The Cost of Consistency

I think this blog might be relevant beyond a primary context. For those of you who aren’t interested in phonics teaching, please bear with me. I promise this isn’t just about phonics…

A few years back, I was offered the chance to return to year 2 after nearly a decade in key stage 2. I’d taught phonics in reception and key stage 1 at previous schools, and I had recently taught phonics with small groups of children in key stage 2. But when it came to teaching phonics to 30 children at a time, I knew I was out of practice.

I arranged a meeting with the literacy co-ordinator to find out what I needed to know. I was reminded about the four-part lesson structure that I was familiar with from Letters and Sounds, and I downloaded a hotchpotch of resources from the literacy coordinator’s memory stick onto my laptop. The literacy coordinator was swamped with her responsibilities, so this brief chat was the full extent of the structured support that I received before teaching phonics to a whole class for the first time in years.

At the start of the following term, I began teaching my year 2 class. It took me a while to get back into the swing of working with 6-year olds, but I was fairly satisfied with the lessons I taught, with one exception: phonics. I finished most days with a nagging sense that it wasn’t quite working. I did what I could to get better, relying on the advice of my colleagues, but this took longer than it should have. Even once I was teaching phonics adequately, I felt that I’d let down the kids up to that point. I couldn’t help but wonder how much better off they would have been with the more experienced teacher next door.

Fast forward to now, and things have changed. If you are teaching phonics in an English primary school, you are almost certain to have been given a structure to follow and resources to use. You might even have been given training in the underlying theory behind word recognition. Sounds good, right? Mostly.

Why only ‘mostly’? Well, I find it hard not to wonder about the expert teacher next door and how she would feel about being required to follow the precise steps of her school’s prescribed phonics scheme. My best guess is that she would largely do as she was asked, and her teaching would be slightly weakened as a result. Where possible, she would continue to furtively use the full range of her expertise, not least her judgement of how activities could be adapted to match her own capabilities and the needs of her class. But inevitably she would feel frustrated. Her expertise had been hard won, so not being able to fully exploit it would feel understandably galling.

I know that feeling. The same school introduced a maths scheme that was relatively prescriptive. As a fairly experienced maths teacher, I didn’t like it, and I reckon that – in the short term at least – my teaching was slightly poorer as a result. I railed against anything that even slightly limited my ability to maximise my impact. The school quietly gave me as much flexibility as they could, but I was still aggrieved whenever this wasn’t possible.

But I felt different once I was required to take on some responsibility for the quality of teaching across an entire school. Suddenly, my first priority was universal adequacy, even where that placed constraints on the most expert teachers in the school. I saw the value of consistency as pupils moved between classes. I saw the challenges of setting different expectations for different teachers, especially where levels of expertise didn’t appear to align with a teacher’s classroom experience. And all too quickly, I let myself forget the frustrations of the more expert teacher, to the point where I almost pretended that these frustrations didn’t exist.

I am convinced it is a sensible for schools to be required to pick a phonics scheme that has been checked to ensure that it supports all teachers who use it. I am equally convinced that it’s sensible for school leaders to ask teachers to use these schemes consistently. But sensible doesn’t mean flawless. It’s easy to tell staff that a new scheme or a new structure will quickly improve the practice of every individual teacher, but often this just isn’t true. It’s much harder to explain to staff that you think that consistent application of something new will elicit a net benefit despite compromises that will affect some teachers more than others.

Some might argue that these compromises don’t need to exist, that we can offer support to less expert teachers and unmitigated autonomy to those who can make the most of it. This is, of course, the ideal situation, but often it isn’t possible. For one thing, there are limitations on school leaders’ ability to recognise expertise. There are also subtle gains from consistency that compound: teachers can better support each other, professional development can be better targeted and interventions can build more readily on routines that are familiar to all pupils. But such consistency tends to involve compromise.

