Give me the child for the first seven years…

I sometimes wonder what would happen if we could provide hard scientific answers to the question of what works best in education. Having spent most of my career on the receiving end of a steady stream of progressive ideology, I find myself asking what would be the consequences of its being possible to prove that this does actually harm children’s prospects.  Would there be a sudden U-turn?

Having witnessed, earlier this year, the results of a pupil survey that showed unequivocally that they distrust peer assessment – and the subsequent instruction that therefore we need to do more of it “in order to show the children why it is valuable” – I somehow doubt it. In fairness, I equally doubt that many traditionalists would abandon their ideas either, were they shown to be flawed.

I persist in my doubt that there will ever be hard answers, so perhaps ideologues need not worry too much, but recent events have got me thinking about another, perhaps more easily identified matter, namely learned behaviours, and the degree to which these do or do not support the learning process.

In particular, this is about the effectiveness with which one phase of education prepares children for the demands of the next. I have kept an open mind about the primary sector, because I have little direct experience of it, and because I know how essential its work is. But following the blog of Quirky Teacher in recent weeks, I have encountered some controversial views from a mature entrant to primary education and this has sown some doubts over its efficacy. While the long-term effects of learning are invisible, it is easy enough to observe how pupils fare with the increasing demands placed on them as they age.

My brushes with the primary sector have not filled me with confidence. Some time ago, I attended a Healthy Schools seminar dominated by primary teachers; I came away incredulous. The majority were young and female (I mention this purely in the light of Quirky Teacher’s comments about the over-feminisation of the primary sector). Much of their attention seemed to revolve around voracious careerism, various gossip and scandal. Not much specifically about teaching young children…

This was of course one isolated instance – but other experiences, including having a similarly-minded primary teacher as a near neighbour for many years, hardly dispelled the impression. I do wonder whether rampant careerism is really compatible with the core priorities of establishing key cognitive abilities in young children.

Equally, I sympathise with Quirky Teacher’s reservations about teachers (at all levels) who claim to ‘love children’. To me, this speaks of a level of emotional involvement incompatible with the role of a professional; we are not their parents. Certainly, the word may be used loosely, but that in itself raises questions about professionalism – and it also ignores the many other reasons for going into teaching. We do need compassion – but love?

This implies an emotional involvement that may prejudice the more detached work we have to do with them. Such focus risks cuddly indulgence, a narrow focus on the current state of a child’s being rather than where he or she is going next, and perhaps a reluctance to create situations that cause short term ‘pain’ in the interests of long-term gain. While it is hardly contestable that children entering the education system for the first time need a caring transition from the home environment, our job as teachers is gradually to wean them from this and induct them into the wider world. By the end of primary education, children should be equipped with the skills and attitudes needed to cope with the greater demands of secondary school.  Indeed, my own memories centre on groups gradually giving way to formal teaching and lines of desks.

I am not convinced that this is widely happening. Before I am accused of being over-critical of primaries, secondary schools make it worse by falling over themselves to smooth that transition; I would rather that children arrived in Year 7 being – yes – slightly apprehensive about what they will encounter. I think they should be a little in awe of the teachers, and we should not discourage this.

In secondary school, the problem is extended by treating educational ‘outcomes’ as being the end of secondary schooling with its attendant exam results; we need to question whether we are really using Key Stage Three to prepare pupils for Key Stages Four and Five – and whether we are really equipping older pupils with what they will need after school.

