher how do we ensure teacher bias does not lead to unfairness for certain groups? Or – if we are now expecting teachers to teach multiple subjects as part of projects then how do make sure they are expert enough in all these at more advanced levels?

Whether it’s revolutionary socialism or futurist curriculum and pedagogy, an idea regardless of how exciting it is cannot be practically useful if it fails to acknowledge contextual constraints and relies on people and the world being fundamentally different to what they are to make it work.

The danger we face is the adoption of risky big ideas at a time when the learning of pupils has never been higher stakes. We have lost a lot of time. Many pupils are still losing time. We cannot waste what we have on stuff that doesn’t work regardless of how nice it would be if it did work.

None of this is to say what we have is perfect. It demonstrably is not perfect.

But the solution to imperfection is not to replace what doesn’t work brilliantly all the time with things that have failed in the past.

must not risk further inequity by treating our children as guinea pigs in experiments we have run before in the self-indulgent hope this time, this time things will turn out differently.


[1] It is interesting how so many programmes and strategies around cross-curricular work omit English and Maths, suggesting when stakes are highest the value of disciplinary teaching is accepted.

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Dear Labour..

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.co

Dear Kate (hope you don’t mind – you can call me Ben!)

Welcome back! It’s heartening to see the return of proper opposition at a time we really need it. Your party feels like a credible option for voters like me who’ve felt homeless for the past few years.

But you have work to do in education.

Bluntly – and I say this as a Labour Party member – your position is a mess.

This letter is about where your thinking has gone wrong, why, what the consequences will be if we don’t sort it out and the things you could do to develop a position and associated policy that’s good for children and will make you more electable.

Firstly it is important you understand the arguments you make here are not new.

Over many years these ideas have been tried in many different places.

Twenty years ago saying pupils should work collaboratively in groups and be taught to be critical thinkers may have been fresh and interesting but the debate has moved on so far this argument now looks stale, at least without more context and explanation as to what specifically you mean.

It isn’t – of course – that schools don’t ultimately want to develop people who can work collaboratively or think critically. It’s just that the last attempt to make pupils do this through the methods you propose was a rather spectacular failure. It led to too much focus on form and not enough on substance, disempowered teachers, made behaviour much harder to manage and – along with bonkers accountability you rightly raise as a big problem – may have contributed to serious problems in the recruitment and retention of teachers.

If you listen in to teacher twitter it won’t take you long to find horror stories from the period I’ve come to think of as “The Great Stupidity.”

Over the last decade or so the work of left leaning academics and teacher researchers such as E D Hirsch, Michael Young, Daniel T Willingham, Daisy Christodoulou and David Didau have provided accessible theoretical explanations for the practical failure of the sort of buzzy interdisciplinary freethinking approach you are advocating.

The problem is in order to be buzzy and interdisciplinary and freethinking you have to have lots of knowledge. Without it creativity can’t be ever much more than hot air. You can’t just collaborate. You need to know something to collaborate on. Another potential risk here is inadvertently creating the reductive curriculum you’ve made it clear you are against; when we aim to teach generic skills then these skills almost always end up being those considered most useful in employment, making schools the worker creation factories I know depress both of us.

While there are still lots of debates about the best way to teach knowledge – and there have been huge advances here too – nobody beyond the fringes is arguing it isn’t of fundamental importance to the things you want to achieve.

Annoyingly it was mostly Rightish teachers and schools who were quickest to grasp this, or at least fastest out of the gates in organising themselves to respond and make their voices heard.

This, coupled with structural issues around who got the biggest audience, led to a sort of”‘knowledge rich” bubble that wasn’t as reflective of diversity of thought as it should have been. This was a problem with many people made understandably defensive over an approach that – to them – looked like the foisting of reactionary curricula on schools for political ends. Indeed in some cases it probably was this whether conscious or unconscious.

Happily while still fraught the debate is at least in the right place now. A lot of clever progressive people have lots of inspiring ideas and plans about how curriculum should be adapted to make it more representative and more powerful to a greater diversity of young people.

These people including Sonia Thomson, Hannah Cusworth, Claire Hollis, Bennie Kara and many more, have been making compelling arguments about curriculum for many years.

You should talk to them.

