Curriculum musings

I am taking the opportunity during the long weeks of the summer holiday to refine the KS1/KS2 history curriculum for my school which I had mapped out earlier in the year. I also want to ensure there are high quality resources ready for each year group come September – mostly in the form of booklets (of which I am a big fan). Away from the hustle and bustle of daily teaching, I can finally find the time to immerse myself in my favourite subject: history.

I thought I would write a blog to share my thought processes along the way. Before I go any further though, I should warn that I have no ready answers for others also in the throes of curricular planning. The curriculum is never done, so what I am sharing is a snapshot of where I am at the moment rather than a finished product.

Of course, I am not planning a history curriculum in a vacuum. Firstly, there is the National Curriculum, which I am duty bound to follow. This in itself is not a problem, as the NC provides a solid foundation to build upon. Then there are the current “market trends” that I need to consider. For instance, there is much talk these days about “decolonising the curriculum”. This can mean different things to different people. Nevertheless, it is clearly no longer acceptable to have a curriculum that does not reflect the diverse society we live in and the common values that we share. How do I reflect this diversity without falling prey to tokenism or presenting a skewed version of history? There are no easy answers.

Then there is the assumption that a good curriculum needs to be a “knowledge curriculum”. For some, this means cramming as much historical knowledge into our pupils as possible in the time available each term. I do like the idea of pumping my pupils with knowledge, who doesn’t? However, once again, it’s not as simple as that. History is such a vast subject. I studied it all through school and 3 years of university, yet there is still so much history that I do not know or have very cursory knowledge of. There is no way we can teach our pupils all the history there is in the time they have in school.

Furthermore, I am only planning the curriculum for part of that school journey – from Years 1 to 6 – and I have to take into account what pupils are likely to be taught in KS3 so that there is no unnecessary duplication. The curriculum that was handed down to me when I was first given the job of history co-ordinator at my school last September was based on resources we had access to from a renowned free school known for its knowledge-rich approach. While the scope of that curriculum was admirable, I started to have questions about it. Do we really need to study the Tudors at KS2 when the pupils are likely to learn about them in KS3? Do we really need them to learn about each of the world wars in depth when again, this will be covered in KS3? What could our pupils be studying instead?

And then of course, there is the recent publication of Ofsted’s research review of history, a good summary of which can be found on this blog. There is so much to take in from that research review that my head would explode if I attempted to juggle all of it at once. All I can do at the moment is take away the most salient points and go back to that document at regular intervals in the foreseeable future as I continue to refine our curriculum and resources. I’m also very aware that while I have a background in history, most of the other primary teachers at my school do not have the same level of expertise in the subject. Hence why I think booklets are so useful. Through the booklets, I can exert a level of quality control on the knowledge being taught throughout KS1 and KS2. By curating the enquiries, the text to be read, the vocabulary to be learned, the source evidence and the questions for pupils to answer, I can ensure that pupils learn history in as meaningful a way as possible.

I thought it would be useful to list the key approaches I want to follow when planning and teaching history at my school. Here is what I have come up with so far.

  • Disciplinary and substantive knowledge are inextricably linked and must be interwoven into the teaching of history. On a practical level, this means designing enquiries that attempt to answer disciplinary questions on cause and consequence, change and continuity, similarity and difference, historical significance and historical interpretations, while ensuring that pupils understand how our knowledge of the past is constructed with the judicious use of sources. Within these enquiries, pupils need to build their substantive knowledge of historical concepts such as monarchy, empire, invasion, taxation etc. Ideally, pupils should encounter these historical concepts repeatedly over the course of their time in school so as to deepen their understanding of them. I have written a list of the substantive knowledge I would like my pupils to know by the end of KS2 (available here), which was inspired by and loosely based on the one written by Michael Fordham here.
  • Pupils learn by building upon prior knowledge, so it is important to map this progression of knowledge carefully from year to year.
  • When teaching any historical topic, it is important to identify the core knowledge that we want pupils to commit to long-term memory. This can be summarised on knowledge organisers.
  • Contextual information and background material (sometimes known as “hinterland”) help pupils to make sense of the core knowledge to be learned. This is why narrative and the use of story are integral to the teaching of history.
  • Although it is hard to plan a strictly chronological curriculum (especially in my school which has split year groups which has meant our curriculum is mapped over 2 years), pupils need to build an understanding of chronology. At the start of every history topic, the period being studied is placed within a historical timeline framed within 5 distinctive historical eras (Prehistoric, Classical, Middle Ages, Early Modern and Modern). The historical timeline (available here) helps pupils to place the new topic they are learning within the context of prior learning. For example, at the start of learning about the Shang dynasty, pupils will see on the timeline that it occurred during the Bronze Age at around the same time as Ancient Egypt (topics they have learned previously). Pupils are taught that the year 0 on our calendar marks the birth of Jesus Christ, that the years before 0 are noted as BC and the years after 0 are AD (I am still not sold on the new terms BCE and CE but I am open to convincing).
  • In addition to this, I have included some overview topics within the curriculum that help build a sense of chronology, such as a local history study of London that charts the history of the city from its inception as Londinium under the Romans, through to the modern period. Similarly, I have included a depth study on the evolution of parliament, which travels in time from the Witan in Anglo-Saxon England, through to the Civil War, the gunpowder plot, the Glorious Revolution and then on to suffrage reform in the 19th and 20th centuries. KS1 also have a local history study of Crystal Palace which gives pupils a basic sense of chronology, starting with how the area was known as the Great North Wood (Norwood), through to the building of the Crystal Palace, its eventual destruction and what the area looks like now.

