Nature abhors a vacuum

Nature abhors a vacuum. Human nature abhors a power vacuum.

Idealistic teachers often propose a classroom set up where co-operation reigns over command and control. Whilst lovely in theory, in practice we end up with more of a dystopia than utopia.

A teacher’s decision not to assert their authority won’t result in a classroom of equals. There will be a leader. It just won’t be the adult.

Instead, it will be your most bolshy pupil.

It’s true of adults, too. Think of any group you’ve worked in. Everyone hates being over-managed. But a vacuum of leadership is worse. It sounds seductive, not being told what to do. But even in a group of well-intentioned, motivated adults, the frustrations of decision making by committee soon lead to collapse – unless, of course, a natural, unofficial leader emerges. Lack of certainty is uncomfortable, unsafe and unenjoyable.

So it’s no wonder it’s a calamity when applied to a group of children with less maturity, more competing motivations, and a more acute sense of peer approval.

Humans intrinsically seek belonging and will impress whomever necessary to make that a reality. Make that the most fearsome member of year 9 set 3, and the results are predictable.

Being a leader, telling children what to do, and keeping clear, tight boundaries is the kindest thing to do. It keeps our children safe and allows them to learn. Us teachers should never feel we have to apologise for being the one calling the shots. Anything else is an abdication of our responsibility to keep our children safe, happy, and learning.

Going postal about posters

Posters lessons. We’ve all done them. Maybe we were naive NQTs, who believed it really would be a great way for 7 set 4 to synthesise their understanding of the formation of ox-bow lakes. Maybe we were exhausted, the week before Christmas, sleep-deprived to the point of torture, and thought it would tide us over. Maybe it was coming up to the summer holidays, and all the key stage co-ordinator had written on the departmental Schemes of Work was “group work on fireworks”. Maybe Open Evening was coming up, and the yellowing displays needed replacing. Maybe we were taking our tricky year 9 form for PSHE, on a topic we knew little about and felt uncomfortable with; when we’d raised it with the Head of Year, all she’d said was that the other forms were availing themselves of the sugar paper.

Fine. I’ve been there. You’ve been there. But let’s be honest: a poster lesson is a desperate measure, not a rigorous first-class education.

There’s been quite the kerfuffle over Tom Bennett’s reasoned, measured comments about the value of certain lesson activities. Tom was very diplomatic, caveating his assertions carefully with the word “some”. I think he doesn’t go far enough. I don’t think posters are ever an effective use of lesson time. The exception, perhaps, would be graphic design, where the poster can be the point. As IndieP tweeted, “If you want to teach ‘making a poster’, teach it. If you want to teach ‘history’, teach that instead.”

The additional fripperies of poster making merely distract from a learning objective to acquire, practice or memorise knowledge. Thinking about layout and visual appeal takes up precious mental space that should be wholly focused on the subject matter.

A poster on the causes of World War I cannot possibly induce more learning than the same content written in an exercise book. The difference is that the poster will inevitably take much longer; it is much less time efficient. Wasting our pupils’ time is an insult to their futures, their intellect and their dreams.

And that’s assuming the poster is taken as seriously by pupil and by teacher – which, let’s be honest – it rarely is. Often, the less conscientious pupils won’t take the task seriously; the more conscientious will take it seriously, but entirely the wrong things. The bubble writing of the title will be immaculate; the speech bubbles coming from the cartoon Napolean’s mouth perfectly formed; Homebase could turn the border design into a wallpaper pattern. Work is rarely assessed beyond a tick and “2 house points” for the neatest girls’ work. After all, if it’s for display, you can’t sully it with ugly red pen. And if it’s the end of term, marking is as likely as eating your 12 boxes of Ferrero Roche in moderation.

Teaching is a noble, honourable profession… when we’re actually teaching. We are so much better than sugar paper and felt tips.

Don’t mind the gap

How many digits of pi can you remember, Layla?

Only twenty, Miss.