But before you do a key thing to understand is these people, right on the zeitgeist of educational debate are not thinking and writing about whether children should do more group work, or arguing we should not teach familiar subjects like History and Geography. Focusing on these things is distracting and frustrating. We’ve been here many times before, it isn’t what is most important and means losing momentum – now more than ever exists the opportunity for schools to broaden and diversify curriculum, and we must not squander it. Be really careful about lobbing rhetorical bombs like “information heavy” and “cramming their heads with facts”, because it is off-putting to those who have done really great work on curriculum, looks poorly-informed and may alienate those who might be useful allies.

It is also important you grasp how politically bankrupt arguments for less of what I think you’d call “traditionalism” in schools are.

A serious issue in the Labour Party over the last few years and one likely reason for the fall of the red wall in the last election was our failure to recognise many formerly habitual Labour voters have some conservative social values. My experience of teaching and leading in working class areas for many years makes me certain this is particularly true in what communities want from their schools.

Parents across a great diversity of backgrounds want their children in consistent, calm and safe schools with clear structures, routines and rules. They want their children to learn lots of knowledge in them. This means that the Right wins on education across traditional party lines if the Left is seen as being in opposition to discipline and knowledge. The public is increasingly aware of the success of many high profile knowledge rich schools in delivering brilliant, potentially life changing outcomes for disadvantaged children. People understand these things. Other aims are vague by comparison and a much tougher political sell. Yes, there is a lot of positive noise in the press and social media about 21st century skillz and other such silly futurism, but this is not representative of the views of most voters so don’t get distracted by it.

The good news is there’s plenty of time between now and the next election – enough to talk to the right people, have a think and develop proper policy.

I’d advise you to look at what parents, teachers and children actually want from their schools and what is already going on in them. They’re very different so this might take quite a while and the diversity of what you find will make it tougher to generalise. You should familiarise yourself with where the debate is now because at the moment, your position looks out of touch. It is a case of “what and whose facts and why these facts’” more than it is “more or less facts” now, and rightly so. You should talk to the people I’ve mentioned – they’ll know better than me who else you should speak to. I’d also advise you talk to people from the Other Side too. With education a bit of bipartisanism really helps grease wheels and although the Right are of course wrong on a lot of things most of them mean well. It’s important to remember that whoever the government is all children go to school together and any change affects them all. All our children are all our children and so we all have an interest.

Finally please do not feel advocating for more knowledge or facts or whatever you want to call this stuff is any kind of betrayal of progressive or even socialist principles. If you feel uneasy about this revisit your Tressell and your Orwell. Knowledge is powerful and we should be talking about how we decide what to teach and how we make sure it’s made available to everyone whatever their background, not wasting time by implying we want less of it in our schools.

Good luck!

Ben

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Should we extend the school day?

stretch

There is hope isn’t there?

Although this winter will be long and tough and we must remain as careful and vigilant as ever my feeling is things might well return to something more recognisable as ‘old normal’ by spring.

 I really, really hope I’m right about this.

This is not to say all the associated problems will end then too. They will not. Every sector has been bruised by this once in a generation catastrophe.

In education we will be left with the long shadow thrown by interruption, with effects of lockdowns and shutdowns unevenly spread between areas, schools, groups and individuals. While we should not react hysterically to early data on how far children have fallen behind it is clear many have.

National attention is now turning away from short term ‘interventions’ and towards a longer game. This is a good thing. Most children are behind where they would be had it not been for the virus and we need to make bets on how we can accelerate learning to compensate when this is all over.

Some politicians and ‘commentators’ have been quick with opinions, making arguments that schools should increase instructional time by lengthening the school day and teaching at the weekend and during holidays. Such calls have been met with understandable unease from an already stretched sector that’s done far more than is widely understood.

But increasing instructional time shouldn’t be off limits for discussion.

At the beginning of this school year I wrote this piece arguing that “Catch Up” should be viewed more as a process than an event – something incremental that will happen through ground level responsive teaching in classrooms.

If I am right then it would be logical to assume more teaching time would lead to more learning, which should over a long period of time lead to pupils gradually ‘catching up’.

Increasing the amount of time children are in front of their teachers is – potentially – very big lever we could pull. Adding an hour to each day would mean five hours extra a week for most schools. Over a half term that’s an extra week. Over a year it’s six weeks. For Year 7 over five years that’s a whole extra school year.