Based on the above principles, I am mapping out our new curriculum. I think it’s an improvement on what we had before, but it’s not perfect. It probably never will be. In the next blog post (coming I don’t know when), I will outline the history curriculum I have mapped out for KS1 and then there will hopefully be another blog post covering my curriculum plan for KS2. If you have managed to get through to the end of this long blog, thank you for reading.

The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted

Yesterday, I was helping my son to research famous speeches so he can pick one to do a presentation on as part of his English homework. There were the usual suspects – “I have a dream” and “We shall fight on the beaches” – and a whole host of others, many of which I had not encountered before. I myself, being both a woman and a historian, was keen to introduce my son to Queen Elizabeth I’s Tilbury speech. Can this really be bested? ” I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king.” Go girl!

The boy though, was unimpressed. He wanted to find a speech that related to some of his interests (trains and planes). One suggestion was JFK’s going to the moon speech, but that too didn’t gel. Finally, we settled on Ronald Reagan’s address to the nation following the space shuttle Challenger accident. We listened to it on YouTube, then printed out the transcript and analysed it for rhetorical devices. We highlighted emotive language, repetition, the use of personal pronouns, etc.

However, what struck me most about the speech was how it acknowledged the pain of a nation in mourning, yet was able to project a defiant, resilient, and even an upbeat message in the midst of this tragedy. It’s a powerful speech that resonates more than 30 years on, and has relevance to our situation today as we try to emerge from the pandemic that has held us hostage for months and months.

The launch of the space shuttle Challenger was watched live on television across the United States, with millions of schoolchildren tuning in to see a teacher, Christa McAuliffe, go into space and teach a lesson from there. Instead, they saw a horrifying explosion seconds after lift-off. Reagan addressed the children in his speech as follows:

And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.

He went on to affirm that the tragic accident would not stop future space exploration.

We’ll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue.

As I listened to these words, I compared their sentiment with the messaging we are bombarded with on a daily basis about staying safe, not letting our guard down and the fresh worries being put in our minds about virus mutations and vaccine-induced thrombosis. It’s a far cry from “Keep calm and carry on.” It seems to me as if the goalposts keep moving and our state of emergency keeps replicating itself, not willing to let us go from the firm grip it has us in. In some strange version of Stockholm Syndrome, many people have so accustomed themselves to hiding away in their homes, protecting themselves with their masks and watching the daily press briefings for the latest dose of fear-inducing headlines, that they have fallen in love with their captivity.

Thankfully, as a teacher, I am considered critical enough to the national effort that I have been released from captivity and allowed to go back to work. It’s a captivity I have been chafing against. If I had been allowed to, I would have continued teaching my classes in school all the way through this pandemic. It’s a disappointment to me that the great majority of my fellow teachers were clamouring for the opposite. Instead of fighting for schools to stay open for all children, they fought for our confinement at home. When school re-openings were announced, they complained that it was not “safe”.

But what does it mean to be safe? Is it sitting at home getting back pain, putting on weight and developing mental health issues, all of which are likely to contribute to the shortening of our lives? Perhaps being “safe” is just a chimera, obscuring the real truth: to be alive is to be at daily risk of sickness and death.

Many years ago, when I was 9, I went on holiday to visit family in Syria and came back with Typhoid, which had me hospitalised and isolated for several weeks. I could have died, but I didn’t. My father had only a few months to live after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at the age of 55, and my mother only a few hours after she had an aneurysm just a year later. One minute they were there, then they were gone. Life is fleeting, and we don’t know when the grim reaper will come to call. We can coddle ourselves up to the maximum, thinking it will keep us safe, but there is no such thing as safe. We cannot hide away from life and the risks that come with being alive. So perhaps we should remind ourselves that sometimes painful things happen, but the future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.

In the final part of his speech, Reagan paid tribute to the seven astronauts on board the space shuttle Challenger, quoting the poem High Flight, which celebrated the joy of flying high up in the sky and was written by John Gillespie Magee, a fighter pilot in World War II who was killed in action at the tender age of 19.

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”

Another reminder, that our lives can be long or short – fate is capricious – but what matters is how we live in the time that we are given.

Are teaching and parenting incompatible?

One of the delights of edu-twitter is the ability to converse with interesting and intelligent people who also happen to be teachers. Of course, it takes time to get to that point. One must curate one’s Twitter feed carefully, firstly by following random other teachers and then noticing the ones that say sensible things consistently. One also notices the silly ones, who can be jettisoned at this stage.

Next, one cultivates the acquaintance of these sensible teachers, responding to their blogs and tweets, engaging in Twitter conversations, and sometimes, meeting them in real life at one of the many edu-conferences that grace our calendar during normal times. I am fortunate to have made several such Twitter friends over the last few years.

One such friend is Grumpy. No, he’s not one of the seven dwarves, but a former history teacher who goes by the Twitter handle of @monsieurgrumpy (or The Grumpy Teacher). I do of course know his real name, but I delight in calling him Grumpy. Now, I agree with Grumpy on many things, but one area of dissent is his assertion that good teaching is incompatible with being a parent. This has come up a few times in discussions, and today Grumpy wrote a blog, expounding on his theory. And naturally, I had to come out of my blogging exile to post this riposte.

As a parent of a primary aged child, there was much that I recognised in his description of how his life changed after he became a parent. If you have to pick up your child from an after-school club or nursery, trust me, you are not going to want to hang around at school one second longer than you have to. There are also going to be those days where you are unable to come to work because your little one is sick – and that feeling of guilt over your colleagues having to cover your lessons for you. Once you have a young child to care for, your priorities are naturally going to shift, meaning you won’t be as available for those extra-curricular activities that you might have signed up for before. Much of what is expected of teachers today is in profound conflict with the responsibilities of being a parent. Thus far, I am in agreement with Grumpy.

