Make no apology – let’s teach!

chalk-and-talk    Child centred

Over the past few hundred years this country has lost its love for teachers. Those of us who have managed to stay in the classroom, and not left like the 40% who leave soon into their careers, do love our job; the problem is that the nation has not felt the same about teachers and teaching for many decades. Individually it will be a varied story, but our society’s collective feeling about teachers is pretty negative. (This is certainly not directed at any school, department or leader; this is all about the general spirit or zeitgeist in which we find ourselves as a profession.)

I can’t pretend to be a sociologist, or psychologist either, and those who are may indeed wince at my clumsiness here; I am simply a teacher trying to understand why it always seems like such a battle for so many teachers to succeed. The truth is, many teachers just can’t survive the rigors of the classroom without the kind of esteem teachers once felt and deserve. It is no longer considered a noble profession, like a nurse or doctor. You say you’re a teacher and people tend to change the subject, or sigh with a compassionate smile, as if to say, ‘don’t worry, maybe one day you’ll be free.’

Without doubt, nothing is straight forward in education and there is never one answer that will solve everything. The profession is constantly bombarded with new initiatives that send everyone running to one side of the deck, threatening to tip everything into the sea, only to send everyone running back the other way. This constant upheaval is destroying the profession as nothing ever seems to be good enough and teachers spend their lives having to reinvent everything over and over again, but why? Why have we been teaching children for so long, yet still seem unable to settle on the best way to teach our young?

Perhaps however, this is the nature of a profession that is so intricately entwined in both politics and economics, as well as the deeply personal, social, emotional and psychological experiences of everyone; after all, every single adult can talk about school, and usually with a fervour that ranges from antipathy and rage to romance and nostalgia, but rarely much in between. School is a passionate place. What I’d like to do here, is examine some of the fundamental ideas about teaching that underpin many everyday practices and approaches to schooling, yet are not often analysed or dissected to uncover their possible origins, or potential consequences.

Having studied Education at degree level, then post graduate teacher training and finally a Masters in Education, I was moulded into a way of thinking about teaching that became so deeply entrenched, it seemed as unconscious as blinking, even breathing. This thought was confirmed all the way thorough my career by almost everything I encountered, both in and out of school. It was the origin of nearly all sleepless nights, all stresses and worries, yet most often disguised as confusion about my role and how to be the best teacher I could.  Despite having a really successful career as a teacher, getting as high as you really can without moving into headship, and even receiving accolades like ‘primary science teacher of the year,’ I have been dogged by the idea that throughout all this, teaching is essentially an incongruous thing to do.

Initially, teaching is perpetually problematised because everyone has a view on everything a teacher does, so nearly always someone, somewhere has a better way of doing it. The pressure of being judged is relentless for teachers; it is why most leave the profession. Parents, leaders, inspectors judge us, and most of all we judge ourselves and each other in an effort to find that golden nugget of teaching that somehow eludes the profession over and over again. We are dogged by wanting to perfect the messy, unpredictable and complicated process of learning. And forever it seems to evades professional consensus.

Yet while we may never reach that realisation as a profession, it may ease our restlessness to look back in time and examine how attitudes to childhood have changed over hundreds of years which in turn have led to a fundamental change in our collective consciousness regarding teachers.

It would be simplistic to try to isolate single moments or events that caused changes in how society thinks, but a number of changes have together had significant impact on how teachers are viewed. Firstly, society changed its attitude to children from around the 17th century. Gradually children were thought of as less like miniature adults; we stopped dressing them like us, marrying them off to each other and, although I’m aware it is far more complex than just this, broadly speaking, the modern concept of childhood emerged.

Then over time, we recognised that if children weren’t adults then they required nurturing and schooling. Religious ideas of original sin, envisaging the child as wild and primitive and requiring taming, if not purging, dominated education. Schools were hard places where nature, the animal, was knocked out of children, and in some cases quite literally.

Steadily however, following enlightenment, we began to shrug off the idea of original sin and we began to make friends with nature. We painted and wrote about our environment as never before; we wanted to make friends with it, harness it and thus romanticism was born. There was a shift towards a romantic understanding of the child as being born pure and in tune with nature. Romantic poets like Bryon, described nature no longer as wild and angry, but as untainted and idyllic. While previously, there was the idea that nature, including our young, needed taming, the romantic movement introduced the idea that nature was inspirational, healing and cleansing. Children were envisaged as being born pure, only over time corrupted by the unnatural world of adulthood.

The stage was then set for completely new ideas to emerge into the social consciousness. No longer miniature adults, or primitive creatures who needed to be civilised, children became sacred and childhood something we should seek to preserve for its purity and affinity with nature.

From this movement, educational philosophers like Dewey and Rousseau expounded the idea of working with the natural aptitudes of children rather than imposing the world onto children through transmission teaching. Thus, ideas like child-centredness, discovery learning and learning through play emerged.  This movement framed teachers as facilitators whose role should be to create the stage where the child was able to develop naturally, untainted by the impositions of the educator. The imparting of knowledge became problematic, but teachers had to do something, so the idea of teaching skills rather than knowledge emerged and the emphasis moved from transmission of knowledge to the facilitation of experiences that would hone skills.

Following this came the addition of the natural developmental theories by psychologists like Piaget, and we arrived at the unspoken idea that children really don’t need teachers; teachers get in the way, and perhaps even it is teachers who should be seen and not heard. The institutions of education remain standing, but teachers and teaching are problematic, obstructive and even superfluous. Teaching is left in an awkward place (not unlike a spare something or other at a wedding) a very different place from the classical concept of the novice and the learned instructor, or the Eastern idea of the master and disciple that endures in Eastern cultures still, and is perhaps why teachers continue to have great admiration and respect in those areas of the world that bypassed Western Enlightenment and romanticism altogether.

On the one hand, Western society has asked that schools produce children who are educated, yet on the other, it quietly questions teachers’ authority to educate. This creates a subtle confusion about the role of the teacher within the profession; it leaves us wary of it, makes us want to check up on it all the time. Unconsciously and subtly over time, we have told ourselves that teachers are not to be trusted. The stereotyped image of a teacher is very often authoritarian and tyrannical, rather than noble and wise. Over time, teaching has lost its dignity and magnificence; being taught has been transformed into an unnatural imposition that our young must endure rather than warmly embrace. We are bricks in the wall that education erects around childhood.

This unspoken antagonism towards teaching is born out in the promotion of practices and curricula over the last hundred years that are in opposition to the transmission of knowledge from teacher to pupil. The idea of teaching, the passing of knowledge from a more knowledgeable other to a novice, filling pupils with information, is irrevocably problematised because it goes against the idea of natural development, of the child being like a flower waiting to open, of the child growing and passing through predetermined stages of development. Teaching does not fit with this. Intervention, training from a more knowledgeable other, interferes.

When examined this way, it is not hard to see the awkward position in which teaching finds itself. Of course, I have taken a very crude a simplistic look at our history, made bold, perhaps even hyperbolic assertions about what we collectively think, but to helicopter out and look down from afar might help to understand ourselves as a profession. Why have we put so much emphasis on child-led learning, problem solving and supposed ‘skills’ acquisition until now? Why have teachers been systematically told to talk as little as possible, to always strive to be the ‘guide on the side’ rather than ‘the sage on the stage,’ and why so vehemently? Surely, all approaches have their place? (Surely it’s what benefits learners most?)  Our antipathy towards the expounding and imparting of knowledge has been unhinged and left teaching an apologetic profession, not really believing in itself. It may  have also left large groups of pupils bereft of the powerful knowledge so many more affluent children take for granted, and which leads, unfairly as it may be, to success in life.