This direction of thought has some evidential weight. One of the reasons it’s hard to really assess the impact of instructional methods in successful US charter schools is they typically have longer days than otherwise comparable schools – something acknowledged by responsible researchers. If teaching is effective surely more of it will lead to more learning?

Put simply children have lost lots of time. If and when this period ends it would appear entirely reasonable to suppose if we increase time in lessons then we can compensate.

Beguilingly simple.

But undeveloped and poorly thought through.

The problem with just going with such an approach is it is an idea and not a plan. In of itself and without specifics there isn’t actually anything to agree or disagree with.

Ideas are easy. Plans are hard and often it only becomes apparent an idea isn’t workable when you try to work it up into an actual plan.

Here are just some reasons it isn’t as easy as just increasing time in lessons through some sort of centralised edict, as hinted at by those loudest about the idea. .

  1. Teachers in England already work overlong hours.

This is not controversial. Workload is a well-understood reason for recruitment and retention problems. While some Trusts and schools have gone a long way to reducing it this has not yet happened at a sufficiently systemic level for us to be confident the sector can sustain a substantial increase in teaching time without negative consequences outweighing any benefit.

Extra teaching means extra administration, planning and feedback and the impact of this needs to be factored into any increase.

If teaching time were to be increased without proper consideration and meaningful action to reduce load elsewhere then the result might be more people leaving teaching than going in – especially if the economy improves.

We’d have extended timetables that schools would not be able to staff. Like Bilbo just before he leaves the Shire for the last time, we’d be too little butter spread over too much bread.

2. Five hours is already a long time for teachers.

As Matthew Hood points out here, teaching is best understood as a performance profession more akin to acting or making music than working in an office. It is both physically and mentally taxing as anyone who has ever tafaught a five period day will tell you. The cumulative effect of a lengthened school day might well be tiredness and an associated drop in teaching quality across all lessons; in this case any benefit of more time might bleed out. A similar problem would be caused by teaching at the weekends or holidays, which are periods used by teachers to recover and recuperate.

There is of course a particularly unpleasant and vicious line of argument suggesting that teachers haven’t done very much during lockdown. If this were true I suppose we could find these well rested layabouts and put them to work.

Good luck with that. I don’t know any.

In their absence – how typical we can’t find these slackers when we most need them! –  we’d need to find ways to increase timetables without exhausting staff. Those making blanket calls for longer hours in schools often use placatory but vague phrases such as ‘fully funded’, and more money could indeed turn this idea into a plan.

Unfortunately without more explanation it’s just impossible to say.

Details would be helpful. If – for example – ‘fully funded’ meant hiring more teachers so schools could provide more instruction without increasing hours on a timetable then that’s a good start, but invites new considerations; how exactly do we fund this? Where do we get these teachers from? If it means training more, or faster, how can we do this in a way that means we still maintain standards high enough to be worth the bother?

3. Five hours is already a long time for pupils.

Even were we able to find a ways to increase lesson time in schools without an associated drop in quality it still isn’t clear this would be the right bet to make.

There are logistical and practical considerations.

If schools extend school days later then in the winter it means pupils walking home in the dark. In some areas this might not be a problem but in others it might be. Pupils have different circumstances which would make such a solution acceptable to some but not others in the same class. This could be mitigated by sorting out transport or something else. There is more to do to work this out, and again how easy or difficult this is to do will vary.

Secondly as anyone who’s shadowed a pupil for a whole day knows well five hours is a long time to concentrate properly when lessons are demanding. Simply whacking a session on at the end of each day might well be a game of diminishing returns if pupils are too tired to focus for the last thirty minutes. It is at least worth considering whether increasing staffing in schools and focusing on increasing quality in the lessons they already have would have more of an impact than extending timetables.

Finally we should also consider what increasing instructional time is likely to mean for extra-curricular activities and off site visits, which happen before and after school, at the weekends and during holiday time. The result of increased teaching will inevitably be less of the things many children have missed most about school. This might be a price worth paying but we should all have considered this cost before we go full steam ahead.

There’s much, much more to say about all the things that need to be worked out but this is already a lengthy post so I’ll stop.