Sadly, cultural norms have developed within the teaching profession about what the job involves. It is no longer a matter of what you do in the classroom, but increasingly what you also do outside it. High stakes accountability, league tables and competition between schools have turned education into a rat race where nothing is ever enough. Whether you are teaching in the most socially deprived neighbourhood or in an elite private school, you are drip fed the notion that what you do is transformative, that you hold the key to your pupils’ future, and that if you don’t rise to the challenge of doing absolutely everything you possibly can for them, you will have somehow failed. This emotional blackmail is rife in teaching, but it is also true that many teachers will actively collude with it, for in their heart of hearts, they like the feeling of playing the good Samaritan who rescues the poor and downtrodden. Oh what validation there is in believing that the success of your pupils is down to your own endeavours!

That is not to say that teachers have no effect on their pupils. Obviously, a good teacher will teach children more effectively than a less good teacher. We are role models for them and we are on the front lines when it comes to issues such as safeguarding. Yet I would caution against overstating the job of a teacher – and it is a job, not a vocation (though some will naturally excel at it more than others). Listening to this interesting podcast with Akala and David Olusoga where they discussed their journey to professional success, I found it striking that both of them talked of having a supportive parent who instilled confidence and ambition in them. As teachers, we need to remember that we are only a small part of the jigsaw that makes a person the person they are.

So what is it exactly that should be within the remit of teaching and what should not? Grumpy talked of enrichment activities, such as United Nations day, ski trips, school plays and other extra-curricular activities. Much of this comes under the heading of “cultural capital”. I am not going to be a sour grapes and say that none of these things matter. It is a good thing that children get to visit museums or go on a day trip to a farm (I have very fond memories of visiting a farm as a young girl and seeing a cow being milked for the first and only time in my life). I don’t think it is too onerous to plan one day trip each term if you are a primary school teacher, and something similar if you are in secondary. Within reason, these should not impinge in any significant way on parenting duties at home. Residential trips are another matter, particularly if your children are very young. Here though, I would think it possible to pool resources so that teachers who have such parenting responsibilities are able to opt out. This would not make them a lesser teacher, just a teacher who at this moment in time has parenting responsibilities – in a career that hopefully spans at least a decade, this would represent a small blip (unless you’re planning to pop a child every few years).

I am not so approving of the other things that interfere with the normal day-to-day routine in school. Grumpy may have relished United Nations day, but I would have found this an unecessary chore. Already in my school career, I have had to endure World Book Day, countless dress-up days, the Resilience Oscars (where children voted for their favourite resilient book character and teachers dressed up as these characters) and Science Week. I just think, if reading is part and parcel of the curriculum, and so is science, then why on earth do we need to interrupt our rhythm for such events? These are unecessary fripperies and do not a good teacher make. The nuts and bolts of education are in the lessons we teach each day, not in these frivolous extras. Oh how Puritan I sound!

Now I come to the next item on Grumpy’s workload list: lesson planning. I am not, like him, much of an advocate for scripted lessons. However, I do feel strongly that there is too much change and not enough continuity. Curricula and exam specs are continuously moving goal posts – in an ideal world, we would have more stability and any changes to curriculum would be introduced very gradually, with lots of forward planning time. It should not be impossible or unusual for a teacher to teach fundamentally the same curriculum over the course of 4-5 years, re-using lesson plans and resources, tweaking them and reducing the need to plan from scratch. Unfortunately, the rat race and constant need to demonstrate improvement have meant that this type of continuity is rare.

I hear what Grumpy has to say about marking – even if it is whole class feedback, it does entail reading what is in the books. Teachers should be entitled to a quiet hour at the end of the school day to tweak their lesson plans for the next day and check books, but here again I have a bête noire. Because of course, teachers’ time is not their own at the end of the school day. Staff meetings, CPD training, detentions, after-school clubs, the list goes on. It has become acceptable to pile on all these extras to the extent that no one blinks an eyelid at them. After a full day of contact time with pupils (and all the energy-sapping that results from it), we are not given the space to reflect and prepare for the following day. Our time is not our own. I am fairly certain though, that the teachers who gave me an excellent education over three decades ago, did not do half of these extra things that are expected of teachers today. These are recent constructs that have become normalised. They need to be un-normalised and teachers’ time out of the classroom not monopolised – allowing them to have a functioning work-life balance.

These are all choices that are there to be made, by teachers but most importantly also by school leaders. The ingrained mindset currently is to “sweat” the teacher to the maximum – using as a pretext putting the children’s needs first. This is what happens when the narrative around teaching strays into talk of transforming children’s life chances rather than admitting that this is a job which must be done between hour A and hour B, and then thinking of how to structure it most effectively to fit within that time. So I would say yes, as the situation stands, teaching is not compatible with parenting. It does not have to be.

Does high-stakes accountability drive up standards?

Little did I know it then, but my journey into education started nearly 9 years ago as I was hunting for a new house. We needed more space and our budget was limited. I spent hours scouring the property listings, looking for an appropriate “fixer upper”. It had to have good transport links so my other half could commute easily to his office in central London. It had to be pleasing, or at least have the potential to be aesthetically pleasing. And of course, it had to be within the catchment of an outstanding school.