As our intolerance of our situation wears thin, we are beginning to question the essence of teaching once again. We are delving deeply into what learning is through cognitive science and on this basis, how best to teach. It seems too that we are discovering that effective teaching has never changed, only our understanding of it as we reconcile false dichotomies like skills v knowledge, transmission v enquiry and more. It is also especially relevant now when we understand more and more about the role of genetics and the types of knowledge humans learn naturally, and that which requires teaching.  No doubt some of us are afraid of returning to austere, regimented ways of teaching, wary too of the power of knowledge and its consequences, and skewing of knowledge in order to favour some and marginalise others.

Yet our understanding of the innocence and preciousness of childhood remains intact and our understanding of the potential of all children stands. We have done well to put the child at the centre of education and we should not turn our backs on that; however, now we must make no apology for being the knowledgeable instructors, the givers of knowledge to those lacking in it, the novices, the beginners, the learners; for we are teachers and teaching is not only natural, a natural result of humans retaining knowledge and understanding of the world which passes on, it is naturally good too.

We should also take great care at these times when polarisation often seems the default during debates and discussion.  Progressive ideas about education have revolutionised teaching, inserting great humanity into the profession, making schools places that children come to love and feel nurtured within and where they can be themselves, while ideas that reveal the benefits of instructions, practice and understanding how memory works should not run contrary to this, but enhance the strides we have made in education to put children’s well-being at the heart of everything. And above all, let’s make no apology for being teachers who teach!



Twenty years of getting it wrong? An essay in educational ideas.


In education, power is quite a thing.  As a young graduate in Education, I was introduced to the idea that that  schools were places complicit in reproducing social strata, keeping the powerful on top and working people down via the imposition of both an explicit and implicit curriculum which favoured the more affluent classes. State education was a place where not only was an elitist, private school curriculum taught, but the norms, values and language of the establishment were also transmitted, recycling the status quo, keeping the powerful in power.

These middle class ‘ways’ were either familiar to pupils, thus confirming their feelings of belonging and positive esteem, or they acted as barriers to such feelings, preventing pupils from utilising education in the same way. Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital, the invisible currency of the powerful, fuelled the idea that education perpetuated class division through the transference of culture, or what we might even call ‘taste’ or ‘style’.

Framed this way, teachers and schools were then considered to possess the means to disrupt this transference and to hand back power to the less affluent by working against the establishment through radicalising pedagogy.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paolo Freire, suggests oppression begins when students are perceived to be empty vessels, waiting to be ‘filled up’ by the knowledgeable educator. In turn, he rejects traditional education itself as the expounding of ‘official knowledge’ that always intends to oppress. For him, schools remain places of political indoctrination where teachers can and must, reveal and problematise establishment propaganda in order to liberate the oppressed.

Heavy stuff! Such extreme language you might say! Not what springs to mind when we think of the schools that we know, but these are the ideas that were prevalent in education degree courses twenty years ago, whether they still are remains to be seen.

Bourdieu was inspirational to me. I wrote a dissertation on his ideas that fuelled my desire to work hard in my life to make the world a fairer place through teaching. Some people might have called me naive, but Bourdieu was the god of socialist-educational zeal and moreover, his academic thinking and research gave credibility to this fervour. He was not wrong; we were not wrong, because how could it be wrong to want to work for equality?

Well, of course it is right to want this; it is right to feel uncomfortable with inequality and wise to understand that we are all better off when things are fairer; history has shown this time and again. No one is unaffected by the poverty, lack of education and empty prospects of others. Some might pretend they are immune, convince themselves they can escape to somewhere and close the door, yet the effects of ignoring the suffering and problems of others only allows it all to worsen until it knocks on that closed door and tramples it down.

Bourdieu, son of a postal worker, became a social anthropologist concerned with how power moved around in society. He found that the university students from poorer backgrounds didn’t have the same tastes or make the same choices in things like art, music, theatre, clothes etc as those of the more affluent students. In turn, this eventually prevented poorer students from accessing more powerful positions in society. It’s not hard to see this when we think about how we slot people we meet into a social class just by the preferences they might make, the clothes they wear and even the programmes they watch.

However, as Hirsch notes in his commentary concerning the down turn in the French schooling system after the change to progressive education, the poorer students still got to university under the pre-progressive system, whereas before poorer people weren’t even making it to university at all. Notably, the thing that Bourdieu really did miss, and what pulls his theory apart, is time. Bourdieu did not give education the time it needed to have a real effect on society. It takes more than a generation for schooling to make generational change.

He was correct that the more affluent students did exchange this cultural currency and move up through the ranks; it is true that what and who you knew mattered, likely they still do. However, as Hirsch asserts, Bourdieu did not analyse the choices made by the children of the poorer students. He did not give his brilliant idea time. The offspring of the poorer students made choices that were not the same as their parents, but moved closer to those of the ‘establishment,’ or what Hirsch calls ‘the insiders’. Cultural capital was transferred, power was moved, it just took longer. Education did not keep everyone in the same place as Bourdieu and his contemporaries asserted. As Hirsh reflects upon the French abandonment of their community based, knowledge-rich curriculum, ‘why dismantle a school system that had produced a Bourdieu?’

We see this today. My father, brought up in a small town in North Wales, son of a working-class council worker, got a place at University in London. He took the blows of being a small, town Welsh boy surrounded by the chic and savvy of London. And now here I am, with all the cultural capital he and my mother passed down to me, enjoying writing this blog in my nice house. Education did not hold my family where it started out, but it does seem to be holding more working class families back now.

At aged twenty, I had not read Hirsch. Thatcher, the daughter of a green grocer,  was in power, epitomising the tyranny of the establishment and the terrible inequalities of society that the rich enjoyed. She also hated teachers.

Then added to my pedagogic education, were the ideas of Dewey and Rousseau. Dewey argued strongly that the student should be encouraged towards self-efficacy and independence in their learning, which eventually they should, who would argue with that? Far from being empty vessels, Dewey believed that students arrive with their own understanding and therefore must relate what is to be learnt to themselves in order to create meaning.

In turn, Dewey asserted that students should be active agents engaged in enquiry, or what we might now call ‘hands on’ learning, thus linking Dewey rightly or wrongly to the huge advance in learning through problem solving rather than through rote or drills. In addition, Dewey criticised schools at the time for creating what he saw as passive recipients, mollified by the learning of multitudes of facts that only served to create compliant citizens.

Then there was Rousseau, another educationalist dominating post graduate reading lists.  Similarly, Rousseau propounded the idea of children learning through experience rather than transmission, asserting that it was better for children to acquire knowledge through active involvement in the world, supporting many of the ideas today regarding learning through play and self discovery.

All these ideas were further compounded throughout my initial teacher training and I began my teaching career with the firm belief that part of my role as a teacher was to try to readdress power imbalances, democratise the classroom and hand the means to new knowledge and new power to pupils.  Never really expressed in such terms in school, nevertheless, teaching was a career with emancipation as one of its prime intents.

