Persistently exhausted

As any parent of young children will know, the effects of sleep deprivation, or even sleep interruption, are debilitating. At best, the mind is fuzzy. What’s normally done with ease or with little thought, takes extra time and needs to be completed deliberately, consciously:

Leave house. Get in car. Keys in ignition. Check mirrors. Stop. Forgotten to put shoes on. Back to house.

As well as making mundane tasks preposterously complex, lack of sleep severely diminishes intellectual power and the process of learning. It’s incredibly hard to concentrate and to remain alert.

Clear communication fades into a blur of half-formed words and mumbled sentences. Any chance of using reason or persuasion is nullified by the overwhelming desire to curl up and sleep (or weep). Writing, particularly writing with clarity, becomes unimaginably difficult as the rhythmic flow is replaced by a murk and a fug that obscures intended meanings.

The absence of sufficient sleep also hinders the process of ‘storing’ or consolidating learning as memory. Without the necessary winks each night, not only will it be hard to learn the next day but, the chances are, much of what was learnt will be forgotten or become jumbled, harder to retrieve when needed. Sleep oils the pathways of memory and, without it, recall becomes laboured or confused.

What must it be like if you are a child coming to school in such a state – exhausted and ill-prepared for the day ahead? No matter how much planning and preparation, a teacher faced with an exhausted child is doomed to fail. The real problem arises when the one-off, the staying up late because of a party or the missed bedtime because of a protracted journey home, becomes routine.

For some, bedtime routines – the dull but necessary habits of getting child up the stairs, washed, pyjama-ed and calm – can be slack and chaotic. TVs blare and consoles click, long past suitable hours. For others, the grim reality of over-crowding mean peace and quiet are hard to find.

It’s hard to say how many, but a significant proportion of children in my school are what should be called ‘persistently exhausted’. You can see them the next day; bleary-eyed, yawning, disruptive, upset. They’re the ones that are falling behind.

My hunch is that exhaustion is as big a problem as absenteeism and, over time, has a similar impact on learning and life chances. What to do, though? Solutions are hard to find, that’s for sure.

I’m trying to think. Problem is, I’m beat – I was up all night with the kids.

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We need a bit more smoke before we start a fire

The case for the prosecution looks flimsy, based on rumour and a juggernaut of twitter-driven opinion, but Micheal Gove is being castigated for ditching American classics from the GCSE English syllabus and narrowing the canon to include authors primarily described as ‘English’ or ‘British’ (terms, interestingly, which are often used interchangeably in this debate).

So out go Lee and Steinbeck and Miller, to be replaced by more Dickens, Shakespeare and a smattering of modern British books. At least, that’s what’s supposed to be happening. No-one has actually seen the exam board lists and nor will they until they are published during the course of this week.

If they do contain more British authors, at the expense of classic texts from other countries, then, as yet, there is little evidence that this was done under the direction of Micheal Gove. All we have is a somewhat pitiful assertion from a man at OCR that the Education Secretary ‘doesn’t like Of Mice and Men’. Should the exam boards have folded under such minimal pressure then much of the internet ire should be directed at the exam bodies, not just the man at the top.

More pointedly, of course, it’s clear that nothing will be banned. Schools are free to study whatever texts they choose, albeit over and above the books that will be included as part of the exam (admittedly, demands on curriculum time, and the realities of preparing children to pass their GCSEs, will of course limit the breadth of study).

All this said, a reduction of the vastness of English literature to fit within the confines of a nation state is so self-evidently ludicrous that it should be resisted with all the fire and energy the education and academic community can generate. How dim-witted would it be to dismiss the qualities of a book, written in English, on the grounds of where the author was born?

However, to start the fire we need to see a bit more smoke. Let’s wait, at least, until we have seen the lists.

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Filed under Curriculum, Michael Gove

Leave the kids alone

There are few steeper learning curves in teaching, particularly for those only familiar with the tail end of a primary school, than spending time in a Reception class.  Often in close proximity to Year One, along a corridor or down some stairs, they may as well be on different planets. Year One has more in common with Year Six than it does with a Reception class – the ordered timetable, the sitting at desks, the ‘going to big assembly’.  Reception class is different and fascinating.

There’s something precious about a child’s time in the early years.  It’s the gentle, skilled bridge-building from home to school, and from play into learning that marks out this unique year.  To the untrained eye, a Reception class can appear chaotic and free-flowing in a way that can baffle a teacher of older children; the laughing, the painting, the singing, the dressing up, the running around, the squidging, the squashing, the mixing, the pouring.  And all of it happening at once.  