It felt like I had hit the jackpot when I found the house that was to become our house. It ticked all our boxes and more. I read the Ofsted report at least 3 or 4 times and could hardly believe our luck. It made the school sound like a nirvana. Everything about it was outstanding, and the house was a stone’s throw away! That glowing Ofsted report sealed the deal. We made an offer, it was accepted, and the rest was history.

A few years later, I sat at a presentation being given by the headteacher (sorry, now the executive headteacher) and listened to him wax lyrical about the “world-class education” at his school. I knew, of course, that it was a lie. A complete and utter lie. Ofsted had sold us a pup. Although things had started off well – his nursery teacher was fabulous – it had become clear, by the time my boy was in Year 3, that we were going to have to change school. And so we did.

My increasing involvement in matters educational yielded another result: I decided to become a teacher. Had my son’s educational journey gone smoothly, I doubt I would have even contemplated such a move. But there it is, one of life’s curve balls. I’m now 4 years into my career in education, which funnily enough has not gone smoothly either. I’ve worked in 6 schools, each one different from the other, in both primary and secondary, state and independent. I’ve had some enjoyable experiences, some terrible lows, and become a bit wiser in the process. I haven’t, contrary to statistical trends, walked away from the profession. I start work in my 7th school in January.

One question that keeps going round in my mind these days is this. Why is our school system so dysfunctional? Why is it sucking in and spitting out so many talented people? An exodus that has dramatically reduced the average age of teachers in the country. So much collective wisdom and expertise has been lost because a substantial number of teachers have decided, enough’s enough, and walked away from the profession (with a heavy heart I’m sure).

There are, of course, no easy answers to wicked problems such as this. It’s easy to point the finger at the government and blame austerity. It’s easy to blame workload and toxic leadership, or single out poor behaviour. And of course, it’s easy to blame Ofsted. We have a high-stakes accountability education system in this country, in which Ofsted plays a significant role. It has changed direction of late, focusing on curriculum rather than pedagogy. This new direction has been welcomed by some, particularly in the knowledge-rich camp. However, the high-stakes nature of it is still there, hanging like a spectre over us all.

I don’t know what it’s going to take to make schools better places for people to work and better places for our children to learn. I have reached the following conclusion though. I don’t believe high stakes accountability drives up standards. Fear will not help any of us improve at what we do. Conversely, some of the most successful school leaders I know of are people who don’t give a flying fig about Ofsted. They have the courage to run their schools according to their own vision, whatever that vision might be. From Katherine Birbalsingh at Michaela Community School to Matthew Evans who has written a book on leadership and blogs here, to this gem of a blog from Ed Finch, the common thread is a refusal to dance to Ofsted’s tune. Yet their schools still do well. Surely there’s a lesson to be learned there. If things are going to get better, it’s not going to be due to deep dives or intent statements. You can’t manage standards up from the top, with inspections as your blunt instrument. We’ve tried doing it for several years now, and it just doesn’t work. It always ends up creating perverse incentives.

 

 

 

 

Some grumbles on my part

Every so often I feel the need to write a ranty blog. I’m afraid this is one of those times. Apologies in advance if this is not to your taste, and I promise normal service will be resumed shortly. One cannot spend time on edu-twitter without encountering annoying tweets or blogs, though I do try very hard to curate my timeline to avoid such annoyances as much as possible. And of course, this is very subjective. What I find deeply irritating might be something celebrated by others. So, before I go any further, I will freely admit that what I am writing here are just my own personal pet peeves.

I must also assure you that these are minor ructions, and my love affair with edu-twitter remains undimmed. Being able to tap into the collective wisdom of educators across the continents is wonderfully enriching. I have learned so much through my interactions on Twitter, and even made some friends along the way. If it hadn’t been for edu-twitter, I believe I would have walked away from a career in teaching soon after my first few experiences of working in schools. If it hadn’t been for edu-twitter, I wouldn’t have landed the job I have now. Edu-twitter is overwhelmingly a good thing. However…

Some things do rub me up the wrong way. One pet peeve is poorly written blogs that get retweeted repeatedly on my timeline for being “brilliant”. I suspect this might be because they tap into the knowledge zeitgeist and use lots of elaborate syntax to dazzle people into thinking they have just read something extremely profound. To me they are poorly written because they lack coherence, paragraphs are largely absent, and instead of a clearly argued piece of writing they treat me to a long ramble that feels more like a stream of consciousness. What makes things worse, as far as I’m concerned, is that many such blogs are written by people who purport to teach English. Physician, heal thyself.

Another thing that annoys me is when I see behaviour that I can only characterise as waving a red flag to a bull. We all know there are some people on edu-twitter who are unpleasant, who tend to bully and victimise those who disagree with them. If I come across such a person, I sensibly take steps to avoid them in future (blocking is a great tool, not to be sneered at). Quite clearly, no constructive discourse can be had with such individuals, so it is best to walk away from their troublesome arena. There is no point calling these people out – all it does is give them a new target to fixate on. It then builds up into angry Twitter spats, with screenshots of outrageous tweets shared with all and sundry indignantly, thereby continuing to fan the flames. Life is too short. Don’t engage.

I get further irritated when I see some teachers boast about their long years of experience to either shut down a debate or belittle other points of views. Of course, experience matters. I don’t doubt that I will have accumulated greater wisdom five or ten years from now. But the quest for knowledge never ends. Those that claim to know it all should question their certainties and open their minds to the possibility that they might have spent years, even decades, being wrong about something. In any case, it is very poor form to try to win an argument simply by recourse to the number of years they have been teaching.