Thus, I began my career by pitching myself as more a facilitator than a teacher; we should, after all these philosophies told us, position ourselves as ‘guides on the side’ rather than as ‘sages on the stages; we are not transmitters but co-constructors of knowledge. Children are not ‘tabula rasa’ or blank slates, but arrive in school complete with ideas of their own about the world, which I still believe to be true and of great significance in planning learning. However, from these ideas came the idea that the curriculum should  arise from the locus of the child, rather than from external imposition. As Hirsch says, this view asserts that we should ‘accommodate teaching to the characteristics of the child,’ so that the curriculum is not an ‘artificial imposition,’ but is instead ‘developed naturally’ (2018:139). It is this idea of working at the child’s pace and ‘where they are’ that dominated teaching when I started and even when I was at school in the 1980s.  I left comprehensive school embarrassingly ignorant of the world and later had to teach myself the basic humanities, science, maths and English knowledge required for teacher training. ( I recall that many post graduate students on my teacher training course did not understand basic grammar rules for example, or even simple fundamental scientific concepts, unless they had specialised in these areas for their degrees.)

Still, back then, learning through discovery was considered to liberate the student and ensure learning related to themselves. The more I equalised the knowledge status of pupil and teacher, the better teacher I would be; the less I spoke, the better teacher I would be, after all, telling is transmission and transmission is imposing a curriculum? Teaching official knowledge was committing to indoctrination therefore, following pupils’ lines of enquires through focusing on skill acquisition would liberate students from this artificial imposition of an external curriculum?

Of course, it was never verbalised in this extreme way, but that was where the ideas about teaching in this country had come from, whether people knew it or not, many didn’t. Lessons with less teacher talk, less teacher intervention in fact, were always considered better.  At one point, teachers were even given a percentage ratio so that any lesson where teacher talk rose above 20% more than pupils’ was considered overly ‘teacher-led,’ and heaven forbid a lesson should ever be that.  To stand at the front of a class of pupils and talk for longer than a few minutes meant you were a traditionalist, ‘old fashioned,’ ‘stuck in your ways’ and not able to ‘move with the times.’ Whether or not your pupils learned more if you taught that way was never ever thought about, let alone researched. The best teachers were invisible. The best lessons were child-led, even if they learnt very little.

Now, I didn’t arrive at school every day with a red bandanna around my head whistling Power to the People. Being a young student teacher running along by the seat of my pants, it was all I could do to get through a day, let alone think about the politics of my role. However, these ideas, that were expounded at university and during teacher training, were prevalent in various intensities across the profession; whether people consciously thought of them like that or not, these concepts drove ideas about teaching and learning, and still do in many instances today.

The consequence was that it was considered good practice to allow pupils to run with projects that were fuelled by their own interests. It didn’t seem to matter that often children from poorer backgrounds had very little to start with so that their projects were, dare I say it, never as good as those children who came with lots to say and full of ideas to put into their projects. It didn’t matter because we were ‘starting with the child’ rather than imposing knowledge upon them. It didn’t seem to matter if some pupils were producing complete rubbish, while others were producing master pieces as long as it was led by the child.

Lessons that were active, full of opportunities for children to naturally discover new ideas were prized, but often these resulted in concepts that were forgotten quite quickly and usually never returned to, resulting in low levels of learning. As well, concepts we wanted children to ‘pick up’, like for example, understanding the effect of the earth rotating around the sun by drawing around their shadows over the course of a day, were never actually discovered at all, but had to be told to pupils at the end of the activity because  the children had thought more about chalk and the funny shapes of their shadows rather than anything to do with the sun.

Somehow these supposed eureka-discovery moments (if they ever actually occurred) were considered irrevocable forms of learning, it being unnecessary to return to them because through the supremacy of discovery they would be forever embedded. Somehow, knowledge realised by the child had a different quality than if the same knowledge had been told to them by the teacher. That was Dewey and Rousseau right there, whispering through the corridors of schools, whether we knew it or not.

Interestingly, it was usually only the more privileged pupils who had rich experiences and conversations outside school who benefited most by consolidating and embedding what they already knew through experimentation.

So now years later, I ask, were we duped by Bourdieu, Freire, Dewey and Rousseau? Did we, have we, in a commendable attempt to support the underdog and upset the status quo, actually held the underprivileged down? Did we ironically only compound the disadvantage of those lacking in access to cultural capital outside school through all that child centeredness?  Has too, our post war obsession with the individual and individualism ignored the value of what Hirsch calls, the ‘communal knowledge’ of a knowledge-based curriculum founded on the best of what is known and said, thus excluding so many from what he calls, ‘the knowledge and language club,’ of which society’s successful have membership (2018:126). This is not to pitch communal knowledge as that of the dusty, old, white men, but the shared knowledge that evolves through community understanding, which must include the sources, interpretations and reactions to the previous, creating continually refreshed shared knowledge.

Now that cognitive science has thrown a light on the roles of long term and working memory and knowledge acquisition, did we let down generations of pupils by undervaluing knowledge acquisition through transmission teaching and emphasising child centeredness as much as we did? Are we still doing this in fact? How many leaders are still advocating practises because they ‘feel right’ politically and even morally, rather than because they have looked at the evidence that they improve learning? There is no doubt that Dewey and Rousseau were great educationalists and made very worthy contributions to the profession, but did we ignore their lack of fit with where we were and how society was? Are we still?

Cognitive psychologists like Bjork, Willingham and Sweller have shown that learning based on projects, problem solving and child-led enquiry before pupils are sufficiently knowledgeable in the subject, most often result in poor levels of learning. Educationalists like Dylan Wiliam and Daisy Christiodolou assert the same. Sweller has also shown that most of what we teach in schools is non-instinctive knowledge which humans cannot just ‘pick up’ naturally like for example, the instinctive knowledge of walking and talking. This is why we have schools, to pass on the communal knowledge of humankind which we have created over thousands of years. True, that has in the past been centered around those dusty, old white men, but are we as humankind not seeking to upgrade this now? Shared knowledge is not fixed.

But, as Hirsch has said, the greatest feats of humankind have come about, not through one person sat alone ‘discovering’, but have actually come about through shared knowledge over time, handed from one generation to another which paved the way for discovery. There was no Einstein without Newton, no Newton without all the shoulders of giants on whom he stood. Same goes for any great and knowledgeable person, male or female – it’s communal, shared knowledge they have arisen from.

At the same time, Hirsch, Willingham, Bjork and Sweller and such like, have not said these child-centred approaches to learning should be banned, or are inherently negative, but they have said that the emphasis on them over knowledge acquisition is not good for learning. So why does child-led, project-based learning remain so popular in many schools? The motivation might be noble, but the reality seems to say something different to me now. I’m not feeling it, as they say.

Currently, the opposition to teaching through a knowledge-rich curriculum seems motivated by the fear that we will slip back into lining up rows of tables and rote learning of unconnected facts, like list of kings and queens, or capital cities. The strength of feeling supporting child-centred learning and the mistrust of a knowledge-rich curriculum taught primarily through direct instruction rather than problem solving and project learning, seems to arise from a worry that we might then not be the emancipatory profession we thought we were. Or worse, that perhaps, as I heard one person say recently, that woolly teachers who hide behind lots of glue and papier mache  might actually have to get up and teach, although this doesn’t sound like any of the teachers I know, or have known.