To be clear I’m not trying to say I think extending school hours is wrong. It is an idea – among others – worth exploring.

But – politicians and ‘commentators’ please take note – shouting at schools to teach for longer is not a plan.

Making a plan requires careful consideration of lots of details by people who know enough to know what these details are. The details are boring and fiddly and annoying but the good news is there are people who know how to do this stuff. They’ve been considering how best to help pupils catch up on what they’ve missed – amongst a lot of other things they have had to think about – since March.

They’re –we’re actually – tired. Those with all the high falutin’ big ideas could really do with us being on side. After all we do want the same thing.

So please stop suggesting or implying that there’s a simple solution to things that are complicated without a proper plan.

It just makes it harder for everyone.

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Less is more.

focus

I don’t think I have ever enjoyed face-to-face teaching as much as I am doing now.

Even with all the social distancing and two metre lines and all the endless wiping down it feels like a dream within a nightmare, or to be a little less dramatic a tiny holiday back to an older, simper life.

Each lesson I am a teacher in front of children just as I have always been. It’s a joy.

There’s an inspiring sense of urgency and importance to it all too; the knowledge that now more than ever this hour counts. Not a second can be wasted. Everything must be organised and sequenced and interesting. Pupils must remember what they have been taught. The curriculum must land – there’s so much to catch up on and so much yet to learn.

But not everything can be taught. We live in a changed world and compromises have had to be made.

In the planning stages this was painful. What should be cut? What should stay? What rationale should be used to make these decisions?

As tough as the process was it was necessary. Trying to teach everything would inevitably mean not teaching anything very well.

And the result of this has been, I think, better teaching on my part. With no slack and a curriculum revised to fit, my lessons have a clearer focus. It’s also been easier to align assessment to content and created space to more intelligently integrate second order concepts within the reduced substantive content, which had made whole units feel tighter and more logically constructed.

On the face of just this it might appear as if I’m celebrating a sort of soulless austerity – the drilling of children on lists of facts. But it isn’t like that at all. Deciding on a spine of core knowledge in advance has freed up time for greater creativity; because I have already decided what I will revisit, reteach and focus pupil practise on, rich hinterland can properly frame core in the way it is supposed to. For example, freed by knowing I won’t be testing pupils directly on the Spanish Armada, I can instead use the gripping story as an illustration of post Martin Luther religious tension in Europe and what it could move countries to do.

Look. I get it.

I should have been doing this brilliantly already and I’m sure better teachers than me have been doing this really well for many years. But I also suspect I’m not the only person who’s ever failed to fully appreciate having more time doesn’t always lead to better learning, or to appreciate this but get overexcited by the size of the treasure chest we can draw on. When we don’t feel urgency it can be very easy to think of everything on our curriculum as essential and to add things to it faster than we remove them. It can result in a bloated curriculum that looks great on paper but isn’t remembered, or at best is remembered very patchily by the children who study it. It can make lessons baggy, diffuse and foggy. 

The result of trying to teach everything can be pupils recalling little.

If we do this without thought we should be neither surprised nor defensive when people claim they were never taught something even when we are certain is present on the curriculum of most schools.

Having something on a curriculum is no guarantee it will be properly learned if there isn’t also a plan to make it stick.

The best sort of idealism is tempered with pragmatism because it recognises its own limitations.

This means making decisions about what we care most about children carrying with them from school, recognising that it is often better to do less well than it is to do lots badly.

A lesson Covid has taught me; a small but satisfying silver lining.

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The Cracks in the Walls

“I don’t understand what happened. The reading went fine but the second I turned round to put a picture up on the screen it all went wrong. They started talking and messing about and didn’t take the next activity seriously at all. I told them off but they just carried on being silly. What’s wrong with them? Why can’t they just be patient for the couple of seconds it takes me to find the Armada portrait on google?”

Less experienced teacher in a post lesson discussion – fictionalised.

Over the years I’ve seen many trainees and inexperienced teachers encounter issues with what I’ve come to think of as ‘cracks in the walls’; points in lessons in which pupils move from one activity to another. This could be a moment when a teacher asks pupils to move their attention away from a piece of reading to a picture displayed on a large screen, or it could be when pupils shift from a questioning session to a part of the lesson in which they are expected to write or to balance some equations.