Also, what’s with all those snooty “experts” that are creeping into my timeline, showering us with condescension and disdain? “Read my book”, they say, too lazy to properly engage in an argument with those that might disagree with them. “My subject is far too complex for you mere mortals.” I’m paraphrasing a bit, but you get my gist. I have a rule of thumb about such things: the most expert of experts should be able to refute or support an argument through clear, logical reasoning that even a novice can understand. If they refuse to argue their point clearly, the suspicion arises that they don’t know all that much. I would like to see a little more humility. Some of the wisest people I know are also the most humble. I would also like to see a little more generosity. Share the fruits of what you know with others so that we may all benefit.

So there, I have got these peeves out of my system. May I ask nicely for bloggers to try to write clearly and lucidly in spare, economical terms rather than flowery language? Keep a coherent thread going through your writing if you want your readers to keep reading to the end. Be humble. Be kind. Avoid stirring up trouble. That’s it really. I hope you have had or are going to have a wonderfully restful half-term.

Teaching: The Hardest Job?

In this blog post I will argue that teaching is one of the most difficult jobs there is, and lest you think this will be one long moan about workload etc, let me assure you that I am writing in the spirit of celebration of what we do in the classroom, day in day out.

Last Friday, a colleague asked me if I had enjoyed my first half-term of teaching, and I had to be honest and say “not really”. That is understandable. As a new teacher at my school, I have had to learn so much, absorbing masses of new information to the point of cognitive overload. I have had to try to juggle lots of this information in my mind whilst trying to teach my lessons.

Teaching is a performance profession – when you perform, you cannot easily stop and check your notes to refresh your mind on what you should say or do next. You have to be prepared to think on your feet and react quickly to changing situations without the benefit of time to mull things over. It is a tricky thing to do, especially if you do not know the curriculum inside out and you are having to manage the behaviour of 30 not always co-operative children.

Now I am perfectly prepared to believe that this gets easier with time and experience. A seasoned teacher will have built a repository of phrases and responses to given situations. They will have built up a reputation within the school, making it easier to manage behaviour. They will have developed curricular expertise and have the correct terminology to hand, as well as tried and tested methods of explanation. All this makes the process of teaching easier, although it never becomes a walk in the park.

Michael Fordham argues in his blog “Teaching: a very natural act?” that fundamentally teaching is a natural act that all humans have evolved to do.

Humans have been teaching one another for as long as humans have been around. Children quite naturally teach one another (the rules to a game, the words to a rhyme) and they do not need any particular training to do this. In this sense humans are teachers by nature: without much prompting, we teach one another.

He goes on to say:

teaching is, quite simply, a matter of communicating something I know to someone who does not.

How beautifully simple and true! We do have a tendency to over-complicate it sometimes. And it is this simple and straightforward definition of teaching that initially drew me into the profession. I started by tutoring my boy at home, trying to help him move into a higher ability group. I bought maths and English booklets and worked through them with him in short evening sessions. His rapid improvement and increased confidence as a result of this tutoring gave me much satisfaction. It spurred me on. I wanted to help communicate knowledge to other children, not just my son. I walked into teaching thinking it would be an amplified version of what I had been doing at home with my son. But it was not.

I return to the wisdom of Michael Fordham. He argues that although teaching is a natural act, it is not easy. This is because the things we are teaching are complicated, unlike the rules in a playground game.

None of these things are natural: to the contrary, all are recent inventions in the greater scheme of things. Grasping the content and structure of these practices in such a way that you can explain it clearly to someone who knows less takes a great deal of time to learn. Working out the lynchpin ideas, finding the powerful examples, knowing how one concept rests on knowledge of another: these are the things that require a great deal of thought and consideration.

As I knuckle down to teach mathematical concepts or literary devices, I am reminded of this more than ever. It takes an immense amount of expertise to be able to convey complicated and sophisticated knowledge to pupils – particularly when one factors in the practical logistics of having to teach these to a large group of children.

It is unsurprising therefore that I have found the last 7 weeks less than enjoyable. I am having to do an extremely difficult job and I am not yet proficient at it. It is hard to find joy in a lack of success – particularly if you are a certain age and have been used to being good at most of what you do. Yet it has not been unalloyed misery either. One of the delights of teaching is working with young people, getting to know them and developing strong, caring relationships. I look forward to greeting my class every morning. I have had some mishaps – such as regularly walking into furniture – but I am learning to make light of them –  and each time I overcome an obstacle, such as last Friday’s technology fail, I am a little more empowered. I am also incredibly lucky to work with supportive colleagues who are doing everything they can to help me get better.

So let me say this, which I am sure most of you know already. Teaching is an incredibly hard job. It may not be valued societally as it should be – entry level civil servants earn more than teachers and have far less workload/stress. My big shot lawyer sister gets more kudos and respect for the major multi-million pound cases she works on. And yet, hand on heart, I believe my job is more difficult than hers. More difficult but also far more rewarding. As I plough on through the obstacle course that lies before me, I need to remind myself that my job is not easy and that when this is taken into consideration, I am doing very well indeed.

 

Is Cognitive Load Theory an Edu-Fad?

Two tweets on my timeline today have been the stimulus for this blog. That’s what I like about edu-twitter and why I think it’s fantastic CPD for new and experienced teachers alike. You are drawn into the most current conversations about education and these take your thinking into new directions or cement an idea already forming in your mind.