Ironically, it seems we curtail children’s freedom if we fail to endow them with the knowledge and understanding they need in order to gain an expansive understanding of the world which they can use to become powerful, informed individuals themselves. It just cannot be right if large numbers of children leave school without a basic understanding of  the big ideas we share as humans. As Tim Oates has said, most of these big ideas have not changed for hundreds of years so the argument that knowledge is always changing anyway so why teach it, is just wrong.  What gravity is and how it comes about is not going to change anytime soon. True, pupils might be able to look these facts up on the internet, but missing out on such important everyday knowledge signals wider deficits in knowledge and understanding about the world which excludes many from that ‘knowledge and language club’. Could it be that Hirsch is spot on when he talks about ‘the three disastrous pedagogical theories: naturalism, individualism and skill-centrism?’ (2018:140). I’m beginning to think so.

I also know that I have always been motivated to work hard for my pupils; the people I have worked with over the years have been the same; the people I work with now are the same.  I also know that the more I learn about education through research-based evidence the better teacher I will be. We’ve never had a better opportunity to learn from authentic evidence rather than heart-felt passions or moral intent. And without question, I have learned that blindly accepting things because they ‘feel right’ or because we are told this way is better because it’s more exciting or engaging is no longer acceptable… or indeed emancipatory. If we really want to ‘make a difference’ then the knowledge gained through rigorous evidence must prevail.

And…I’m not burning my red flag, I believe in socialism more than ever, but if knowledge is power, then let there be knowledge all over the place and for everyone…


Reference:  Hirsch. E,D. (2018) Why Knowledge Matters. Rescuing our children from failed educational theories. Harvard Education Press.



Thought for the day…and possible the year…


Cognitive scientists tell us that learning is the  processing of information in the working memory which is then transferred to the long-term memory. In turn, knowledge is stored in the long-term memory within networks of related information called schemas. Under this analysis, in thinking about the difference between the novice and the expert, a distance we are always striving to traverse in education, then the expert is considered to have large amounts of background knowledge, or expansive schemas, stored in their long-term memory. Not only does this mean they know more, but it also enables them to think quicker as their working memory is not taken up processing information; instead information is retrieved automatically from long-term memory for application. The more they know, the faster they seem to become. This is my experience too. The children who know more, think faster and pick up the next things I teach much faster too. Knowledge builds knowledge it seems; skill then manifests through the ability to retrieve the appropriate knowledge and apply it as required.

According to cognitive science then, ‘skills’ are not generic actions that we can carry around from one subject area to another, but rather skills are the application of domain specific knowledge. Because of this, skills like critical thinking for example, are something that cannot be taught in and of themselves as effective critical thinking requires background knowledge – or stuff to think critically about. So far, I can’t find much in my daily experience as a teacher to contradict this, but I’m also aware of jumping onto educational band wagons, although the fact that this has research and evidence to support it, makes it compelling. 

Who would disagree that expertise is about possessing expansive knowledge and applying that skillfully? Yet a doctor cannot transfer her skill of critically thinking through a diagnosis and finding a cure, to for example, diagnosing what’s wrong with her car and fixing it. If she had the same background knowledge of the internal combustion engine as she did the human body then yes, but here she doesn’t so her adept ability to think critically when faced with a sick patient, just doesn’t transfer. This also makes some sense to me, but I also think there are some overarching general skills or competencies that must transfer like staying calm under pressure, being resilient when at first you aren’t successful, recognising when you need help etc. Perhaps these aren’t skills, but they are facets of mental processing that we can talk about, reflect on, cultivate and practise so perhaps they are?

However, this current  idea that education should be based on knowledge acquisition, rather than generic skills, the independent existence of which scholars debate fiercly, makes some sense to me when I think about the children I teach. The children who appear more skilled in an area always seem to know more about that topic. I also recognise that in project work or problem-solving tasks, it is again, the children who know more who fair better, but I’m not a cognitive scientist and this is purely anecdotal.

One area that also makes sense to me is what Hirsch says about reading skills. According to Hirsch, we try to teach children comprehension skills such as ‘finding the main idea,’ or ‘summarising a text’ or ‘scanning to find answers.’ For Hirsch, effective reading skills lie in knowledge acquisition and vocabulary understanding. For him, we can teach children ‘finding the main idea’ until we’re blue in the face, but give them a text about a subject they have no knowledge about and they will struggle to find that main idea. And when this happens, we are not testing their reading skills, but rather their knowledge and understanding.

Put like this, our reading tests in this country, test breadth of knowledge and vocabulary acquisition rather than this thing called ‘reading skills’; this is unless of course we assert that once decoding skills are secure, breadth of knowledge and vocabulary understanding are in fact reading skills? In which case, why try to teach skills like ‘finding the main idea’ or ‘summarising a text’. The teaching focus should then be on knowledge acquisition and vocabulary understanding surely?

And if this is true, then these reading tests aren’t a fair measure of reading skills at all, because rather than measure what we have supposedly taught, ‘the skill of reading,’ they instead measure the background knowledge children might possess in a range of random topics which may or may not have been taught, or they may or may not have come across in life. As more affluent children tend to have a wider range of knowledge acquiring experiences and vocabulary understanding through, not least, all those holidays, visits to zoos and museums and clubs etc, then they tend to do better at reading tests, despite being taught the same skills in schools, such as ‘finding the main idea,’ ‘summarising’, ‘predicting’ and all those other generic reading skills we have thought make the effective reader.

Again, I’m drawn to this idea, but I’m not completely convinced yet. It does have resonance with my experience, but I’d still like more evidence, although anecdotally I feel I have my own. Take last year’s KS1 reading test. On paper 1, there was a fictional story about a boy who has his cousin coming to visit. It turns out the cousin is a baby and so can’t play with him so he’s disappointed.  Most children who could decode effectively and read fluently did well on this section. Most children have cousins and have had them to come and play. They also know about babies and that they can’t play with trucks etc. Essentially the knowledge base for this section was simply common knowledge for 6 and 7 years old. Fine.

Then there was the non-fiction section on paper 1. This is where things started to change. This section started off being about pack lunches – great, children know about pack lunches.  But it soon changed to being about bread making. The main vocabulary was familiar only to those children who had perhaps made bread before or been out to the countryside and seen grain harvested, or who had learnt about how grain is harvested and turned into flour at some point at home. This is not specific to anything required in the national curriculum, and even though we had done some pizza making that year, we hadn’t talked about how flour was made – damn!

Admittedly, we were allowed to introduce the specialised vocabulary and establish the meaning before the test, but if what we know about working memory is true, being told the meaning of five brand new words just before a large amount of cognitive load is put upon the working memory in the form of a test, means that for most children that information would have been lost the minute the children started reading the first questions and trying to work out what to do.   The children who knew about bread making were at an advantage from the start. The children who knew nothing about turning wheat into flour then bread would have had to work harder in the test.

It is no surprise to me that children did better on the first part of paper 1. This experience could support what scholars like Willingham, Bjork and Christodoulou are saying about generic skills, and in particular what Hirsch says about reading.  The question I ask myself is, how different would the results of that test have been if we had completed a project on farming and bread making that year so that they were familiar with words like dough and yeast? If the class next door had done that project and not us, would it have been a fair reading test for us both or  would it have been simply testing  whether the class next door learned the content in their bread making project?