One such compromise is that there is a level of expertise that some argue is only acquired by capable individuals being left to learn the hard way, working things out for themselves. No one would argue against support for new teachers, but being required at some point to find your own way can perhaps build a level of resilience and nous that might otherwise not manifest itself. I feel that I learned most about teaching maths when I was planning using nothing but the national curriculum and my reflections on my previous teaching. However, there is survivorship bias at play when teachers talk about what they gained from such experiences. And there are obviously costs to pupils’ learning while teachers are learning the hard way. These costs are often intolerable to those whose central priority is to ensure that all teaching across a school at any given moment is at least adequate.

And this isn’t just about phonics schemes or maths programmes. The compromises around consistency and autonomy play out in every area of the sector, from curriculum products to behaviour management to mentoring under the Early Career Framework. I think there is a tendency to downplay the frustration of experienced teachers who feel boxed in by the requirements of consistency. This frustration often finds its expression in narrow complaints that reflect a broader issue. I suspect that the pushback against systematic phonics teaching and detailed curriculum resources, for example, is frequently the conduit through which stifled voices within the profession try to make themselves heard. It can be tempting to respond to the surface details and to seize upon misconceptions while ignoring the underlying source of frustration. It’s certainly convenient to do so, and I know that I’ve been guilty of this.

We need honest conversations about the compromises that are deemed necessary, ones that will allow us to include on the balance sheet all of those often-hidden items like the demotivation of more experienced colleagues and the potential loss to the profession of their expert presence in the classroom. While total agreement is unlikely, greater openness about these compromises might help us to better identify where the cost of consistency is genuinely worth paying and where it might just be too high.

Thanks for reading. I don’t tend to write many of these blog posts that go beyond specific aspects of teaching, not least because it’s much harder to be confident about this sort of thing, and it’s easy to come across as patronising or foolish or both. Feel free to tell me that I’m wrong and why. I hope you’ll forgive me if you vehemently disagree with what I’ve written. If it helps, I am very much open to changing my mind.

The Case for Chunking (or Why Recall and Reasoning are Best Buddies)

Civilisation advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them.

A N Whitehead

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the driving lessons I took when I was 17. By the time I first stepped into his car, my instructor had been teaching people to drive for decades. Every sentence he said felt reassuringly rehearsed. This was especially true of a maxim that he repeated whenever I was struggling with an aspect of driving:

“First, we think. Then we practise until we don’t have to.”

Sometimes he’d justify this little maxim by describing hypothetical situations:

“When you see a football rolling into the road in front of you, I want you thinking about the kid that might be chasing after it. You can’t do that if you’re thinking about how to change gear or how to use the brakes. How can you think about the important stuff if you’re still thinking about the little stuff?” 

In other words, my driving instructor recognised the importance of chunking to the development of expertise. 

Chunking is the process through which individual pieces of information are consolidated into larger meaningful units. For example, in my first few driving lessons, I had to pay conscious attention to operating the clutch, moving the gear stick and assessing whether my speed required a gear change. Through conscious thought and practice, these separate actions each became automatic and were eventually chunked into a single unit: changing gear. 

As I developed as a driver, changing gear, using the steering wheel and working the brakes were then chunked into a larger single unit: manoeuvring the car.

Eventually, these aspects were chunked into an even larger single unit: driving competently. 

I am able to drive to a legal standard precisely because various skills and bits of knowledge were consolidated into larger and larger chunks through conscious effort and practice. This chunking of bits of knowledge and skills into larger and larger meaningful units so that we can do more and more complex things is a pretty powerful way to think about the learning process. 

And this brings me onto the year 4 multiplication table check. In relation to the check, an education journalist recently posted the following tweet:

At first glance, we might agree that this is a remarkable state of affairs. After all, don’t we want pupils to grasp that 8 x 7 can be reimagined as (8 x 5) + (8 x 2) or as (8 x 10) – (8 x 3)? Isn’t this reasoning about the distributive property exactly the sort of thing we want pupils to become familiar with? It certainly is. Nevertheless, it seems that the government doesn’t want pupils to use such reasoning to work out basic multiplication facts forever. They want pupils to have chunked these reasoning steps into a single multiplication fact in each case by the end of year 4, as evidenced by the need for rapid recall to pass the multiplication table check. Why might the government see this as necessary?