In today’s case, the two tweets were as follows, on the same issue but taking different slants. The first one was by Daryn Egan-Simon:

The second tweet that set me thinking and writing this blog was posted by Sam Strickland, the organiser of today’s ResearchEd Northampton conference, which I was sadly unable to attend. Sam shared an interesting quote from Tarjinder Gill‘s talk:

As most of you will be aware, a key part of Cognitive Load Theory is the idea that working memory is limited and can get easily overloaded. We can only retain a few bits of information in our working memory at a time, so to engage in complex thinking, we have to make use of information stored in our long-term memory, which is unlimited. To aid our pupils by-pass the constraints of working memory and to solve complex problems or write sophisticated analysis, we should focus on purposefully building schemas of information in their long-term memories that they can retrieve when needed.

Cognitive Load Theory became the latest big thing after the edu-guru, Dylan Wiliam, posted this tweet about it over two years ago.

Now as it happens, I disagree with William on this. I don’t believe Cognitive Load Theory is the most important thing for teachers to know, but I do think it is vital for curriculum leaders to know it and act on it. For to me, the greatest implication of CLT is for how we sequence curriculum to help our pupils build the knowledge base that will allow them to do all sorts of sophisticated thinking and tasks further down the line. That’s not to say it has no value for active teachers in the classroom, of course it has, but I would not rank it of the highest importance.

Tarjinder Gill’s description of working memory as a bottle neck brought back a memory of something I learned about a quarter of a century ago (yes that long) from when I was studying for my MBA. I was given a book called The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt, which puts forward the Theory of Constraints, a management theory which focuses on finding and addressing the constraints that are creating bottle necks in the throughput of a business. I was immediately struck by the parallels between the Theory of Constraints and Cognitive Load Theory. Whilst one was formulated for business and the other for education, they both have in common this idea of bottle necks or constraints which impede either the learning or the productivity.

And I was reminded of the example that Goldratt uses in his book to illustrate the Theory of Constraints. The protagonist of the book is a character called Alex, a plant manager whose factory is struggling to manufacture and ship orders to customers on time. Alex meets an old friend called Jonah (a fictional version of Goldratt) who gets him thinking about the choke points that are constraining the factory’s output and to see that the whole factory can only move as fast as its slowest element. Later in the book, Alex gets an opportunity to put the Theory of Constraints to the test, not in his factory but on a hiking trail with his son’s scout group.

Alex notices that the single file line of scouts never manages to maintain a consistent pace, but is constantly stopping and starting. The speedy children at the front are zooming ahead, but having to stop to let Herbie, the chubby boy, catch up with them. In this context, Herbie is the choke point or bottle neck, slowing down the whole group (this book was written decades ago before we got all politically correct, so please don’t get uppity with me for talking about a chubby boy slowing everyone else down). The group can only move as fast as its slowest element – Herbie – and so it makes sense to bring Herbie to the front of the line and to lead the pace. This way, there is no constant stopping and starting. The contents of Herbie’s backpack are distributed to the other children, lightening Herbie’s load and thus helping him to walk faster.

So when Tarjinder Gill spoke of working memory as a bottle neck, I was transported back to the example I describe above. What a great way to put it! Working memory is a bottle neck. Like Herbie on the scouts trail, our pupils can only think as fast as their working memory will allow them. Overload that working memory with too many new concepts, and it will create a bottle neck. And as Herbie was helped to go faster by having the group walk behind him and the contents of his heavy backpack shared amongst them, we need to help our pupils avoid the bottle necks in their working memory by consistently building up, over time, a repository of information – the schemas – that they will need to process complex ideas and develop sophisticated thinking.

Is Cognitive Load Theory a fad, as suggested by Daryn Egan-Simon in the first tweet I shared? I believe not. It has very important implications for how we design curricula. Having CLT at the forefront of their minds will help curriculum leaders ensure that important concepts, skills and vocabulary that pupils will require are embedded and stored in long-term memory during their curricular journey in the school. This is a painstaking and time consuming process, but done well, should reap great rewards further down the line.

That’s not to say there aren’t many edu-fads still out there. I’ve only been working 4 years in the British education system, and already I have seen some big ideas come and go –  witness the current near demise of Growth Mindset. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone who has been teaching several years were to develop some healthy cynicism about the latest edu-theory. In this case, however, I think the cynicism is misplaced.

Fixing workload requires a culture change

These days, I am not blogging as much as I used to. This is partly due to my being busy and tired, but also because I don’t have awful things to report on from the frontlines anymore. It makes a difference to be working in a sensibly run school, surrounded by supportive professionals at the top of their game.

However, I am breaking my blogging purdah to write about two related issues that have cropped up on my Twitter timeline this week. The first was this tweet by Miss Smith, which has struck a chord with many and garnered 1,000 likes.

The second thing was a blog written by Mike Thain, a maths teacher of 17 years, in which he explains why he has decided to leave teaching. Reading the blog brought a lump to my throat, especially when he talks about the effect the job was having on his family life.

The pressure to deliver results in a maths team is something that unless you have taught maths, english, or science at secondary level you simply cannot understand what it requires of you. This pressure over the 7 years as a middle leader made me have to chose between my own children, and the children in the school(s) I was working in. My children are now 11 and 8. When you hear phrases come out of their mouths like “Daddy never laughs” and “why is Daddy always sad” your heart breaks. When you come home and within 5 minutes you are telling them off because you are so stressed after work that you are like a coiled spring.

Although I have never run a school department, I have experienced some of this feeling like a “coiled spring” in previous school jobs, so I can imagine only too easily what it has been like for Mike and, as it turns out, many other teachers working across the country. Since writing his blog, he has been inundated with messages from fellow teachers who have similar tales to tell. Perhaps, as he says, it’s time for structural change to support teacher retention.