My recent lower school teaching has been heavily loaded with less able classes. I resolved to continue with my broadly traditional approach, and this initially created some low-level behavioural issues from children who appeared unused to it. Nonetheless, I established good relationships with the majority, even those who sometimes fell foul of my expectations. In particular, the issue of inappropriate talking arose; it seems to me that many children no longer have the self-discipline to know when it is inappropriate to talk; even with a very firm hand, self-restraint does not come easily. Delving into this suggests that they don’t understand what they are doing wrong, or that they need to modify their behaviours to others’ expectations. A lot of children transgress not through deliberate naughtiness but through learned bad habits – at which point we need to ask where they learned them…

The expectation appears to be that school is about fun (that word again) and not formal learning – hence the grumbling about being formally taught – and given that this started in Year 7, this message may have come from primary school. By the time they arrive in secondary school, it is harder to change the expectation, even though their book work has improved…

Confronting my Year 10 G.C.S.E. class this week about a very mixed set of exam results, the confession gradually emerged about how little revision many had done; despite clear advice, most seemed to think that a few hours just before the exam were enough to master a content-heavy subject like geography. I deployed the thinking of Robert Bjork and David Didau – the necessity for spaced learning, desirable difficulties and the rest. There was silence… and then one voice muttered, ”But that means we have so much work to do…”

Why exactly are able students, with much to gain from the educational system, who overwhelmingly come from comfortable home backgrounds, baulking so greatly at the need to work hard? And this in an outstanding school? Why is it that many of them have found the workload at Key Stage Four difficult?

I suggest there are many reasons. Wider lives have to play a part: many of these children want for nothing, and are used to being indulged by wealthy parents; they lack the hunger for self-improvement that often feeds educational effort as much as they lack clear boundaries. Schools may have fuelled this by providing extra support to get them through the exams; learned helplessness has become an epidemic. I have frequently challenged pupils up to sixth form age about this: they admit that the more we do for them, the less they do for themselves – and consequently know how to. On the other hand, maybe we need to consider the possibility that too much pressure has been applied through testing, and we are turning children off learning. Can both even exist together?

It is possible that the focus of Key Stage Three teaching, often informed by primary school techniques, is preparing pupils insufficiently for the greater intellectual demands to come – and it is also possible that over-loving primary schools are too focussed on naturalistic readings of early childhood to establish the key expectations of self-discipline and cognitive focus at that critical stage – apart from cramming for KS2 tests, that is. By the time children arrive in secondary school, it is nearly too late; many of the issues I deal with seem rooted in their earlier years.

While there is not much we can do about the wider societal issues, I think the time is overdue for the education sector as a whole to have a lengthy discussion about the totality of how we prepare children for their futures.

Locked in my own head

When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do sir,? J.M. Keynes

In my last post, I observed that if we are expecting the blogosphere (one day) to deliver answers by way of improving education, I think we are going to be disappointed. In many ways, it is a fantastic device for professional discourse, and it has enriched my own professional experience very greatly, causing me to consider many issues and outlooks that I might not otherwise have encountered.

But the operative word is ‘consider’ – for ultimately the benchmark by which I evaluate what I encounter is always my own prior understanding of learning. Nothing that I have yet seen has carried sufficient objective robustness to demolish those preconceptions to the extent that a total rethink has proved necessary.

There are those who would probably argue that this is just evidence of my fixed mindset – or at least inflexibility. Those of a scientific bent might well argue that my own preconceptions simply should not come into it: what we should be looking for are scientific truths about what works in education, and if the weight of evidence is against me, then I should change my views. All well and good – but just where is the evidence that does carry that level of confidence? I’m still waiting…

I am not going to say that people are wrong to seek greater rigour in education – but I think that the attempt to build a generalised definition of good practice risks diverting us from the place we really need to be looking. Even the most dispassionate of scientists amongst us cannot escape the realities of the educational world: when we deal with (young) people, we are operating in the social and human domain, for which scientific approaches may just prove too technically precise; those soppy soft skills may actually be better. As my afternoon lesson today showed all too well, there are times when trying to be efficiently scientific in the way one deals with a situation simply do not produce the expected results….