If we look at the components of the national curriculum that are commonly taught in year 5, it is clear that pupils need to put their knowledge of basic multiplication facts to a lot of use. And if pupils are reasoning their way to basic multiplication facts like 8 x 7 (i.e. reaching the answer of 56 through multiple steps), then we are adding extra steps to any chain of reasoning that they undertake. 

Let’s consider an example of what this means. Imagine that we want to teach pupils that we can work out 8 x 69 using the distributive property. We might consider this as one particular chain of reasoning:

8 x 7 = 56 → 8 x 70 = 560 → 8 x 69 = (8 x 70) – (8 x 1) = 552

This is tricky stuff. It takes time and exactly the sort of understanding of the distributive property to which pupils will have been introduced when they were initially learning about multiplication. Every pupil that has to go through multiple steps to find the answer to 8 x 7 is forced to add extra steps to an already complicated chain of reasoning. In contrast, those that can fluently recall 8 x 7 can focus on this more advanced application of the distributive property.

Let’s consider another example. Imagine that we want pupils to simplify 42/48. If they have to use multiple steps to divide each of these numbers by 6, they are less likely to focus on the underlying mathematics that allows this process to work. (One way of thinking about this process is to recognise the equivalence between 1 and 6/6 and to know that dividing by 1 leaves a value unchanged → 42/48 ÷ 6/6 = 7/8)

In other words, pupils should absolutely be taught to reason their way to basic multiplication facts. But this is part of the learning process, not the end goal. At some point, pupils should be encouraged through practice to recall each basic multiplication fact without having to work them out. (Michael Pershan has a cracking blog on this subject:

I have met many people over the years who have stated that they coped fine with mathematics without being able to recall multiplication facts. This isn’t a surprise. I have no doubt that some are capable of overcoming almost any impediment in almost any situation. The issue really is that not all will overcome these impediments. Having spent a decent chunk of my career working specifically with those who have struggled academically, I am certain that it is these pupils who are most impeded by a lack of foundational knowledge on which to rely. The learning of number bonds and multiplication facts to fluency has often been the catalyst that has led to positive changes in what children deem themselves capable of in mathematics. I make no apology for advocating the fluent recall of multiplication facts as an aim for the vast majority of pupils.

Of course, there are other questions to consider in relation to the multiplication table check:

  • Are the expectations of the national curriculum in year 5 reasonable?
  • Do accountability measures such as the year 4 multiplication table check achieve what they aim to?
  • Will teachers prioritise the learning of multiplication facts with children for whom other aspects of maths might be more urgent (i.e. number bonds inside 20)?

These are interesting questions, and this blog is not a defence of the check itself. Instead, this blog is simply a reaction to the belief that fluent retrieval of multiplication facts (or other foundational knowledge) is somehow at odds with mathematical reasoning. It isn’t. Regardless of one’s views on the multiplication table check, it is perfectly sensible to want pupils to fluently recall basic multiplication facts if we also want them to apply these facts as elements of more advanced reasoning. 

In short, chunking knowledge and skills into larger and larger single units is essential to learning, and the development of arithmetic is no exception to this. Pupils find it much harder to reason with basic multiplication facts if they are still reasoning their way to basic multiplication facts. Aiming for eventual rapid recall of basic multiplication facts is a perfectly sensible aim within any primary mathematics curriculum.

Do you know when to use ‘little-and-often’ teaching?

Blog in a nutshell for those in a rush: While all learning content needs to be conceptually understood and then retrieved, some content – including, but not limited to, that which is traditionally learned by rote – requires much more recall practice. This is best achieved with a ‘little-and-often’ approach. Teachers can save time by recognising which elements of learning suit the standard hour-long lesson format and which elements suit this ‘little-and-often’ approach. This is something that experienced teachers often understand implicitly, but it is an idea that needs more explicit discussion in my view, especially with inexperienced colleagues.