Layla sees nothing extraordinary about the fact she remembers four times more digits of pi than her maths teacher. Not when her classmates can remember 40, 50, 60… hundreds digits of pi*. Not that she’s upset about it, mind. She knows that a fortnight ago, the most anyone in her class knew was three digits. She knows that the reason for the difference now is sheer hard work.

How is it possible for a 12-year-old child in an inner-city comprehensive to see knowing 20 digits of pi as unremarkable? By not minding the gap. In fact, we encouraged the gap through competition. Two weeks ago, the gap between the best and worst in the school at reciting pi was three: between those who had no clue, and those who knew 3.14. Now, the gap is in the hundreds.

In absolute terms, the achievement and progress has been excellent. Pupils, including the weakest, reel off scores of digits. In relative terms, it’s a disaster. Layla can say twenty, but Aliyah can recite 160: an eight-fold difference. In relative terms, we were better off a fortnight ago, when the difference was a mere handful of digits.

“Closing the gap”: a well intentioned policy, but one that worries me. I worry about its effect on our Aliyahs; that it encourages us to rein in their potential artificially. But I also worry about our Laylas.

When we focus on closing the gap, our implicit messages are toxic. We imply that there’s only so much we can expect; that there’s a cap on what’s reasonable to achieve. Our monitoring and scrutiny doesn’t leave room for pupils to go off and propel themselves, independently, beyond what our limited imaginations can fathom for them. Round-the-clock interventions for those struggling, while the top end go off and revise on their own, induces a learned helplessness; a sense that work can’t be done without a teacher holding their hand. The intensity of the teachers’ attention implies to the children that their teachers are responsible for their grades, not them. Pupils may even come to recognise that the less they do, the more the teachers worry, and the more the teachers do for them. Pupils are not allowed to fail, and thus gain no experience of the link between laziness and failure; the link between hard work and success.

In fact, I’d posit that if your gap is narrowing, you’re doing something wrong. The Matthew effect states that with the same inputs, the knowledge-rich will get richer more quickly. My experience is that the top end will accumulate knowledge more quickly even if given a fraction of the input of the bottom end.

We should not be concentrating on “closing the gap”. An obsession with relative under-performance doesn’t just harm the top, but also the weakest we are trying to help.

Encourage competition. Encourage every pupil to do their best. It won’t close the gap. It will widen it. In relative terms, it will be a disaster. In absolute terms, it will be a triumph.

 

*A note on pi: this was an optional competition, a bit of fun for pi day; pupils learnt pi of their own accord outside of maths lessons. I don’t think learning pi is maths, but it was great at creating a buzz!

What’s the point of knowledge if you don’t use it?

Production. Outcome. A result. Project-based learning seems intently focused on this. Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence has a lot going for it: its attention to disciplined, persistent work is admirable, but it, too, falls into this trap. Learning is only seen as valuable if something is done with it.

In a similar vein, Debra Kidd said of School 21:

What is the point of learning if no-one hears you? What is the point of academic success if you can’t interview successfully? What is the point of knowledge if you don’t use it to change the world?

This view of learning just doesn’t resonate for me. There is intrinsic value in learning: in making your mind a more interesting place to be; in the wonder and awe that new information can bring. We may be unlikely to use, in a practical sense, much of what we learnt in school, at university and in life, but I certainly feel privileged to know it. Why do David Attenborough documentaries get so many viewers? Why do long reads get millions of clicks? Why do books still sell in an age of Kim Kardashian apps and Candy Crush? Because learning is wonderful, whether or not it is shared or used.

As for interview skills, my mind is immediately drawn to my first week of university, at the matriculation dinner. By the third course, the computer science students had ceased engaging in conversation and broken out their laptops. A lot of them would be the first to concede they would not interview well (how do you know a computer scientist’s an extrovert? They look at YOUR shoes when they’re talking.). But that damned well did not render their academic success pointless.

It’s not just ivory towered academics who benefit from knowledge in the absence of interview skills. A plumber probably won’t need to know much Shakespeare on the job, but knowing which plays he wrote and some of the fabulous lines would mean he feels just as entitled to go and see a play at The Globe as anyone else – and why not? The works of the Bard are worth knowing because of their greatness, regardless of whether you use them for practical purposes.