While it may be perfectly possible to share good practice when it comes to class management, this is not at all the same as the cognitive process that is Learning. They may be related in the school setting but the former is a logistical exercise in people-management that comes about simply because society chooses to educate its young in groups where their collective behavioural dynamic needs to be steered. The latter, by contrast, is an invisible cerebral process that takes place solely within the brain of the individual, even though it is of course capable of outward expression. Much of the discussion of what constitutes good or successful teaching risks conflating these two elements.

It is a simple existential truth that at one level, each of us is locked inside our own head. For all that we can communicate with each other, each person’s experience of this world is entirely unique to them and not directly sharable with any other. Therefore the only kind of learning  of which we can gain any direct experience is our own. Even that is not easy, because the process can elude even the individual concerned, with the fact that learning did take place (possibly in a highly convoluted way) only becoming apparent in hindsight. So how much more difficult is it to make confident assertions about what or how others have learned, when we have not the slightest ability to know what really goes on in their heads?

I suspect that this is why educational discussion largely remains mired in a mass of anecdote, subjectivity and emotional (over?) reaction  – mine included. The inescapable fact is that the reference base-line is our own knowledge and experience of what it means to learn, as experienced by us and us alone. And why not? This is the only reasonably tangible experience we actually have to go on. Therefore, when we read something that brings new information, the prime reality-check is whether it fits with our own experiences or not; it may also explain the depth of feeling that debates on these issues often generate. A discussion of teaching and learning cannot help but be a discussion of our own core values and life-experiences – and who is going to dare to stand up and judge who is ‘right’ and who not on matters such as those?

I think this issue does, however, have more than philosophical implications. It means that if we want to understand the nature of learning, we perhaps need to spend less time in conferences and webinars and more time looking inwards at our own experiences as successful learners. The best thing to do to ensure that you do not go stale as a teacher is simply to keep learning yourself – and then taking the time to reflect as rationally as possible on what that process means.

To my mind, learning is not some kind of rarefied and elusive thing – it is the most natural, even common thing that the brain can do – arguably its raison d’etre. A life spent playing computer games or at the roulette table will not be devoid of learning; nor will a life spent in the company of criminals. This is not to say, of course, that all types of learning are equally useful or socially desirable – and I would suggest that some forms of activity are more learning-dense than others. But be that as it may, one of the most important things we can do as teachers is to reflect on our own experiences, and then to replicate them (possibly in modified form) in a way that will help others to follow the same path.

The implication of this is that one’s classroom style is probably inseparable from one’s own psyche and outlook; it may have consequences for the success that different teachers have with different pupils, and perhaps the way that such matches are made. But I would suggest that it is simply impossible to separate any individual from the way their own brain works. It is impossible fundamentally to think in any way other than your own – though this need not mean that one’s thinking is incapable of evolution over time. The trick is to understand how that happens.

The logical conclusion is that we need to accept that teachers are what they are when it comes to their teaching style; while we may reasonably make judgments about their effectiveness with respect to the various proxies we use for learning, people can only really teach in the way they do. It also means that, in the interests of fairness and accuracy, we need to be very wary of the limitations of those proxies in judging the real effect of a teacher on his or her pupils.

It means that any attempt to define ‘better’ and worse’ ways of teaching is a futile exercise, partly because there are just too many to categorise usefully – and partly because learning itself is so diverse and personal a process that it is impossible to judge what works and what doesn’t in any universal sense.

Finally, this might also allow us to achieve a degree of peace in the ever-churning cauldron of conscience regarding what we ’ought to do’, and how we justify it. There will be as many acceptable answers as there are reflective practitioners. My conclusions that traditional methods work best (for me – and hopefully my pupils) derive purely from my own experience, and there is little that can match that experience when it comes to individual decision-making.

In my case, my continuous learning has been in the fields of my musical and model-making activities (and much reading), all of which are learning-dense and where I constantly put myself in the shoes of the learner. For example, when I started learning the violin several years ago, I took online lessons which I followed roughly weekly – with associated practice. While I did have some useful prior experience (the mandolin shares a lot with the violin), there is no doubt in my  mind that progress was most rapid and focused when I was being shown precisely what to do, and given exercises to allow me repeatedly to imitate and develop. There were aspects of technique that I simply would have not discovered – at least nowhere near as quickly and accurately as by being shown them by an expert.