Scenario (1) – imagine two participants are given an hour to learn the laws of thermodynamics and some of the related practical applications. Participant A’s hour is divided into chunks of five minutes per day for twelve days. Participant B’s hour is used all in one go. They each wait a month before being tested on this new knowledge. This is what I expect would occur: Participant A remembers a few basic things quite well, but struggles to connect the concepts together into any kind of coherent understanding. Participant B has gained a better grasp of the concepts, though struggles to recall much a month on. The difference in test performance between the two is negligible.

Scenario (2) – the same two participants are again given an hour, allotted in the same manner as before, this time to learn the first fifty elements of the periodic table, along with their symbols and atomic numbers. Their learning time is divided up in the same way, and again they are tested on their knowledge of this after a month. It is my contention that Participant A – using the 12 x 5 minutes approach – would have learned the list of elements considerably more effectively than Participant B, who was forced to splurge his hour in one go. (Various examples from personal experience point me towards this contention, from trying to learn latin root words to grooving a golf swing to teaching children their times table facts.)

So what’s going on here? From where arises the difference between these two scenarios? Let’s call the type of learning content in the first scenario recall-light and the type of learning content in the second scenario recall-heavy. Naturally, pretty much all academic learning requires some conceptual understanding, regardless of how seemingly simple the concepts are.[i] However, I believe that some parts of the curriculum require significantly more recall before they can be used in an efficient way:

Multiplication facts (and their related division facts) are a perfect example of recall-heavy learning content. The understanding of multiplication (which of course has no outer limits, despite the implication of the pictures above) requires connections to be made between area, arrays, repeated addition, scaling, etc, including relation to physical and visual metaphors. This aspect of multiplication seems relatively well-suited to (roughly) hour-long blocks with an expert teacher leading children towards an appropriate level of understanding. Nevertheless, on top of this, multiplication facts (and related division facts) require a significant amount of practice before they can be recalled fluently. This practice is absolutely not suited to the hour-long blocks of time often dedicated to it. Once a suitable level of conceptual understanding has been achieved, continuing to use these hour-long blocks to learn multiplication facts is an incredibly inefficient way to develop fluent recall. And yet, far too often I have seen hour-long lessons dedicated to learning to recall the 6 and 8 x table; to learning to recall number bonds to 10; to learning to recall the order of the alphabet; etc. Think how much more time might be available to teach if a ‘little-and-often’ approach was used instead where it was appropriate.

This is the point where I imagine the more experienced teachers among you are, understandably, getting exasperated. Doubtless, this all seems blindingly obvious. You probably already know that each topic within the curriculum requires a different balance of these two modes of teaching – the ‘regular-lesson conceptual understanding’ and the ‘little-and-often recall practice’ – and consequently structure your lessons to support this. You already know that all facts to be fluently recalled need a ‘little-and often’ approach. My point is not that this is a new idea. My point is that, in my experience, too few teachers are thinking about learning content in these terms. Raising some awareness of this way of thinking with our colleagues – especially those with less experience – has the potential to be hugely beneficial.[ii]

Once a teacher has decided that a given topic is recall-heavy and thus requires some ‘little-and-often recall practice’, what then? How can this be implemented in the classroom? My preference is to begin each lesson with a short burst – no more than 5-10 minutes – of ‘little-and-often recall practice’ on whatever area needs developing at that moment. However, there’s nothing to suggest that this couldn’t be equally suited to the end of a lesson or another time in the school day. Naturally, there may be periods during the school year when no such practice is required at all, especially if the students have learned the relevant recall facts to fluency earlier in their education. It is important not to see this as an attempt to advocate a fixed period of time every day where children need to be learning something in a ‘little-and-often’ manner. The onus is always on the teacher to match the teaching to the learning content and their students’ grasp of it.

And what of recall-light topics? Surely they need to be recalled too? Yes, but to a far lesser extent. Children will not require lots of ‘little-and-often recall practice’ to remember what perimeter means, for example. Once an appropriate level of conceptual understanding has been achieved, occasional retrieval practice (and application of this concept, ideally linked to other areas of mathematics) is all that would be required to shore up that concept in long-term memory.

In short, I believe that many teachers have the potential to develop their students’ recall of key knowledge and save precious learning time by thinking carefully about the balance of ‘regular-lesson conceptual understanding’ and ‘little-and-often recall practice’ that each area of the curriculum actually requires.