At the same time, I am acutely aware that in education we pick up new ideas and get over excited far too easily. I know I have in the past. All of this current research does have randomised control trials behind it and robust evidence if I am to believe what I read, but education has suffered from pendulums swinging so far they other way that everything slides to the end of the deck and we start tripping up on everything.  We have to be wary. We cannot go back to learning lists of facts that will never be any use to anyone, but no one has suggested that, not once in fact. Certainly, acquiring a breadth of knowledge in order to apply that to problems and investigations makes sense in the light of what we now know. We have nothing to lose if we stick with bringing theory and practice together. My hope is that we all try hard to use evidence rather than feelings, or attachments to the ways we have always done things. We might think and feel something is right, but we might be completely wrong. If we accept this as a profession, we will help ourselves a great deal. A head teacher I respect a great deal said to me recently, ‘ we need to challenge ourselves and sometimes that’s uncomfortable’.  I agree.

The evidence from cognitive science is compelling and should prompt leaders and teachers to think about how they teach and what they teach and the impact this has on learners. So many times, new things have come along, but little has changed. Poor children haven’t done any better; the attainment gap continues, like a line draw in concrete, hard to shift. This research on learning, memory and knowledge acquisition suggests that a knowledge rich curriculum could be a better way to address this, rather than through the generic skills route that we have tried for a long time without much change.  I think it’s worth going further with this, mindful of the mistakes of the distant past of course and with a close eye on the kind of knowledge that will help ALL children really fly forward.

And lastly, why not purposely base  reading tests on age appropriate curricular knowledge instead of topics like bread making, juice pressing or bee keeping or adventures on safari?   Let’s give the kids who learn most of their knowledge of the world in school a fighting chance! 


Reflecting on the best that we know so far: thoughts on this season’s Journal of the Chartered College of Teaching.


On reading a number of articles focusing on curriculum in the latest issue of the Journal of the Charted College of Teaching, I felt compelled to blog a response in an attempt to interpret some of the highly pertinent ideas and assertions. I would urge all readers to try to read the original articles in the autumn Impact journal, as here is only a brief distillation, and without the breadth of knowledge of the original authors, who to my mind, reflect the best of what we know so far about these topics as an educational community.

So here we are, four years after negotiating the change in the national curriculum and adapting to assessment without levels, and schools are now turning towards those parts of the curriculum beyond reading, writing and maths.

Now that the dust has settled after the turbulence of curriculum change and assessment transformation, everyone’s eyes have turned to the other curricular areas of our knowledge rich curriculum.  Concern has arisen about the over emphasis on the three Rs, and to an extent picking up the reins of the progressive, child-led movement, with many schools advocating more focus on things like problem-solving, skills and discovery learning.  However, as educators we must take great care that we understand the possible effects of our reaction towards what feels like the imposition of what is essentially a private school, knowledge-based curriculum on state education.

To add to this, there is a growing debate on just how far we have all been side tracked by the separation of knowledge and skills, when growing evidence from cognitive science by psychologists like Daniel Willingham suggest that there are no skills without bodies of knowledge to underpin them (2009). Therefore, an over emphasis on skill-based and problem- solving learning for children without adequate background knowledge most often results in poor levels of attainment and achievement.

Importantly, as Prof. Michael Young suggests (Impact, Autumn 2018), the progressive, knee-jerk reaction to the imposition of a seemingly elite, knowledge-based curriculum on state schools has ironically put underprivileged pupils at more of a disadvantage. This is because affluent, middle class children already come to school with wider a knowledge base, thus an emphasis on skills and discovery learning means that these children literally hit the ground running, while those children with deficits in cultural capital, narrower foundations of knowledge and experience, are immediately trumped because they are without the basic knowledge required in order to apply skills effectively. And as Willingham has found, ‘background knowledge is necessary for cognitive skills’ (2009:37), or as I see it, without sufficient know, there is no, know-how.

As Young asserts, ‘as a result, far too many working-class children are denied access to the knowledge that middle-class children take for granted, and an emphasis on ‘knowledge’ is easily interpreted as a form of control and not as a source of emancipation – when of course it is potentially both, (Impact, Autumn, 2018:4).

In others words, ‘they’ might be pouring a lot of elite, middle class knowledge from on high, but let’s use it, own it and make it a tool for the knowledge creators of the future.

For me too, the argument that knowledge is transient, ever changing and always at hand anyway through search engines, only acts as a smoke screen here, as supporters of this argument have missed the fact that knowledge or ‘facts’ never stand alone; new knowledge is born from old knowledge. It is impossible to know what to look for or enquire about, unless you have some knowledge to start with. 

In addition, as Tim Oates rightly points out, ‘talk of constantly changing human knowledge fails to recognise that fundamental paradigm shifts appear very infrequently in disciplines,’ (Impact, Autumn 2018: 17). In other words, the fact that Earth rotates around the Sun is a fact that has been established for hundreds of years, if we treat it as ‘just temporary’ and therefore not necessary to remember, we will run into trouble when we try to understand how time works and how seasons change, plus a whole lot of other bother, I’m sure! For this reason, we need to think clearly when thinking about our curricula. If we down grade knowledge learning in place of allowing kids to ‘follow their own leads’ or ‘just discover,’ are we doing a disservice to those children who have very little with which to start their own self-led learning?

This is not to say that fuelling children’s engagement with content that is rich and interesting should not dominate the curriculum, but as Christine Counsell points out in her article for the Impact journal, we ‘lose our moorings’ when ‘content is chosen for being engaging or deemed ‘relevant by the pupil.’  For me, this highlights the danger of child-led learning trumping those disadvantaged children. After all, if Jonny-Parker Smith has spent the summer on Safari in Kenya, while Danny Jones spent his summer kicking a ball against a wall on a council estate, then starting our new topic on ‘animals’ means that starting with what is ‘relevant to the child,’ will preclude a wealth of knowledge for Danny and pit Jonny far, far ahead from the start. Of course, I have chosen stark stereotypes here, not all poor children live lives that lack richness and interest; equally, not all affluent children have double-barrel names and lead stimulating, erudite lives outside school. However, the fact remains that children arrive at school with varying amounts of background knowledge in subjects and more affluent children tend to have more background knowledge because they have the means to access a wider set of experiences.

So, while we can’t fly Danny to Africa and give him a safari experience, and we can’t blame Jonny for his experiences, nor disregard what he knows, he has as much right learn new and significant things in school, we can feed Danny with an adequate amount of background knowledge so that his project on animals takes him beyond his usual experience and moves him closer to a level playing field– which is as Robbie Burns suggests in his article, what a curriculum should do. 

In Burns’s view, ‘knowledge-led curricula attempt to provide young people with a school experience that enables them to be socially mobile, for this is the core of what social justice is: enabling young people, regardless of socio-economic background, to be provided with the opportunities to succeed, (Autumn, Impact 2018:11).

This is not to say that everything must start and end with fact filled lessons with pupils having no chance to experience the freedom of play and discovering new things on their own; however, if we make this the basis of our curriculum, it seems likely that far from emancipating less affluent children from the knowledge-based curriculum imposed by the ‘elite,’ we could instead be helping to reproduce social inequalities, maintaining and even widening the achievement gap.