Less experienced teachers typically don’t spend very much time thinking about these moments, probably because they are so short and seem much less significant than the tasks pupils are expected to do.

But things can go awry in even the tiniest of cracks.

A settled class can quickly become distracted and these distractions breed quickly.

What should be a quick, easy transition can become a source of antagonism and conflict, which then feeds on itself and may develop into a damaging vicious cycle.

Many experienced teachers develop techniques to minimise disruption in these parts of the lesson through trial and error, but then automate these, robbing them of the ability to consciously understand and clearly explain what they do and why.

This post is designed to make a sometimes invisible process a little clearer.

But of course nothing I’m going to include here is really new.

I am indebted to the many teachers I’ve observed deploying these strategies, to those who’ve written about similar issues before, and to Doug Lemov and his team for providing a shared language to discuss this with.

Before moving on to strategies, it is helpful to think about why these transitory moments are actually much more significant than they appear.

For this Nuthall’s Hidden Lives of Learners is very helpful in its exposure of just how much is going on in a class which isn’t seen by their teacher. There’s a really mind-boggling amount of stuff; shifting friendship groups, petty enemies, grievances, friendly social media bants and fallings out. Invitations to sleepovers and parties, hormones and crushes.

And so on.

These things are important to those involved in them. Every second a child is in a classroom they are navigating these sometimes sunny and sometimes troubled oceans, making alliances, jostling for status and brooding on their triumphs, secret fears and desires.

It is hard for children to stay on the line. It is hard to focuson their lesson at all times and every unstructured second allows the possibility of any one or combination of concerns moving attention away from the important but not obviously urgent to the very urgent and  – to children –  very important.

The cruel thing Josh said to Ruksana over Snapchat last night, and what everyone thinks about it is privileged over the water cycle by its immediacy.

A look flashed across a classroom is rarely just a look. A whisper is rarely just a whisper. One word said in less than a second can be a source of joy or a devastating, cutting insult. Each interaction contains layers of meaning.

The moments between activities need to be carefully managed to avoid all this stuff spilling into attention we want focused on Henry VIII’s annulment, or the economy of Ethiopia, or quadratic equations or whatever.

How do we do this?

  1. Plan ahead and be organised.

While no teacher can expect to understand even a fraction of the dynamics in the classes they teach they can minimise opportunities for these to intrude on learning by making sure transitions are fast and clean. It can be as simple as making sure a picture is loaded up ready to flick straight to once you the lesson reaches the point it’s needed. It might mean including line numbers on booklets or worksheets so it’s easy to get children from reading, to a questioning session and then straight back reading without fuss.

While the way in which transitions might be managed are context dependent, the questions to ask are almost always the same; where in the lesson are these points? How does the teacher make sure these are as short as possible? What might go wrong and what contingencies are in place?

Before finishing on this it is worth pointing out the obvious; people are more likely to respond positively to competence. Regularly fiddling around on google in the middle of a lesson can look unprofessional, which has a negative knock on effect.

2. Brighten Lines.

Stop reading this now and have a look at this super post from Lee Donaghy.

Welcome back.

Lee is absolutely right to highlight the importance of Lemov’s Bright Lines.

Discussion around efficient transition is helped by this conceptualisation.

Sometimes it isn’t possible to avoid a lengthier ‘crack’, for example when needing to shift things around in the middle of a practical science demonstration. On such occasions it’s important to make this explicit so pupils know what’s going on, how long it will take and what will happen afterwards. The simplest way is usually just to tell pupils what’s going on – for example, “I’m now going to take thirty seconds to put away this guitar and pick up another one, after that I’m going to show how the chord progression sounds different.” This reduces uncertainty and provides a structure which makes wandering attention less likely.

More experienced teachers might find it possible to clearly talk the whole way through transitions, turning them into learning activities in if themselves. For those who find they aren’t yet at the point they can do this, telling pupils ‘what to do’ during the break might be a better bet

3. Say ‘what to do’ and manage means of participation at the end of transition.

If a transition of more than a few seconds really can’t be avoided it is wise to consider giving pupils something to do during it. It’s surprising how much can fit into even just a minute. In my lessons I use these as opportunities for mini retrieval practice, as in “while these worksheets get handed out I want everyone to write one simple, clear sentence on one way industrialisation was connected to colonisation.”

