Learning to crawl!


Hurray I taught myself front crawl!  This morning I realised that after months of trying I have taught myself front crawl! I’ve always been able to do a pretty elegant breast stroke, but whenever I tried a crawl I ran out of breath, my legs didn’t understand what to do  and I always gave up, but now I can do it. This might seem a bit of a silly blog, but when you spend all day thinking about learning, it’s nice to get right inside it and experience it yourself.

This got me to thinking about how my experience might relate to my day job, which after all revolves  around the question of what it means to learn, and learn well.  I asked myself this: how did I go from no hope, coughing, spluttering and looking like I was drowning, to a pretty nifty crawl (faster than some of the show off blokes in the next lane I might add).  How did I learn well?

  • Firstly, after watching the good swimmers only doing crawl, I knew that it was better to do crawl and that was what I needed to do next. I knew I could do better.  First of all, I ignored this and tried to find dignity in my cautious breast stroke, but every time I left the pool, seeing the nifty crawlers bombing along,  I’d think ‘I wish I could do that.’
  • From then on, whenever I swam I placed myself in the lane next to the really good swimmers and I watched. I watched how they moved; I watched how they breathed. At first it made me feel like I’d never be able to do it; nevertheless, I kept watching.
  • Then I got myself a pair of goggles. I began to swim breast stroke like the good lot: head right under, breathing out under, breathing in when I popped up. I started to feel like them – just a bit. I also began to watch how they moved under water too.
  • Then at the end of every swim, I’d try a few strokes of crawl. At first, I felt ridiculous. I couldn’t get the breathing, and even though my legs were going crazy, I didn’t seem to go anywhere. But – I didn’t stop. I just did that bit of crawl at the end each time.
  • Then one day, someone gave me a pair of mini flippers – a support! At first I just started using them with a float going up and down at the end of my swim. My legs started to feel like I thought the good swimmers’ looked.
  • After a while, I started to try a length of crawl with the flippers. The breathing was everywhere and I felt like I was drowning again. I almost felt like giving up.
  • Then I found myself looking up how to breath doing crawl on YTube. I watched a number of cheesy American clips of good breathing techniques, and yes, I drew the curtains and lay across a chair at home and practised.
  • The next time I swam, I tried the breathing I’d practised at home and I also tried to add in everything I’d learnt watching all the good swimmers around me in the pool.
  • The first few times were really hard work, but each time I was a little better.
  • Then every time I swam, I pushed myself to do at least five or six lengths in crawl with my flippers on. It was exhausting, even with the flippers, but I just did it.
  • Gradually each week, those lengths got easier.
  • Then I decided I’d try it without the flippers. Immediate disaster, my legs went to jelly and I felt like drowning – back to flippering.
  • I did this for about two months – but each time did more and more crawl with flippers. All the time, my muscles were learning, memorising. Now and again, I‘d take the flippers off and try a length or two. Not bad, but tiring, but I so wanted to do that flipperless crawl like the ‘really good’ swimmers in the lanes next door!
  • Then today – I thought, I’m just going to do it! I did a few lengths with the flippers then gingerly took them off and left them at the side.
  • Off I went – what was this? My legs were kicking away doing what I wanted at last. My breathing just seemed to come naturally and the arms too. Suddenly, I was swimming up and down WITHOUT FLIPPERS, head down under, breathing in a rhythmical way with my strokes. I was doing a good crawl. I taught myself to do a good crawl!

I know this is completely obvious to most of us all now, but isn’t it nice to genuinely experience this yourself as a teacher! All that fixed ability nonsense and over emphasis on the teacher! What’s inside the head of the learner is everything; what they see around them; what they want to get out of it all..

Here’s my very own experience then of ‘what makes good learning’!

  • Examples of quality all around you. (Kids need these models – but not quality that’s seems out of reach  – some recent research has shown that quality exemplifiers that are too perfect actually stifle learning.  I knew those ‘good crawlers’  were good, but they weren’t Olympians).
  • Self-belief and perseverance. (Teachers need to  help children develop strong approaches to all types of  learning – all that Learning to Learn/ Learning Power stuff is so important).
  • Motivation – you need to want that quality for yourself.  (This is hard for us because not all learning is that tantalising for pupils is it? However, we just have to sell it as best we can, put it in context and show its importance in the big picture. I don’t believe that all learning has to be fun – learning isn’t entertainment.)
  • Enjoyment in improvement – pleasure in that feeling of getting better at something, even if it’s slow. (This we can give pupils, make them recognise their own achievements, see how far they’ve come. We can then use this feeling of self improvement as a motivator – this will get them through learning the boring stuff too and through having to practice lots and lots.)
  • Time! No pressure. (We are limited here sometimes by time, but we can ignore pressure to cover topics too quickly and move on and we can try to linger more when we need to).
  • Support sometimes to get you going- sometimes practical/ sometimes emotionally. (We know all about this, don’ we?)
  • Time to make mistakes and experiment – without judgement. (This is why how we give feedback and when  we give it is so important! Leave them alone sometimes!)
  • Deliberate practice – over and over again, and sometimes regardless of the outcome. (All experts practice and love to practice because they love the feeling of improvement it eventually brings , not so much the practice itself.)
  • Faith in the idea that one can always get better at something (Teachers need to fill kids with this feeling about themselves all the time!)