[i] In this case, I take the definition of ‘understanding’ to be the extent to which a concept is connected to other concepts in a person’s individual network of concepts and metaphors; in short, something is understood by a person if it can be explained – at least to themselves – in terms of other vocabulary and concepts that they have grasped. (Naturally, this leads to the question of how the person knows these other concepts upon which new understanding relies. Personally, I tend to believe that all of these connected concepts and metaphors lead back to empirical roots, and that all comprehension of the world is built, fundamentally, on our senses.)

[ii] Given that recall-heavy content makes up a larger proportion of the key stage one curriculum, I suspect that this is an even more pressing concern in primary schools, though the impact of weak number bonds, times table knowledge, etc echoes through secondary school too. The positive impact of Times Table Rockstarz in many primary schools is testament to how this is an area that has in the past been significantly neglected.

Should children be taught how to write stories before their letter formation is fluent?

From next Thursday, I will be teaching in year 2 for the first time in seven years. Yesterday, I visited my classroom, doing the usual odd jobs that I suspect are as much about psychological acclimatisation as logistical preparation. My partner kindly offered to help, and I asked her to stick in some bits of writing that my new class had attempted on move up day.

“Uh, Chris?” she said as she began leafing through the few sentences each of them had written about themselves.

“What?” I replied.

“Why have they each written several sentences when most of them clearly can’t form letters properly?”

The children had written three or four sentences about themselves following a template that I had modeled. In about 90% of the pieces of writing, letters had been missed out. The handwriting was often borderline indecipherable. Letters were formed in a variety of ways.

“They’re only six years old,” I said. “They’ve got a long way to go yet. Don’t worry.”

“Oh, thank goodness,” my partner said. “This is a one off task. Of course. How could they possibly think about whole sentences while they’re still having to think about what way to move a pencil to form a letter ‘h’? You won’t be getting them to write sentences until they’re fluent in forming letters, right?”

I explained that, based on the national curriculum requirements and the planning that had been done by previous year 2 teachers in my school, my first lesson would involve the children attempting to write a story. An entire story. Then, I would spend around fifteen lessons teaching them about conjunctions, basic punctuation and how a plot should progress. All the while, we’d be learning a story that they would use to create their final piece of narrative writing, against which I would judge progress. I also said that – as someone with little key stage one experience – I didn’t want to veer significantly from what previous teachers had done, and – besides – I had to consider the writing moderation that would take place at the end of the year. My partner looked at me for a second – giving me a moment to confess that this was just a wind up – before realising that I was being serious.

“Bear with me: You’ve had students arrive from central Europe before, haven’t you?” my partner asked. “What’s their handwriting like when they arrive?”

“Much better than most of the kids I teach,” I replied sheepishly. My partner, you see, is originally from Slovakia. Her entire educational experience, from age 6 to age 23, was spent in Považská Bystrica and Bratislava, so she sees the English primary education system from an outsider’s perspective. (She’s been a maths teacher for seven years, so she is already reconciled to the eccentricities of secondary education in this country.)

“Do you want to know why our handwriting is so good?” she continued. Tempted though I was to tease her that it was a bit gauche of her to group several central European nations under the same possessive pronoun, I kept quiet. “We practise,” she said. “First we learn how to draw lines and circles and squares and loops. Then, we all practice writing letters fluently. And once we all can do that, then we begin writing words and sentences.”

“Isn’t that a bit…dull?” I asked.

“At my school, we learned handwriting for about an hour a day, but it was split into two or three chunks. We never saw it as boring. At that stage, the rest of learning Slovak focused on reading, especially being read to aloud. We loved that. I think it’s still the same. The children arrive at school having experienced very different things. Ensuring that all children can grip a pen and write letters fluently levels the playing field so that we can all progress together. By age ten, we are all writing stories and essays and speeches. Don’t you find that here the least advantaged children are left behind when you teach writing this way? Perhaps we are more sensitive to that as a country with a communistic history.”

And then she said something that I haven’t been able to get out of my head since:

“Forcing them to write stories before they can fluently form letters just seems a bit… cruel.”