But this is the very essence of learning and development and it doesn’t happen by accident.  Activities are carefully and meticulously planned, children are observed closely and listened to with care, enthusiasm and interest is harnessed.  The bridges to the more formal learning are built and tested.  Early years teachers, my cap has been doffed, my head is respectfully bowed.  

So, upon this hallowed, glitter-strewn turf stomps the clumsy, ill-informed plan to introduce a baseline test for children in Reception. Note the word ‘test’.  This is not an informed baseline measure but a ‘test’.  This is objectionable for a number of reasons.

Firstly, a test of what exactly?  At this age children are limited more by their experience not by their cognitive ability.  If they have seen a boat they are likely to recognise the picture of a boat in a book.  If they have been to a farm they will know what a cow looks like.  Not knowing what a boat or a cow is tells us nothing about a child’s cognitive ability.  What exactly will the test tell us?  More to the point, what test is so sophisticated that it will tell you all that you need to know about a child so they can be reliably tracked for the next six years of their lives?  

Second, the age of a child matters more when they are younger.  There may be as much as 11 months difference between the youngest and oldest in the class.  As a proportion of their lives this difference is massive.  Excuse the crude maths, but let’s say the age of the oldest could be about a quarter more than the youngest child. Would it make sense to compare a 10 year old with a 12 or 13 year old, or a 15 year old with a 19 year old?  Nope, of course not.

Third, this ignores the incredibly detailed assessments already undertaken in Reception class.  Anyone who has seen the amount of data generated by early years teachers, spanning everything from physical and emotional development to literacy and mathematics, would be hard pushed to say schools are ignorant of a five-year old child’s understanding and abilities.  The difference is that these assessments are drawn from skilful observations and carried out over time.  It’s not a test which relies on jumping through a hoop on a particular day.  It seems that underpinning the proposals for a test lies a distrust of teachers and their judgements. 

Fourth, this disregards the real and very fixable problem which is the clumsy and muddled transition from early years assessments to the assessments in Year One and up.  Schools have long struggled with how to translate early years assessments into National Curriculum Levels.  They are two separate systems established without regard to the other.  The subtle observations in the early years are folded and crammed to fit it into the broad levels of a 1c or a 1b or more.  Spend a year tending a precious orchid then stuff the stem into a vase so small that the delicate petals are crushed.   

There has long been a need here, not to abolish levels as the Government is doing, but to reform them and, critically, to make the assessments made in Reception flow more clearly and more thoughtfully into Year One.  Such changes would mean progress could be gauged, without the unnecessary sledgehammer of a test.  

And last but not least, they’re too young for a test.  Back off.  Trust the teachers. Leave the kids alone.  

 

 

 

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Filed under Early Years, Schools

The chef and the politician

Last night, Channel 4 News interviewed a man who spoke with passion, fluency, urgency and just-the-right-amount of humour. He talked about education, immigration and enterprise. His words were stirring and thought-provoking, sparking the dry tinder of policy and debate. The irritant verbal tics of his youth, not least the uncontrollable urge to describe things as ‘pukka’, were all but gone. Here was a man who had something to say and said it – plain and simple.

And, as well as Jamie Oliver, Channel 4 interviewed Ed Miliband.

You would be hard pushed to find a greater contrast. The sequencing was unfortunate, perhaps deliberate; the press are sensing blood and are after Miliband. Where Oliver was relishing the role of flag-bearer and skilfully bridged the gap between what can be distant policy and the watching public, Miliband was chronically unable to translate his thinking in to anything that resonated.

Jamie Oliver was talking to the public. Not talking down, or over-simplifying. Nor was he taking the populist line which can so easily be trodden by people who don’t tie themselves to party politics (he spoke with conviction, for example, about the way immigrants to this country have been integral to the growth of his business).

Ed Miliband was talking to himself. His sentences were contorted, convoluted and stuttering – they would start with some purpose then end abruptly or without any clear sense of what he meant. He appeared deeply unrelaxed.

There is an intellectual power to Miliband, that much is clear, but this means nothing unless he can communicate and connect. As an attempt to win votes for the local election, this interview would neither draw undecided voters to Labour nor would it have the loyalists rattling their sabres.

A funny old world when it looks like a chef has all the ingredients of a political leader, and the politician looks like he’s finding it too hot in the kitchen.

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Hours of precious life slipping by

Teaching brings more than its fair share of elation and revelation. A lesson that runs exactly as planned, a lesson that is utterly unlike the one you planned, the first day of term, the last day of term. It all adds up to to the uniquely special job called teaching.

Low on the list of revelatory moments, however, is the weekly staff meeting.

Few things can match the sheer drabness, the pointlessness of the hour spent watching, blinking, half-yawning while handouts are scattered and slides flip endlessly across a screen. Hours of precious life slipping by.