Corporations will inevitably concentrate on production and utility: I expect the CBI will be grumbling about skills for work on the Today programme every few months until I retire. But we teachers need not fall into that trap. We can recognise and celebrate all knowledge: the useful and the useless, the easily accessed and the esoteric, the applicable and the arcane.

Knowledge is an inherent good. Let’s stop obsessing over what we can produce with it, and simply laud learning in its purest form.

I could care less: detentions for pens

Pen (n) an instrument for writing or drawing with ink, typically consisting of a metal nib or ball, or a nylon tip, fitted into a metal or plastic holder.

Who knew so many tweets could be generated by such an inoffensive item?

It all began with my disagreement with this tweet:

140 characters were certainly not enough to explain my stance. So here are 4000 more.

High standards, high support

Have you noticed how no one uses the phrase “false dichotomy” anymore? Edu-twitter debate tropes have moved on since 2013.

Nonetheless, I’ve been breaking out the well-worn phrase a lot over the past couple of days. Retro.

Some common responses were:

“A conversation is better than a detention”

“Supporting the pupil with their organisation is better than a detention”

“Giving the pupil a pen is better than a detention”

“School-wide systems to provide equipment are better than detentions”

You can give detentions and still do all of the above. I know that – because that’s what we do at Michaela.

We have sincere conversations explaining our standards, upfront at the beginning of year 7 and constantly reiterated. Staff devote hours and hours to improving motivation and changing mindsets through one-on-one chats.

Struggling pupils have daily check-ins and check-outs from a City Year mentor to get them into good habits regarding attendance, punctuality, homework and equipment.

If a pupil turns up a lesson without a pen, we give them a damn pen and get on with learning.

Our school shop is open every morning before registration for pupils to restock on equipment they need.

We have high standards, but we also have high support.

Nudging, signalling

Fine, but can’t you just have the support without the detentions?

No.

A detention is a slightly unpleasant half-hour experience. It’s enough to give pupils that nudge to check their equipment the night before. Pupils aren’t especially bad or lazy, but they are human. As a human being, we don’t enjoy unnecessary effort. A detention tips the balance in favour of sorting your pencil case out.

Detentions also signal that we say what we mean, and mean what we say. Our words (that it’s important to be prepared) are backed up with something that shows we really do prioritise it. Unless you have a completely consequence-free discipline system, what you sanction matters. It tells pupils what you really care about. It speaks far more loudly than words could.

The whys and wherefores

Still, why do we care about them bringing pens?

A school has to make a choice about what they provide and what the kids sort out. Calculators in maths are a classic example. In some schools, there are class sets. In others, the pupils bring their own. It would be absurd to sanction a pupil for not bringing a calculator in a system where they are provided. So sure, at Michaela we could all provide pens and avoid the whole detentions-for-equipment thing altogether.

Why don’t we?

Firstly, just doing what’s always done, I suppose. I’ve never known a secondary school where pens are provided for pupils. When we were setting up, it’s not something that was ever questioned.

Secondly, minimising faff. When pupils are moving about from classroom to classroom, making sure pens don’t go walkies, replacing them when they’re broken, and so on is more hassle than it’s worth.

Thirdly, pupils are more likely to look after and value something they own than something that’s a public good. Again, not because they’re bad, but because they’re human: the tragedy of the commons is not the preserve of inner city teens.

Fourthly, it sends a message about personal responsibility. We won’t sort everything out for them all the time.

Fifthly, it’s a gentle introduction to good habits of organisation that will prove most useful in life.

Care is a doing word

We show we care about our pupils through our actions. I’m giving a detention for a pen because I care. Maybe that’s a different choice from yours – but it’s still driven by wanting the very, very best for those I teach.

I give a detention because it doesn’t stop me from providing support. I give a detention because it encourages pupils to make the right choice. I give a detention because I think having a pen is important. I give a detention because I care.

 

 

 

What do you want to get out of twitter?

What do you want to get out of twitter?