One approach that curriculum leaders could use to provide more perspective on these bodies of curricula knowledge is to, as Christine Counsell describes, understand the distinction between substantive and disciplinary knowledge in order to shine a light on ‘powerful knowledge.’ As Christine explains, ‘substantive knowledge is the knowledge that teachers establish as fact’ (Impact, Autumn, 2018:7), such as the subject knowledge lists we find in the national curriculum. While ‘disciplinary knowledge, by contrast, is a curricular term by which pupils learn about how that knowledge was established, its degree of certainty, and how it continues to be revised by scholars, artists, or professional practice,’ (2018:7). When these two types of knowledge are taught, then we give pupils the means to understand what and how ‘powerful knowledge’ comes about; we make them critical thinkers and handlers of knowledge, rather than passive collectors of facts. As Christine asserts, … ‘for pupils learn how knowledge is formed and changed distinguishes a knowledge-rich curriculum grounded in “powerful knowledge” from one merely ossifying a canon.’ In other words, we need to empower all children not only by ensuring they have a breadth of background knowledge in subjects, but also teach them how to be critical, questioning interpreters of that knowledge. This will not happen for children lacking background knowledge if curricula are based on skills or discovery learning.

It is in this way that I would urge curriculum leaders to embrace our knowledge-based curriculum, recognising the opportunities it has to offer less advantaged children by elucidating substantive alongside disciplinary knowledge in subject areas. It is important that we assess both these aspects of knowledge, then it will give all children the freedom to use that breadth of knowledge skilfully. We should also remember that if we want all children to engage in higher order thinking, the thinking that leads to better educational outcomes and life-long learning skills, then this begins with knowledge, while application and synthesis of that knowledge is what follows rather than precedes.


Impact: Journal of the Chartered College of Teaching, Issue 4, Autumn 2018.

Willingham, D.T. (2009) Why don’t children like school, Jossey-Bass.





Running between tables in restaurants…

While on holiday recently, Mr B and I were enjoying dinner together. As some couples do when married for nearly twenty years, we tend to do more people watching than gazing into each other’s eyes over the fois gras (although we never order that as it’s downright cruel – ask a duck). On this particular evening, Mr B spotted a family behind me and became quickly fixated by what he observed.

Being a candid kind of man, he was quick to show his disapproval and incredulity at what he considered ‘diabolicial parenting’ on the table behind me.  I turned discreetly to see a mother and father with two children all eating their supper. The father held a mobile phone in one hand, while using a folk to feed himself with the other. His wife stared into space and his two sons twiddled pasta into their mouths while entranced by an iPad propped up between them.

Knowing my husband’s propensity for expressions of ferocity in the face of many of life’s seeming injustices, both small and large, I attempted to rationalise their behaviour to him.

“Well, don’t worry. Perhaps dad had to do an urgent business email or something…and you never know they might have been talking all day!”  But he was insistent.

“I doubt it – I bet they have those things on in the car instead of looking out the window too. Kids should be enjoying conversation with their parents, that’s what coming to the table is for!”  He was adamant and I had to agree. We have seen this pacification of children many times before in recent years and almost always during  occasions when we had some of the most memorable conversations with our own children.

We tried to continue our meal while Mr B gave me a running commentary of ‘that family behind you’.  After some time, the family finished their silent supper and their plates were cleared.  To his continued annoyance, another iPad appeared allowing both children to have one each. The older boy had previously made several attempts to engage his parents in conversation, even walking around the table a few times, but being offered an iPad to himself  was the pacification his parents sought.

The family then settled down for the rest of their stultified meal, engrossed in their own electronic worlds. Kicking my husband another thirty times under table while asking him to keep his voice down, he reminded me, in as loud a voice as he could, that when our children were little and out with us at a restaurant, they would have been running around now between the tables, or rolling around underneath them, and above all – talking to us!

Yet none of this seemed to reach them, not least I expect because of the language barrier of which I am thankful. Perhaps Mr B’s furrowed brow and piercing looks were considered merely the characteristics of  ‘that uptight English bloke over there….after all, his wife kicks him all the time and tells him to be quiet’.

In a last-ditch attempt to find some solace, Mr B took a surreptitious snap of the family and said, “write about this, you have to.” And so here I am, and here is that photo.

French family 'together'_LI (2)

Seeing as I know nothing about this family, I feel it only fair to say that I can only comment on about an hour and a half of their lives together. It could well be that they have talked and talked all day and this is a rare occurrence for them. Yet I can’t help feel, as Mr B said, that being together and talking ‘is what coming to the table is for’.

The photograph makes me feel sad. Was this a missed opportunity to be together and learn about all the wondrous things those two, lovely boys had in their heads, all the questions they might have asked given the chance, all the anecdotes that could have been shared with them to help shape their ideas and make sense of the world?  This seemed to be made plain by the family a few tables away with two young girls, who were engaged in hearty laughter, loving banter and yes, a few laps between the tables.

And how many times do I witness parents picking their children up from school, leading their child away while transfixed by their phones – emitting only short, stunted answers to their child’s questions, with no urge to interrogate them about their day, let alone point out a different kind of tree and wonder how old it might be, or why lines in the road are yellow and not pink, or why clouds are different shapes, or why soil is always brown. Surely no text is more important than this? No post? No Whatsapp message?  Surely?

Today, we hear that since 1997 the amount of girls self-harming due to severe mental illness has doubled. We know that more and more children need help to navigate themselves through the often problematic psychological expedition of being human. Mental health problems have never been so prevalent in young children. In my experience too as a class teacher, more children find it harder to focus in class for even short periods of time.  How much worse this journey through life must be, if our young children grow up deficient in that closeness that comes  about through those seemingly mundane conversations while sat around sucking up spaghetti together, or walking home hand in hand after a long day at school. These were to me the gold dust of parenthood. They are the crown jewels of memories I carry with me from mothering my two children when they were young. They’re not perfect now. Like all young adults they are arrogant at times, egotistical, vehement in their views (which I adore), naïve too,  and always, always messy (yes, I failed there), but also often wise, thoughtful and inquisitive, and competent communicators. Like all young people they have their moments, their crises and trip ups, but somehow, they know who they are and how to help themselves.

Who can say that this was down to not having mobile phones or iPads at mealtimes, or me not actually owning a mobile phone when I used to pick them up from primary school. I’m sure there’s more to it than that. There are many reasons why children turn out alright or not.  But there is something to this; there is something truly awful about that photograph and what went on around that dinner table. People are losing their children to screens and I’m sure this can’t end well.

I’m sure I will never ever see that family again in my entire life. It’s likely those two boys will grow up into healthy, productive and responsible adults; I hope so. But that evening will stay etched in my mind as a warning that humans need to take great care here. We are a species of  communicators who have broken bread over ancient fires, while telling tales and sharing stories for thousands of years. The young have always tugged at our heels and asked why? and how? And we have learnt about being human by looking into each other’s faces and talking for a while here and there…

What does learning look like?


I’ve written before about learning and performance orientations in schools and the cultures they might produce. In turn, this has also directed me towards the difference in learning and performance right at the chalk face. I ask myself, how can I recognise the difference in my own pupils? How do I know children aren’t just performing; how do I know they’ve really learnt anything at all?