In recent years, I have stopped the lessons, and have allowed my ‘learning’ to be more serendipitous and self-guided. The result is that I have made nowhere near as much progress as I was doing under tuition; I have fallen into some bad habits and have probably not developed the degree of further proficiency that might have been expected. While learning through ‘idle play’ is less pressurised and in some ways more pleasurable, it is simply not delivering the results of a more formal programme – despite the fact that I do now have a degree of proficiency that I can bring to bear on the matter.

I am certainly not going to claim that this is cast-iron proof that direct instruction always works best, although I have had a couple of other recent experiences where ‘guide on the side’ style teaching has simply left me feeling I had never got to grips with the nuts-and-bolts of the topic we were supposedly studying.

According to my own logic, there will be as many answers to this question as there are people asking it – but I would suggest that I really don’t need much more evidence or justification for why I hold the views I do, and why I teach the way I do. It is also why attempts to create consensus about what is great teaching (whether online or elsewhere) stand about as much chance of success as those of defining great Art.

While we do have a responsibility to consider the individual needs of our students, I think it is perhaps unrealistic to expect teachers to operate in ways that make no personal sense to them, any more than we do artists. And we need to accept that this is all the justification that can, or needs to be given.


There’s a girl who sits in one of my classes – and has done for a couple of years – who says almost nothing. She works hard, indeed is one of the best in the class, but I can’t get her to say much at all. Even direct questions elicit only the shortest of replies, albeit clearly and confidently given.

She’s by no means the only one I’ve known over the years, and I’ve always worried that I was in some way failing those pupils by not drawing them further into the class activities. This has been reinforced by professional wisdom that one should draw out such people because introversion, quietness even, is it seems, a weakness that needs tackling.

There’s an interesting link on the Huffington Post to an article that has made me think again. While it may be true that quietness can result in your being overlooked, it should not mean that being outgoing is necessarily ‘better’. That’s simply a social value-judgement dictated by – well yes, the Group.

Kate Bartolotta’s article makes the point that introversion is not, for a start, the same as shyness. It simply means that some people draw inwardly for their strength, rather than on that of a group. It may also imply a greater sense of independence and resourcefulness, and more confidence simply to be themselves. The skills they develop may be at least as useful as those of extroverts, though as Bartolotta says, society tends to value extroverts more. I am thinking about the preconceptions of those conducting a million job interviews for a start…

There’s a link to an informal test on the Huffington page, which I took and came out as fairly introverted. No surprise there.  It’s worth doing, as the questions clearly point up the advantages of being more inwardly-focused. But my students would never call me shy; I can certainly act the life-and-soul in their lessons – though they do seem to recognise and apparently value my reflective disposition. (It did however take me some years initially to gain full classroom confidence – partly, perhaps, because I was trying to conform to extrovert expectations).

Despite that, it is extrovert qualities that are apparently prized in a modern teacher – outgoing, ‘fun’, energetic, the visibly busy team-player, up for all the end-of-term daftness. Introverts, it seems, are less wanted, even though those reflective qualities might suggest they could cultivate students’ similar aptitudes more effectively than someone who is always bouncing energetically but perhaps superficially round the classroom. Even class control is largely seen as an extrovert matter; on that front, years ago I found much more success when I stopped trying to be outwardly ‘strict’ and started developing a quieter form of authority.

Bartolotta also observes that forcing people into dispositions that they don’t feel comfortable with can be distressing for them. So, as a fellow introvert, maybe I’ll stop worrying so much about the girl in my class and just let her be; after all, she is clearly learning well, and there are plenty of roles  for which quiet people are suited.

Maybe she, and the others like her, could actually do with a few more introvert teachers…