This is an issue that is close to my heart because I too have felt the pull between work and family (and I know I am not unique in this respect). Unless you’re a superwoman type person like Nicola Horlick – and let’s face it most of us aren’t – then it’s incredibly hard to juggle the demands of family and an all-consuming profession such as teaching. I still have to make sure my boy has clean clothes to wear, that his homework gets done and that he gets a nutritious meal for his dinner. I try to read with him every evening for 30 minutes or so before his bedtime. I also want to maintain a harmonious relationship with my spouse, to have the time and energy to converse and spend quality time with him. All this is very hard to do at the end of a long, energy-sapping day.

When I first decided to get into teaching nearly 4 years ago, I spoke to a history head of department at a local school I wanted to get some volunteering experience at, and was taken aback when he said he worked from 7am to 7pm most days, and that I should expect this kind of long hours if I became a teacher. Surely not I thought at the time. It turns out he was right.

As I said before, I now work in a sensibly-run school which takes workload seriously. I get to work at 8:00am and leave at 4:30pm most days. I still have to work at home for around two hours in the evenings, though much of this is because of the extra stuff I have to do for my PGCE and also because, as an inexperienced teacher, I take a bit longer to do my planning. I would be extremely surprised, however, if any of my more senior colleagues manage to get their work done within those working hours of 8am to 4:30pm. It has not escaped my notice that most of them are already there long before I arrive at 8am. Quite simply, there is so much to do, even in schools where marking is not expected and planning is done collaboratively.

It will require a major re-think and cultural shift to change things in any significant way. The problem, as I see it, is this. Quite simply, the work of schools and teachers has expanded beyond the main remit of giving pupils an academic education. This is what it ought to be:

  • Children go to school, they learn stuff then go home.
  • Teachers go to school, they teach the stuff pupils need to learn, then go home.

But it’s no longer as simple as that, is it? I believe that if we want to have a more sane, less manic workplace, then we need to find our way back to those simple principles above. We need to keep the main thing the main thing, and stop the extras from creeping in. At the moment we’re in a rat race, constantly competing in what looks like a market-driven model – except it’s not really delivering optimal results for its customers (parents and their children). We also have, as collateral damage, the haemorrhage of teachers from the profession.

And so we come to the issue of accountability. We can’t pussyfoot around it. Most, if not all the factors that make teaching such a difficult job stem from it. We have one of the most high stakes accountability education systems in the world. It may have driven standards up a tad (I’m not even sure it has), but at what cost? And let’s face it, there are still many children who leave school with a mediocre education. So we have a high stakes accountability system that makes the job of teachers practically intolerable, but it hasn’t improved standards of education in any meaningful way. Yes I know that Ofsted under its present incarnation is moving in a more positive direction, but try as it might, a high stakes inspection regime will always result in some unintended consequences and perverse incentives, especially when there is the prize of getting an “Outstanding” rating still being dangled. Grumpy Teacher has written a fabulous blog about this very issue and comes to similar conclusions. We simply can’t use high stakes accountability systems to quality assure standards of education and provide value-for-money for our taxpayers. Here’s what GT concludes:

Well, I wouldn’t mind a basic inspectorate like the sort of hygiene inspection to which the hospitality industry is subject. By all means treat a school like an office, if you must.

How do I answer the taxpayer? I shrug and say well, sorry, we tried. But it turned out that trying to look after your interests meant that education was made significantly worse for our pupils. So we’re not going to do it any more.

Beyond accountability systems, there is another issue which I think unnecessarily contributes to teacher workload: planning lessons. Now I know some teachers are very wedded to the idea of planning their own resources – it is after all one of the teachers’ standards – but hear me out on this one. I myself have found great personal satisfaction in writing my history teaching booklets (please see www.learningformemory for more information). However, I’m fairly sure now that I’m wearing different hats when I teach in the classroom and when I write teaching resources. They are actually two separate jobs. Of course they are related, in that it’s very difficult to write good resources if you haven’t taught. On the other hand, I know that not everyone who teaches has the aptitude for writing well. I don’t believe every teacher should be writing resources from scratch. Why re-invent the wheel?

I’m particularly struck by this when I’m teaching maths (though really this is the case for most subjects). Here I am in 2019 teaching pretty much the same kind of maths I was taught in the 1970s. Last week I was teaching my year 4s how to round numbers to the nearest 10, 100 and 1000. I know my teachers taught me the same stuff when I was a child at school. They must have done their job well because I left school with this mathematical knowledge, as did most of my fellow classmates. There is an arrogance in thinking that we are better teachers today than people who did the job decades or even centuries ago. I simply cannot believe that in the last 40 years or more, the subject has changed so materially that we constantly need to plan new maths lessons. And yet everyday, in schools all around the country, there are teachers hunkering down to prepare their slides and worksheets anew. It seems like an awful waste of energy to duplicate work that has been done by others a thousand times over. Not to mention a waste of paper and ink.

This, I think, is where the advent of interactive whiteboards and PowerPoint have created a sort of monster. Lesson planning has been transformed into the preparation of slides and worksheets. When I was a child, we had a textbook and an exercise book. That’s all. I suspect the sum total of a teacher’s planning was to bookmark the page of exercises we were going to start next. She would go through a couple of them with us on the blackboard, explain it to us, then ask us to turn to page 122 and start doing the exercises independently in our books. Then we would mark it together, and she might explain a misconception where some of us went wrong.