I’m not arrogant enough to call for an overhaul of how we teach early writing on the basis of one conversation. Nevertheless, when I first taught year 2 as an HLTA early in my career, I admit to being astonished to find myself teaching five-part story structure and effective description to six-year-olds, children who mostly hadn’t grasped fluent letter formation. My teaching experience has almost entirely been in upper key stage two. It would be unwise for me to suggest that I have anything like the knowledge required to advocate the Slovak approach to handwriting – though it is much closer aligned to the mastery principles that I would advocate in other areas of the curriculum. I will however dare to ask the following questions in the hope that those with more experience can dispel my fears about the coming year:

  1. Considering what we perhaps can conclude from a model of working memory, why do we expect children who can’t form letters fluently to be able to focus on things like spelling and sentence construction?

2. Might it be the case that the children who have learned how to form letters quickly – perhaps at home, through natural gifts or through just being a bit older – learn plenty from the teaching of sentences and story structure while those that haven’t learn little as they concentrate on making the letter ‘p’ look right? Might this inadvertently exacerbate disadvantage?

3. Is early writing taught this way for sound reasons? Is it a case of inertia? (i.e. we teach this way because this is how we’ve always done it.) Or is it just an inelegant attempt to match our teaching to the national curriculum statements?

As I have said, I am not an expert in early writing. Please let me know where I’m going wrong or what I should read to dispel the doubts that I have. In the meantime, I will continue to have concerns about my own teaching of writing, ones that I will attempt to ameliorate through daily handwriting practice. If children wish to express their early thoughts on stories in a written (or spoken) form, then I am all for it. However, guiding a class step-by-step through a written narrative seems to me like time poorly spent at this stage in their development. Thanks for reading.

Motivation and mastery: what’s the deal?

Just before Christmas when I was a child in year 7, my music teacher wheeled out the television and put on West Side Story. The film was roughly two hours long but the lesson was an hour. We watched half the film, and then we were done. I never saw the end. The same thing happened in the summer with Annie. The following Christmas, I didn’t see the end of Oliver. And the pattern continued in each of the final music lessons that fell before a school holiday. (Not before half terms, mind; the music department weren’t that slack.) By the time I got to year 9, I barely bothered to watch even the first five minutes of Singin’ in the Rain. I knew I wasn’t going to see the end of the film, so I tuned out entirely.

For the past few years, on and off, I have taught smallish groups that consist almost entirely of students who – for a variety of reasons – have fallen far behind where they should be. My day-to-day experience has hammered home one idea over all others: People hate failing at things, especially in front of their peers. And this is a problem because, let’s face it, a lot of our students experience a lot of failure. Something is taught, but little or nothing is really understood. The next lesson brings something new because the teacher can’t just wait for every student to ‘get it’, and the failure is just left to hang in the air. The children start the film, maybe even reach the middle, but there’s no ending, no resolution. Perhaps they’ll see it next year.

As these children’s experiences of failure accumulate, many become immune to the things we commonly do and say to motivate them. We’ve all taught the kid who refuses any reward, his way of showing you that he knows exactly what you’re up to. There’s no way around it. If children don’t succeed the vast majority of the time, then they will slowly, but inevitably, lose motivation, and – this is the controversial part – I think sometimes this plays a role in children’s classroom behaviour. No amount of confidence-building or sensitivity (nor systematic use of sanctions and rewards for that matter) will undo the damage to motivation wrought by persistent failure. Now, before I’m accused of teacher-blaming, let me make this clear: there are plenty of reasons – many of them unrelated to the teaching process – that can lead to challenging behaviour. Consistent systems with clear boundaries and predictable consequences are essential, as are caring relationships and a culture of mutual respect. Nevertheless, we also have the ability, I believe, to tip the odds of motivating children significantly in our favour; not just as individuals for our own sake, however, but across the profession and for every teacher that comes after us. Every time a student experiences the initial confusion of a new concept or bit of knowledge without the eventual resolution that comes from genuine understanding, we take a small but significant bite out of their motivation in the long term. We should keep this in mind more than I think we do.