Do you want to self-promote? Do you want others to congratulate you when things are good and commiserate when things are tough?

Do you want to be intellectually stimulated and challenged? Do you want to debate and pull apart your ideas? Do you want to be forced to defend your stance so you question things more closely?

If you want to do the former, the strategies suggested by Sue Cowley and Teacher Toolkit make perfect sense. Mute, block, ignore. (Everyone does this a little: you tire of engaging with a certain line of debate or individual and stop responding.)

But I believe you are missing out on a massively beneficial side of twitter if you do so as a general policy. You’re missing out on the chance to develop your thinking.

What I’d like to challenge, though, is the perception that people who engage in robust and forthright debate care less. They (we?) are often painted as uncaring and emotionless. That’s simply not true.

You do not have a monopoly on emotion simply because you choose to ignore or react badly to forthright discussion.

I have emotional responses to tone that feels off. I have my fair share of mental health issues. I have received tweets where my instinctual reaction was one of anger, or sadness, or frustration.

But I know that’s just an emotion. I can control my reaction to it. I can control my thoughts stemming from it. I can certainly control the actions I take – including what tweet I send in response.

I think it’s a real shame if your choice of action is to block, or to respond emotionally rather than engaging in the substance of the argument. I think it’s a shame if your choice of thoughts is the least charitable interpretation (“that person doesn’t care about children” rather than “I wonder what’s led them to think that”). I think you’re likely to learn less and grow less.

But. As I said. Your choice.

On balance bikes and stabilisers: how we should support and scaffold

You’re teaching a toddler to ride a bike.

You don’t want to stick them on a bicycle straight away. That would be an injurious, bloody, tear-filled, failure. You want to give them a little extra support.

You go to the bike shop. A spotty teenager tells you that you have two options: a balance bike, or stabilisers.

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You may not think it matters. Both seem similar: both keep the child upright, moving along, in a way they couldn’t on a regular bike. Your choice has big implications.

Give stabilisers, and you get something that looks more like a real bike. But the stabilisers are doing the hard work of balancing for the kid. Yes, it gives a child a chance to practice some steering, and it’s nice for them to be able to keep up with others who can already ride, but the whole time they’re riding with stabilisers, they’re missing out on practice of the core element of bike riding: staying upright by balancing.

A balance bike, on the other hand, specifically hones in on that crucial skill. It makes them work harder, concentrate more on, hone in on that one critical element of bike riding. It’s all about the balance.

So in fact, stabilisers and balance bikes are polar opposites: one removes the balancing aspect altogether, and one takes the balancing aspect and puts it centre stage.

The nature of the support, scaffolding and differentiation we give can be like stabilisers or like a balance bike. It can either remove the most crucial, central tricky part of our subject from the task, or put it centre stage.

It can be difficult to tell the difference on a surface level. It can be impossible to tell based on the work produced. One needs to think about the long term implications. We remember what we think about. Is your scaffold encouraging or discouraging thinking about the core subject content?

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“Stabiliser help” helps pupils by allowing them not to think about the hard stuff. A literacy mat that gives them the answer to whether it’s “they’re” or “their”, so they never have to figure it out for themselves. A times table grid poster up in class, so the pupils can outsource their knowledge of basic number facts and never have to automate them. Cloze sentences so tightly controlled that it becomes an exercise in “pick the adjective” rather than construction of an argument.

“Balance bike help” makes things more accessible, but in the opposite way to stabilisers. It concentrates on that core bit of thinking that is key for ultimate success. It might be spending a whole lesson on a sentence. Going back three steps to concentrate on the underpinning knowledge they’re missing. Giving mnemonics that cue deeper domain content.

The key questions need to be:

1. What do my pupils need to be thinking about to master this content?

2. Does my scaffold mean they concentrate on that thinking, or does it do that thinking for them?

Balance bike tasks might seem less impressive than a stabiliser task. Short term, the evidence from observations and book looks might be more favourable to stabiliser tasks. This is the problem with focusing on performance versus learning. Long term, it’s balance bikes that’ll lead to success on the real thing. Let’s throw the stabilisers away.