Saying what not to do never works very well. Saying “and no messing about while I hand these out” doesn’t make it clear what pupils should do while they aren’t messing about, and even more importantly it invites problems for the same reason telling anyone “don’t think about an elephant” always fails.

At the end of a transitory period pupils benefit from being told what exactly they need to do to participate in the lesson. This can be very simple – just saying “now the portrait is on the board I want you to sit up, put down anything in your hands and look carefully at the dress Queen Elizabeth is wearing. I’ll be asking questions about it in a minute’s time.”

If, for whatever reason, avoidable or unavoidable, there has been any disorder or disruption regardless of how supposedly low level then it’s important to address it, even if this is just saying ‘there was talking while I was setting up. I want you to stop now, sit up, listen and face me now.”

So there we have it. Transitory points in lessons; often overlooked in planning, particularly by less experienced teachers but deserving much careful thought. If we aren’t mindful and proactive the best of lesson can fall into these cracks.

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The Sorting Hat.

You can’t revise for the Hogwart’s Sorting Hat ceremony.

The children who go through it know how serious it is and are very afraid of being sorted into the ‘wrong’ house.

Fortunately this does not happen.

The Hat does not make mistakes.

While most of us muggles want to be Gryffindor those in Harry’s world understand that while some might be more glamorous than others each House is of equal value. It’s why revealling Slytherin Snape as the hero of the whole series is so satisfying.

One role of education is to be the Sorting Hat, dividing sheets and goats, separating the Oxbridge set from the Redbrick set, the Redbrick set from the Poly set and the Poly set from those who don’t go to university and so on all the way down to those doomed to zero hours contracts.

This is not inherently A Bad Thing.

Some jobs are more intellectually demanding than others and in an imperfect world exams are probably the least-worst proxy we have for the capacity to learn new things. Nobody wants someone who really struggles with basic comprehension to go into a role that demands advanced comprehension and fast high-stakes, complex decision making. There are direct links in many fields too. A young person without a firm grasp of human biology would likely find themselves at sea in their first year on a medicine course.

But the main purpose of education should not be to be The Sorting Hat.

When it does become the main purpose we run into troubling ethical issues in societies that ascribe value to people according to the status of their employment.

We live in such a society. Most people in the world do. Those who have responsible jobs earn more money. They get to drive flashier cars and live in bigger houses. They get pedigree dogs and second homes in charming villages.

They live ‘better’ lives.

While there is not much schools can do about this it is wrong of them to teach pupils that the reason they should value learning is so that they will do better in exams and so either maintain a privileged position or attain one. It is wrong because success in examinations is not primarily or perhaps even mainly about how hard a child works – there are a wide range of variables many of which are beyond their control. It is wrong because the competitive nature of examinations (and indeed life) makes it impossible for everyone to rise to exalted positions and many of those who won’t rise know they won’t, giving them little reason to play the education game.

It is wrong because by making exam results the point of it all we diminish the value of the lives of those who go on to do jobs that don’t require academic success. We make not doing well at school a moral failing then punished through a lifetime of low status drudgery.

It is wrong because by reducing what pupils learn to mere hoops to jump through we weaken its inherent value, making the content of curriculum seem arbitrary, even random. What does it matter what you learn if it’s forgotten as soon as the last exam paper is handed in? Why bother having intelligent, challenging conversations about the best book to teach or the most interesting urbanisation case study? If you aren’t interested in French why should you have to do it, given you’ll drop it at fourteen and forget everything you learned in Years 7-9 anyway?

Covid19 has turned this old tension into a fracture.

It has been depressing to see how fixated conversation about education has been on making the exam process ‘fair’, with comparatively little attention paid to what shutdown means for the substance of what pupils learn about. Discussion about content, as far as I am aware, seems to have been mainly limited to the small scale furore about Year 11 pupils supposedly not being examined on poetry in 2021, which evoked a sort of savage joy from sections of the public, met with despair from concerned teachers, authors and academics.