I don’t dispute that interactive whiteboards can be very useful, but I think they also provide a perverse incentive to base lesson planning on ever more slides. Now I know it’s difficult to wean ourselves from our reliance on Powerpoint slides. They’re everywhere. They’re the norm. Nevertheless, I think the way forward has to be to have high quality textbooks or booklets that can be re-used year after year. If a school wants to create its own booklets, they can design them in PDF and have them professionally printed and laminated so that they can be re-used like textbooks. Think of the huge savings that could be had by reducing in-school printing of worksheets and text sheets to read.

However, this would mean teaching a lesson planned by somebody else. This would turn us into automatons, simply delivering content without any input of our own. Once upon a time, I would have believed this. In practice, that’s not the case. I know because we have 3 teachers in our year group and we all teach with the same resources, planned collaboratively. I can tell you that lessons have a vastly different flavour from teacher to teacher, despite starting off with the same resources. It’s perfectly possible to still have autonomy, to still put your own personal stamp on a lesson, without having prepared the resources from scratch.

It will take a big cultural shift to move away from the idea of planning individual lessons to using quality assured, pre-planned resources, for I know many teachers are resistant to the idea. The time saved though, would make working life so much more tolerable. Perhaps time to give it a try?

 

Negativity

This has been a restful bank holiday weekend. Nothing wildly exciting was done, but batteries have been fully recharged. I have also spent a fair amount of time online, not least because I’m organising my first education event – BuffetEd – and this requires me to get the message out to as many people as possible. While I have you here, do yourself a favour and book a ticket. It’s going to be great!

However, I have been struck yet again by the negativity on edu-Twitter. It’s nothing new, but it is ugly and demoralising, and oh how I wish it would stop. Let’s start with exhibit A, a tweet by a so-called inspirational headteacher in a discussion about pupil behaviour.

Quite apart from the breathtaking arrogance, there’s mocking condescension here towards the thousands of teachers in this country who are struggling daily with poor behaviour, often through no fault of their own. Such boastful comments, so obviously designed to wound, are the type common to the playground bullies who afflict many vulnerable children in our schools. That they are being made by a headteacher, I find shocking and incomprehensible. That some people have seen fit to like and retweet even more so.

Let us move to the next one. After a big DfE announcement that Tom Bennett will be leading a £10 million initiative on behaviour, there was the inevitable pile on against him, and as usual, it got personal. This little gem of a tweet invited a whole host of responses from others, wearing #BlockedbyBennett as a badge of honour and indulging in character assassination. I have no issue with those who would question the DfE’s decision or disagree with Tom’s views on behaviour, but for goodness sakes criticise the policies, not the person.

And then we come to this one, directed personally at me. As mentioned already, I am organising an education event, a small one called BuffetEd, my very first foray into this type of thing. Of course I want people to buy tickets. An event without people is not much of an event, and the venue has to be paid for. So I set up a Twitter account for BuffetEd and started promoting it through a series of tweets describing what it was about and linking to the Eventbrite page.

It didn’t take long for someone, who I have previously had some unpleasant encounters with, to send poisonous darts towards my new endeavour and warn off others about it by making the unfounded claim that it is aping/riding on the coat tails of BrewEd and that the event has a “commercial interest/pedagogical bias”.

For the avoidance of doubt, the so-called commercial interest involves me taking the opportunity presented by my own event to give out free copies of some teaching resources I have written. As for pedagogical bias, I have no idea how this could possibly be levelled at my event, and not say at any other event (BrewEd included). I have invited people in education to come and speak freely about a topic of their choice. Several people have contacted and are on the diverse list of speakers for the event. But no, that wasn’t the end of it. Next, my history booklets came under scrutiny.

As my mother always used to tell me, if you have nothing positive to say then don’t say anything at all. Why so much effort to cast aspersions on my motives and my output? Why try to shoot down my honest hard work?  I’m sorry to say, but it comes over as a bit mean. And I’m tired of all the negativity. I get that we don’t all agree with each other’s education viewpoints, and that my strongly held views on some issues are not shared by others. So what? Live and let live. Be kind.

Given it is the start of Ramadan, one of the holiest months in the Islamic calendar, I think it fitting to end this blog with a well-known verse (surat Al Kafirun 109) from the Qur’an, which perfectly encapsulates the present dilemma if we substitute the word “religion” here for “educational ideology”.

In the name of God, the Gracious, the Merciful.

Say: “Oh, you who disbelieve!
I do not worship that which you worship,
Nor do you worship That Which I worship.
Nor will I worship that which you have been worshipping,
Neither will you worship That Which I worship.
To you your religion and to me mine.”

Yummy and Healthy Blueberry Muffins

“Not another blueberry muffin recipe”, I hear you say. This one, trust me, is very special. It’s not sugar-free but the sugar is within acceptable enough levels for me to call this a healthy treat. It’s also very quick and easy to make. This recipe makes 6, because any more than that in my family of three and it would start to be over-indulgent. Double the quantities if you wish to make more.

Ingredients:

  • 50g butter, softened (you can do this in the microwave in short bursts at 600W)
  • 40g caster sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 125g wholemeal flour
  • 7 tbs apple puree
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 125g blueberries

Method:

Preheat the oven to 180C. Place 6 muffin cups in a muffin tin. Mix the flour, baking powder, baking soda and cinnamon in a small bowl, then set aside. In a larger bowl, cream the butter and sugar, then beat in the egg, apple puree and vanilla extract. Fold in the flour mixture, ensuring all the flour is fully amalgamated. Lastly, gently fold in the blueberries. Spoon the mixture into the muffin cups, dividing evenly between the 6 cups. Bake for 10-15 minutes. The muffins are ready when they feel springy to the touch.

Yum yum!