How strange that a profession whose sole purpose is to educate can get things so wrong, so often. All that we know about good learning can stop the moment the staff meeting begins.

Too often staff meetings are structured around transmission and compliance – a given expert, often with credentials unknown, telling the assembled audience what to do and how to do it, complete with the assertion that it’s ‘what Ofsted are looking for’.

The end result is a classroom full of people keeping schtum, able to generate little more than an occasional nod and an overly enthusiastic ‘thank you’ in the mad rush for the door and the relative bliss of a pile of unmarked books.

Enough is enough. Today, this very evening, we ripped up the plan. No expert, no Powerpoint, no handouts, no Ofsted. Instead, we gave space and time. Teacher talked to teacher about what they did in their classroom, what was working and what was not. Invites to observe were given and received with enthusiasm. Plans were hatched to test out new ideas. Resources were shared and books were recommended.

The hour was up. No-one moved. For once, the weekly staff meeting was a revelation.

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Wish them luck

SATs week is upon us. No more can be done. They’ve been coached, coerced and crammed. They’ve been drilled to death. They are machines. Tomorrow, they will sit in their rows, silent. Tomorrow, they must deliver.

The stakes are high for all schools but for mine in particular; on their eleven year old shoulders lies a heavy burden.

If they succeed, if targets are met and hoops are jumped through, then we are safe for another year. If they come up short, by one mark or by more, then an unspoken calamity will occur. Heads will roll. Or, more likely, the Head will roll.

The long history of neglect at the school, dating back a decade or more, long before any of the incumbents were in place, matters not one jot.

The school, like an oil tanker, may be turning a corner and heading towards a brighter horizon. There are good teachers in every class. The corridors, once chaotic, are now calm. Empty chairs are being filled with new children keen to come to a school that, not long ago, was bottom of every list. We’re going places.

But all this comes crashing to a halt if our Year 6 don’t do the business this week. The innocent victims of abysmal teaching in their early years, they have had a huge mountain to scale this year. For some, this has meant making three years progress in just over two terms. Whatever happens, they will have succeeded. They will not have failed.

The grim truth is that we need them to pass; level 4 is our golden ticket, our get out of jail card. Most are there and many comfortably so. This, however, is a game of percentages. We’ve known since September that it’ll be one or two children that will tip us over the edge, one way or another. More than likely, it will come down to one mark in a reading test or two in a maths test.

All that is left is to wish them luck.

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Hattie the Hero

Real heroes are hard to come by in the world of education.

Estelle Morris remains on a pedestal. Few days go by without imagining a better, more decent world where Morris is in charge and not Gove. The late journalist Mike Baker falls into the same category, not least for his ability to write well and to strip complex issues and fluffy arguments down to the bare essentials of what mattered and what did not.

But top of my admittedly short list of educations heroes is Professor John Hattie.

The Director of the Education Research Institute at Melbourne University is above all a pedagogical myth buster. He uses the simple test of looking for evidence as to whether any given factor makes a difference to learning, be it a teaching intervention or a socio-economic circumstance. In doing so, he debunks the preposterous or the fashionable and reveals something approaching the truth about learning and teaching.

What sets him apart is his determination – albeit a dry and diligent determination – to bridge the chasm between what researchers have discovered about teaching and learning and what happens in the classroom. His aim is to synthesise all that we know about the former so that it knocks on the door of the latter, invites itself in and becomes the loudest, most persistent, most persuasive voice in class.

Luckily, we live in treasured times: Hattie is currently on a roll with his ‘Visible Learning’ series of books. Managing to be dense, academic yet also accessible they set out a clear rationale for what teachers should be doing and how they should be doing it.

Although it is not his intention, his work inevitably crosses the boundary from the pedagogical to the political. It is hard to read to much of what he says without thinking of Gove.

Take his latest book ‘Visible Learning and the Science of How we Learn’. By page fifteen, Hattie has shredded Gove’s assertion that employing untrained, unqualified experts as teachers is in any vague sense a wise thing to do. Shredded. Utterly shredded.

Knowledge, it turns out, is not quite what Gove thinks it is. It’s not something which can simply be relayed from all-knowing expert to sponge-like child.

In fact, as Hattie quotes, knowledge can be a curse. Research shows that those who are specialists in a subject and who have no understanding of how to transmit the complexities of their wisdom – in other words those who know a lot but know nothing of teaching – are less effective at doing their job than those who may have less subject knowledge but who are expert, skilled teachers.

Pure knowledge does not correlate with an ability to teach. What matters is simple; it’s teachers who know their stuff and who are trained, skilled and passionate about what they do. Professor John Hattie is a giant – if only we had an Education Secretary who would stand on his shoulders.

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Filed under Michael Gove, Politics - general