This isn’t a banal call for us simply to be better teachers whose students succeed more frequently. It is a defence of a position that demands that we slow down when we need to, that we leave fewer children to languish, their motivation sacrificed to the false gods of ‘pace’ and ‘curriculum coverage’. It is an attack on a status quo that, in my view, is too ready to accept that some kids – often a significant minority of a class – ‘just won’t get it’.* Naturally there will always be exceptions to this. One or two children in a class – perhaps those unlikely to attend mainstream secondary education – might not be ready for the curriculum as you deliver it, and you might need to draw a line, deciding to teach a concept to that child at a later date. But where we draw this line is hugely important, and in my experience, it is often drawn in the wrong place. This is my interpretation of the contract between teacher and student. It’s nothing new, of course. It’s basically part of a mastery approach: “Put the effort in, kid, and I will not leave you behind. That’s the deal.” I think we systematically underestimate the importance of honouring this deal. Quite simply, if we want to motivate more children to engage with the learning we offer, then they need to be able to trust that – most of the time at least – we will give them the chance to see the end of the film.

I hope the blog-post above might serve as a decent gateway drug for Mark McCourt’s infinitely superior series of blog-posts on the subject of mastery. While my post talks briefly about possible links between motivation and mastery, McCourt’s posts cover the subject as a whole. His posts on the subject are nothing like mine: they’re lengthy, persuasive and clearly supported by a vast knowledge of the subject. Seriously, put aside half hour or so and read them:

UPDATE: McCourt’s blog posts appear to have been removed as they are now part of his book, Teaching for Mastery. Read that instead!

* It’s astonishing how often these kids are at the younger end of a year group. If you get the chance, cross reference your class’s birthdays against your perception of their innate ability. In my experience, it is often an eye-opener.

Choosing How We Fail

This is roughly what happened:

“Sorry,” said a young woman, interrupting my friend and me. “I’ve my lost my purse, and I’m trying to scrape enough money together to get a bus home. I only need another pound.” Immediately, my friend reached into his pocket and handed over a £1 coin.

“Best of luck,” said my friend, and the woman smiled gratefully and walked away.

“That might be a scam,” I said. “I’m sure I’ve read somewhere about people making a packet doing that. We’ll probably see her later on still asking people for money.”

“We might,” he said, “but there are two ways to be wrong in that situation. Either I give her the money, she’s lying and I’m wrong through being naive, or I don’t give her the money, she’s telling the truth and I’m wrong through being cynical. In one case, I’ve been scammed. In the other, I’ve missed a chance to give help to someone who needed it. I know which mistake I can live with.”

This brief conversation from over a decade ago occasionally springs to mind when I see a particularly bitter EduTwitter spat on the subject of behaviour in schools. When teachers discuss behaviour management, we seem to readily ignore or forget our own personal relationship with it. I think that the hidden foundation of this debate is found in our answer to the following question: What type of failure do we each find easiest to stomach?

Despite the chaotic reality, we are usually left with a fairly simple choice whenever we wish to tackle most challenging behavior: Do we adapt the environment to help the student, or do we help the student adapt to the environment? For example, imagine that you have a student who struggles to concentrate for even brief periods of time. It has been suggested that he might benefit from a book to doodle in during lessons. Do you follow the suggestion (i.e. adapt the environment) or do you encourage and nudge him to undergo the difficult process of improving his ability to concentrate (i.e. help the student to adapt)? Neither answer is necessarily correct. Naturally, the optimal choice – if there even is one – depends on the student and the exact circumstances, but my point is that we can never know for sure which one is the right choice in any given moment. Err on the side of adapting the environment, and you might have missed an opportunity to develop the student’s capabilities. Err on the side of helping the student to adapt, and you might put him through a demoralizing, unsuccessful struggle. The vast majority of us have failed in both ways countless times. I contend that our views on behavior management are affected by which type of failure we find easier to stomach, and that it is this gut reaction that partly makes the debate around behavior so emotive.