What next for me then? Butterfly?



To intervene, not extract- what mastery intervention might look like…

practice makes perfect

Ever since I was a goggle eyed NQT, taking children out of core subjects for ‘interventions’ has never made sense to me. Not only has it never seemed right that these children miss what all the other children are doing , thwarting any chance of catching up, but I have always been plagued by how these children must feel leaving what they must know are ‘main course lessons’. None of this is right. On a journey where everyone is meant to arrive at the same destination at the same time, what use is there in taking  the travellers who are further behind and sitting them by the side of the road?

An explanation for this madness has been that these interventions will ‘fill the gaps’ needed to ‘access’ the curriculum.  However for me, the greatest barrier to a curriculum for anyone is not being present when it’s taught.  A school can make all the excuses it likes about timetabling, rotas and staffing, but no child should be taken out of core lessons if they are behind.

If we are serious about mastery in education then we should hook into the idea that all children should have access to the same content, but some might need intensive pre-teaching or follow up over-learning in order to get there like other children. This does not mean that they have a different lesson; this means they are supported to access the lesson before and after the lesson takes place.

Some might argue that this is the same as intervention, isn’t it? And I would agree, but not in that very dated way with ability grouping and those ‘LA’, ‘MA’ and ‘HA,’ or whatever other limiting labels we dished out onto children which meant they had no way of accessing what everyone else was doing. This is intensive intervention around an element of content rather than blasting children over and over again in the same way with a range of earlier content they have missed, which often has no links at all to the in-class learning –  and we wonder why they ‘still don’t get it’.  As Einstein said, madness is doing the same thing over and over again, yet expecting a different result each time.

No, mastery intervention is different from that old ‘mop up the whole flood’ approach; this is more ‘mop up as we go.’ Here we take whatever it is we want the class to learn – we plan one set of solid, effective lessons and think carefully about the steps required in learning to achieve that. Like this, we break down the learning journey and intervene on those small steps that are required to achieve the learning. This means knowing your children really well and being highly organised so that pre-teaching and over-learning time is planned into the timetable in places where non-core learning takes place. For example, if we want the children to learn to write a set of instructions we think about the children who will find writing an imperative sentence hard work. We then pre-teach a really simple set of imperative sentences, learn them like a parrot, maybe even sing them,  speed write the time connectives, imperative verbs and vocabulary that go with them and set the children  up like this, prepared for the teaching input on instructions.  We might of course do this kind of thing with the whole class over the learning journey, probably a good thing if we do, but some children will need this more intense deliberate practice. It will make a huge difference if these children experience this in short bursts before and following the set of lessons on instructions.

The same can be done for maths topics too. If you want to teach subtraction, give them a chance to practice before hand counting backwards, ordering numbers backwards and jumping back in tens and ones. That silly starter at the beginning of a silly three part lesson doesn’t count, if they don’t know how to count in tens then a five minute whole class starter isn’t the solution.

Now, yes of course this will not solve all ‘catch up’ issues right now because we undoubtedly have a back log of huge gaps that have been left while teachers have just carried on teaching without addressing them because of pressure to meet benchmarks and  ‘cover and move on.’ You might say, how can you pre-teach instructions if they can’t even form letters? Well, that is an extreme example, but yes, sadly that will be the case for some children. And I would say then, is the solution to allow them to miss the instruction lesson for handwriting practice? No, do some handwriting practice another time, but still get that pre-teaching in with all the components for instructions – if they learn to say a good set of instructions and can begin to read them they are well on the way to being able to write them soon, but don’t allow them to miss that instruction lesson. It’s the ‘can do’ approach at all these little turns that counts.

Apologies if all this is completely obvious, which I’m sure it will be to some of my learned friends. However, I think for some teachers they need reminding that learning is all about making links to previous learning. Time is precious in schools so there is no point in a child for example learning number bonds to ten for the hundredth time just before a lesson on multiplication. Much better instead to spend that valuable time counting things in groups and supporting them making the link between repeated addition and multiplying, then they have a chance to hit that multiplication lesson running rather than trying to forget about number bonds all of sudden .  This is then really ‘smart, inclusive, interventionist differentiation’ – there I invented a new piece of educational blurb to go with it as well. I think this approach could make a big difference to the challenges of historic gaps in learning and make a difference to many children’s experiences during lesson time. Give them a chance – fill them with fuel before a lesson rather than give them a ‘lower ability’ task different from the rest. Enable, not disable through differentiation.