This has always troubled me as a teacher. How do any of us know whether children are learning, particularly in short observations? I’ve watched lessons with colleagues and during our subsequent discussions it seems hard to unravel the real difference between engagement, performance and actual learning. There are a range of poor proxies for learning that stump people into thinking they are witnessing it. Hives of activity, quiet focus, task completion, careful presentation or pages of correct answers can all look like learning.  Most people would agree that engagement is not learning; you can put a class of six-year olds in front of a mickey mouse cartoon and they are engaged, but not necessarily learning anything. Attention and focus maybe prerequisites for learning but can never be learning itself.

Recently, while researching further into the difference between learning and performance, I came across the work of Prof. Robert Bjork. He finds that it is very easy to mistake the two and that education has mixed up learning and performance in all sorts of ways for a long time and with negative consequences for learners and learning.

To begin with, we have to start by distinguishing learning and performance which doesn’t often happen in busy schools where teachers feel the need to ‘get through stuff’ and ‘produce results’. While learning refers to changes in long-term memory as a result of a task, performance merely shows how well pupils do in that task, and these are not the same thing. Learning itself is a hidden phenomenon; it is invisible, but its effects thankfully are not, therefore we can at least infer it has occurred, but the trouble is, not in the ways we might assume we can.

Bjork describes how learning and performance can act as inverse to one another so that when pupils perform particularly well in a task, the transfer of learning to long-term memory might actually be less than if they hadn’t performed as well as they did. Confused? Yes, doesn’t this just run contrary to how most people think about learning. Surely correct answers are a sign of learning?  Well, no. And this counters our intuitive conception of learning if it is possible to get pages of calculations correct, but not learn anything.  We confuse learning and performance in education all the time because as long as there is no change in long-term memory then there is no learning. There might have been recall of items stored in the long- term memory that were then processed in the working memory, hence lots of correct answers, but as long as no new connections have been made – it’s not learning. This is the problem: performance is  not the same as learning. One is showing, demonstrating, revealing what you already know while the other is the real-time creation of knowledge which can only be achieved through breaking through a period of ‘not knowing,’ otherwise known as confusion, misunderstanding, inaccurate thinking or what happens when kids look up frowning and say, ‘I don’t get it.’

No change in long- term memory = no learning.

Recall is not learning

Learning follows on from confusion

We find it hard to accept that struggling to succeed in a task is more likely to result in learning, rather than the straight forward successful completion of that task.  While this might seem obvious to seasoned teachers, it is not obvious to many and especially not children, who will usually avoid making mistakes at all cost. Yet, how many times do we look through books, ticking, tick, ticking away and interpret this as a sign of learning? ‘Oh good, they’ve learnt loads today?’  Except, it seems maybe not – it could be that they just performed the task and learned nothing at all?

Like this, Bjok refers to what he calls ‘desirable difficulties’ in that a task needs to be hard enough to trigger the level of processing that has the potential to shift new knowledge to the long-term memory, but not so hard that the pupil is unable to make any links at all. Just as Goldilocks’ needed it to be ‘just right’ so do learners need tasks to be just right too.  And has Daniel Willingham notes in his new and wonderful book (link below): ‘memory is the residue of thought’ so when learners have to think their way to success rather than just ‘do,’ or recall, then it is more likely that learning takes place.  The tricky task for teachers is  designing tasks that will make children think and as Willingham says, think about the right things! No doubt teachers will wince at those times they set up engaging hook activities only to find that all the children thought about was what people were wearing, or the types of animals in the background instead of the history or geography that was the focus!  I recall opening a fossil topic by burying little plastic dinosaurs in plaster of Paris, believing that this would help the children understand how fossils are formed, but all they talked about afterwards was who had the best dinosaurs with the best colours, not once thinking about the fossilisation process.  This is an example of not thinking carefully about what children are likely to think about when engaged in an activity. Perhaps I would have been better off demonstrating how remains become fossilised first, then let them make their own with less conspicuous dinosaurs? It all says a lot about what we use to hook children into learning and whether this is always necessary or effective.

“Memory is the residue of thought”

We learn what we think about

Design tasks that make children think specifically about what they need to learn

So, is this all just about pitch and putting the right task in front of the right child? Well, that in itself is hard enough; any teacher sat before thirty children will tell you that, but even then how do we know that learning really takes place? As Bjork notes, a teacher can teach something and the pupil seems to understand it, they can talk about it there and then, but then the next time that topic comes up the children appear to have learned nothing at all. Is this not the bane of all teachers and the cause of many a deep sigh while marking books? To our frustration as teachers, we know that learning might look like learning when it isn’t.

We can see and measure performance, but unfortunately current performance is not a reliable indicator that learning has happened and knowledge has been embedded in long-term memory. Conversely there can be considerable learning without much performance at all. Worryingly, performances can dramatically improve with no real effect on learning because with things like mass practice and cramming, pupils can appear to acquire knowledge, but later on it’s as if nothing ever actually happened. It seems that if we don’t get children thinking about the stuff we want them to for long enough and in the right way  knowledge doesn’t fix itself into long-term memory.  When this happens, it’s like writing your name in the air with a sparkler on bonfire night- you see it and you can read it, it’s real, but it quickly disappears. What we need is to write with indelible marker into the memories of our children!

Unless information is thought about enough and in different ways it will never move into the long-term memory. 

Bjork also talks about inadvertantly ‘priming’ pupils so that they appear to get better at tasks because their performance improves. Here, conditions are usually constant and pupils are in effect just repeating brain activity rather than making new connections. If teachers aren’t careful they can trick themselves into thinking children are learning because they mistakenly create an environment that doesn’t disturb this repeated brain activity hence it looks like good, solid learning. However, disrupt this and it soon becomes apparent it’s not. For example, change classrooms, have a supply teacher, use a different presentation format and suddenly this repeated brain activity has to shift, process this other information and that performance you thought was learning is interrupted; all of sudden they appear to have forgotten everything!

For example, you show your pupils how to find fractions by dividing the denominator and multiplying the numerator. You give them a page of fractions sums. At first a few pupils find it a bit tricky so you go back a few times and show them again. Perhaps use concrete resources and images to help them grasp the concept. Then they go ahead and complete a page of sums, getting seemingly more and more proficient. You think, ‘great, my pupils can find fractions of amounts!’  A few days later, someone else takes your class and you  leave them fraction sums to do again as you feel it would be good to consolidate their knowledge while you’re out of class.  When you meet the supply teacher later, they look flustered; no one seemed to understand how to find a fraction. He says he decided to use fractions of money instead but otherwise introduced it just the same way. How perplexing?  What happened when they did all those sheets of sums the first time? Well, not much it seems. With every calculation, the pupils only had to repeat an initial  process rather than do much thinking at all: ‘do this, do this and then you get that,’ but there was little opportunity for links to be created by putting finding fractions into a context or providing some cognitive variation to the process such as a trying it with different units of measurement.   This is why schemes like White Rose are so effective, because they build on variation so that pupils can’t just get into a rut with the fluency of repeated, mass practice. And this is why sheets of sums are not a good way to learn, only perform.

Repeat performances can look like improvements in learning.