This miniature culture war was disturbing and revealing in its illustration of the failure of our education system to convince many of those who have been through it that it was ever more than a means to an end. While I’m sure this has always been an issue the expansion of higher education may, counter-intuitively, worsened this effect with the increasing number of jobs now open only to graduates reinforcing the impression the value of a degree is derived solely from the lack of opportunity for those without one.  

This is something Michael Merrick has been banging on about for a while. As usual for when he’s not wrong, he’s very right.

So what’s the answer? How do we get out of this mess and increase public trust in education?

Firstly I think it important schools stop playing into the hands of the instrumentalists. The sector should not justify its role in language limited to the grades pupils receive in public examinations. Schools tempted to do this in a drive to improve outcomes might reflect on how likely this is to even work on its own terms, given what an exclusive message this is to pupils who think they aren’t capable of results and high falutin’ careers that would make their school proud of them.

Secondly, I think it is essential schools do not present themselves in ways that might be interpreted as elitist.

Elites are utterly alien to those outside them and there are many, many people in many, many communities who do not want to become something other than themselves in order to fit in. This is something Sonia Thompson understands well, explained cleverly in her now deservedly famous ‘backpack’ metaphor. Having considered her work carefully I am sure schools do need to think really carefully about how they are embedded in their communities and alert to the dangers of seeming to exist in rarefied air above them.

When schools present themselves as bridges to a different sort of life they are making the assumption all children want to cross the river. Often this isn’t true.

Finally, and I realise this is something that goes beyond the gift of schools, we must work harder at not ascribing worth and importance to status.

Doing this makes knowledge fundamentally undemocratic. It makes it the preserve of people who are ‘clever’ and ‘posh’. It makes the idea of an unqualified care worker reading poetry at the end of his shift seem ridiculous when it should be beautiful and inspiring. It leaves little room for night school, or the old style Open University, or going to the library to borrow nature books to learn about the birds in your garden.

We must do better than this.

We have been shown how integral our cleaners, carers, drivers and shelf-stackers are. We have been taught how we much we depend on them. We have been made to recognise their worth. There are children in all our schools who will grow up to do these jobs. They are entitled to better pay, conditions and respect, and they are also entitled to an education that’s not made meaningless by the failure of exams.

Let’s make education more than the Sorting Hat.

All of us wherever we find ourselves are entitled to much better than this.

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New dawn, new opportunites

 

asphalt dark dawn endless

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Years ago while teaching in an international school I worked with a talented American teacher dumbfounded by the timetable he was given on his first day.

“I’ve got five year groups on this!” He said. “How can I plan for five grades?”

He told me all about it. I learned in his school in the US, teachers were assigned to only one year group. They taught all the classes in their subject to the whole year. The model made a lot of sense; curriculum range was reduced, which meant teachers had more time to adapt teaching to the needs of the class; they quickly became an expert in the year’s curriculum; they were able to have really productive meetings with their ‘grade team’; pastoral issues were better known and understood; there was a strong sense of esprit de corps.

This is not to say the model was perfect. There are lots of advantages to the sort of curriculum arrangements more common in English schools too, and in time my maths teacher friend came to grudgingly recognise these. But the point is that doing things differently to how we traditionally do them, even when changes are forced upon us, doesn’t mean things will definitely be worse.

Some things may actually work better.

There has and will be a lot of change. Secondary schools are working in year group bubbles with teachers assigned to these. There will be less movement around sites. Familiar teaching techniques have had to be reconsidered, revised and refined. Start times, breaks, lunches and the end of the day are staggered. Curriculum has been adjusted to make sure what is taught is absolutely the most important knowledge pupils need to know. Plans are in place for distance learning if and when local conditions necessitate changes to practice.

Conversely, there may also be things we used to do but now we can’t that we find we lose nothing by never doing again. As we shed bureaucratic chaff we may find new efficiencies.

We have already seen improvements as a result of these changes. Work on remote learning means almost all schools should already be better at setting and monitoring homework than they have been in the past. Many teachers and schools are finding Teams and Zoom more productive than face-to-face meetings were.

All change, even when it is for the best, is stressful. Cognitive load will be high, and if we aren’t careful this could blind us to more effective ways of working. We should not assume that there aren’t things schools will actually do better as a result of the alterations they have made.

And, even if nothing else, seeing our news ways of working as opportunities to learn from rather than annoying inconveniences is just nicer.

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