Variation in the ways a concept can be thought about help avoid this.

So, it seems we can only know if learning has happened later when we can see evidence of transfer – such as being able to take finding a fraction of an amount and using that to find fractions of other things and in different ways.  It seems that mass practice leads to short-term performance but poor long-term retention. You might feel very pleased that pupils can complete pages of sums , but we need to ask whether this helps to create those links, the changes in long-term memory that mean learning as happened.  As Bjork notes, ‘the more things are massed together, the more you will see apparent benefits in the short term’, like the sheets of correct sums or repeated spellings that are correct. However, the more the learning of a specific things is spaced apart, the more benefit to long- term memory. This means that teachers need to think carefully about the latest craze for ‘slow learning’ where we stay with one block of for example fractions for several weeks. This is fine if we’re providing lots of variation in the fraction learning, but we should also come back to other areas and be deliberate about how we space them into learning cycles.

Bjork speaks extensively about the ‘power of forgetting’ so that when the brain forgets but is then triggered to remember a powerful link is created. In turn, there is benefit from allowing pupils to take a look at difficult material they don’t understand before you give direct instruction on it. There is something about that first moment of confusion and puzzlement that seems to prepare the brain for learning in that area. We have to understand that the brain is hungry to make links – those synapses are like bare wires waiting to zap the first thing they meet so puzzlement is like turning up the electricity a bit just before you make the connection – then whiz the lights come on! So there is real benefit in giving children a short pre-assessment of an area before you teach it, plus if you do that in a dialogic way and listen to them discuss it with their peers you can then pick up on the misconceptions you need to give direct instruction on.

That first moment of confusion and puzzlement prepares the brain for learning in that area.

Children need to feel this often and understand it leads to learning.

Bjork’s work also highlights the very positive effect of interleaving, so setting up learning so that the brain has to switch sometimes to another topic then come back. It’s almost like when you read a tricky paragraph in a paper and you can’t understand it, then you go and do a cross word (or in my case watch a soap opera), then you come back to the paper and somehow, it makes more sense.  It’s as if the connection you started to make around the tricky paper benefited from having that space. As Bjork suggests, for any given retention interval there will be an optimal spacing interval and this will probably be the hard part to gauge as too much spacing and interleaving will start to have a negative effect. This is where the relationship a teacher has with their pupils is integral – a good teacher will intuitively know when it’s right as they get to know  their pupils’ processing levels.  In essence, the conditions that actively produce forgetting like spacing, variation or introducing things in different contexts are the things that enhance learning, but the process needs careful planning and timing – all achieved by knowing pupils well. This also comes from the tactic knowledge of an experienced teacher – so let’s value them! It also tells us that teachers really do need time to plan their lessons and less time taken up with marking, admin and meetings about meetings!

To finish, if education is about anything it is about learning, but what a muddle it finds itself in because of the huge emphasis on accountability which relies so heavily on performances.  Ironically, those performances we need in order to prove that we’re any good will always be fine if we just focus on learning. Educators need to clarify the difference between learning and performance  in their minds and everywhere in schools. When schools openly value learning over performance – they do really well. They are fantastic places to learn and teach in. Teachers and children are focused. Less ticks, more head scratching makes an authentic place of learning.  Pupils should be hungry for confusion and puzzlement, but revel in the solutions they find; this makes learning addictive.  As teachers, we need to design and plan for puzzlement. Then we are really teaching!

Read and hear all about this from the experts:

Robert Bjork’s on line talks

Daniel Willingham’s fabulous book!


Why Hattie’s effect sizes miss the bigger picture…

I am a big Hattie fan. I like him because he’s not afraid to call us all out on the strange things we teachers get up to because ‘that’s the way it’s always been done’. Whether we are teachers or school leaders, we need people like John Hattie in education to remind us to focus on evidence and impact rather than rhetoric or hyperbole. However, his latest comments on  the value of teaching assistants to pupils’ learning is missing something.

Evidence suggests that teaching assistants add little value to pupil achievement and that often in schools the pupils who struggle the most are taught by the least qualified, the teaching assistants. On the face of it, yes this was once a problem and may still be a problem in some schools, but many schools have acted on this mistake and now ensure that children further behind  have the best teaching. It still surprises me that educated people allowed otherwise, but times have changed.  For example, in our school we have switched timetabling and rotas so that teachers themselves do most of the interventions with the children who need to catch up while teaching assistants do more playground duties and supervising classes during assemblies etc. We have prioritised teachers having one to one or small group time with pupils who will benefit from that expertise, rather than as Hattie put it, leaving it to the ‘amateurs’ (which really sounds rather rude, but is technically correct). This has meant teachers have more time targeting those pupils with the greatest need and the impact in evident.

Certainly this proves Hattie’s point that needier pupils require ‘expert’ rather than ‘amateur’ attention, who could possibly argue with this, but this belies the fact that this is often only possible because of teaching assistants covering those other non-teaching activities. Hattie’s condemnation of teaching assistants working with the neediest children is right, but he ignores the extra bandwidth given to teachers who have teaching assistants. For example, having a teaching assistant might mean the difference between it taking two hours on your own to change a display, to half an hour designing material then your TA changing the display while you put that time to marking books and providing detailed feedback to move pupils on. Without that time, perhaps your marking would have been rushed and not as effective – so then what’s the effect size there of not having a teaching assistant? The support teaching assistants give teachers in time by taking care of those peripheral activities cannot be ignored here. We have to acknowledge that time is like gold dust to teachers yet the system is asking more and more of their time.

Lately all  we hear about is the deficit in graduates applying to be teachers; it is likely that sooner or later we will face an critical national shortage in teachers. And why is this? Because we are overloading teachers with  paper work and record keeping because in turn, school leaders are burdened by an accountability and compliance agenda that is literally suffocating schools. Teachers now have more paper work and record keeping demands than ever before. Give them an assistant to tidy the classroom and re-arrange that display thats been ignored for weeks, but kept them awake at night, then we are supporting teachers in coping with workload. It is short sighted in this climate to consider teaching assistants as ineffective without considering the time they give back to teachers. Yes, teachers didn’t have teaching assistants when I started teaching, that’s what all leaders say when they have to take them away from teachers, but then when I started teaching they didn’t have emails, class do jo messages or the kind of paper trails we have now.  Teachers can spend anywhere up to an hour or more a day answering emails or messages from parents, let alone all the other things we weren’t expected to do fifteen years ago. We forget just how the job has changed and why teachers need all the help they can get.

So while I agree wholeheartedly that untrained people should not be assigned to the most needy pupils, I don’t agree with the research rhetoric that teaching assistants don’t add value to a school and this is because no one could measure the effect of a teaching assistant sorting out all my resources while I work with a child at playtime who is a year behind in writing, or the time that might give me to design and create support resources for that child. Some might say that teachers just have to do both, and yes they do need to, and they do, a lot, but if we squeeze teachers any harder, then what?

So, while it’s important to think about impact and how schools use their resources, and ever more so with all the budget cuts, we should also think carefully about those factors that are hard to measure but that everyone knows are valuable. We may very well have to do away with teaching assistants if school budgets are squeezed further, but then we have re-evaluate what we are asking of teachers otherwise we might be faced with having to measure the effect size of a dwindling, worn out teacher workforce.