For the sake of argument, I would like you to consider a spectrum of attitudes to behavior management. At one extreme are those that go far beyond all expectations to adapt the environment so that every student feels entirely at ease and ready to learn. At the other end of the spectrum are those that set a consistent, exacting standard for all students. Let’s call it the soft touch-hard bastard spectrum:

Is there a Nobel prize for sociology? Asking for a friend.

Now, I want to make it clear that I have no interest in advocating for any given point on this spectrum as the right one for all teachers. I haven’t anything like the experience required for that. Nor do I think that many teachers, if any, operate at the extremes of this spectrum. Just go with me on this for a moment.

Let me introduce a hard bastard: Like everyone, she makes mistakes with her behavior management, but the failures she fears most are when she underestimates a student’s ability to change. If in doubt, she expects a student to learn new, beneficial habits, and she hates the idea of missing an opportunity to do this. Most of her failures come when she overestimates a student’s ability to change. The negative consequences of these failures are felt deeply by a small number of students.

And now here’s a soft touch: Like everyone, she makes mistakes with her behavior management, but the mistakes she fears most are when she lets a vulnerable student experience demoralising failure. If in doubt, she adapts the learning environment – rules and all – so that the chances of failure are minimized. Most of her failures come when she underestimates a student’s ability to change. The negative consequences of these failures are not felt deeply, but they affect a large number of students.

While it’s tempting to conclude this blog-post by saying something comforting about the middle ground, I’m not going to. I’d consider myself to be somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, and all this means is that I tend to experience a fairly equal mix of both types of failure. Naturally, this is all a gross simplification. Teachers are able to reduce the frequency and magnitude of their failures with experience, and every teacher has moments of being a soft touch and a hard bastard. So why write this? When discussing behaviour management, accepting the weaknesses of one’s own approach can be seen as unnecessarily ceding ground. However, I believe that healthy, productive debate relies on it. None of us are perfect, we all fail and the teachers who have a different view of behavior management to us might just have a different tolerance for the two main types of failure we all experience. Perhaps if they were forced to choose the other type of failure more often, teaching would be unbearable for them.

Like a friend once explained to me, perhaps all we can do is decide which mistakes we can live with.

What we say and what they hear

You say it with widely varying degrees of success… when you say nothing at all.

Ronan Keating (first draft)

Sometimes words that are not said are the most memorable. In my NQT year, I repeatedly observed an experienced teacher for whom I had a great deal of respect. She was a warm, engaging, thoughtful person with sky-high expectations, and I learned plenty from watching her. Quite unfairly, however, one phrase that she used with her year 6 maths class has stuck in my memory. Whenever the class’s motivation seemed to wane, she would stop, pause for effect and then – with a quiet severity in her voice – ask the children, rhetorically, “Bus stop or BMW? Which do you want when you’re older?” The very idea struck me as odd at the time, and with each passing year I wonder more why I did not question it.

Just think about the pair of implications that are attached to that pithy phrase, “Bus stop or BMW?”:

1. At the age of 10 or 11, the aim of education is eventual wealth.

2. Using public transport is a bad thing to be avoided through academic success.

I suspect that the teacher in question, if pressed, would have described the purposes of education in the same idealistic tones that we are conditioned to expect from the profession. Regardless, a phrase she used to motivate her class – “bus stop or BMW” – contained within it a set of counter-productive implications that the students cannot have failed to have grasped.

Children may often struggle with algebra and the subjunctive voice, but they are naturals when it comes to inferring the implicit messages beneath what adults say. They are like jazz aficionados hearing every note left unplayed. Recently, Doug Lemov[i] and Adam Boxer[ii] wrote blog-posts that discuss the subtle linguistic cues that students pick up on. Regardless of one’s views on these methods of behaviour management, both of those teachers are keenly aware of the power of the implicit and how we must think carefully about how we control it. It has made me think about some other common teacher interactions that I have heard in schools over the years and the implied messages that were inadvertently communicated:

I expect better effort from someone as clever as you. = If you struggle with this subject, I don’t really expect you to try hard.

Ten out of ten? That’s amazing! = I am surprised that you succeeded.

Everyone’s good at something. = Working hard to improve is not as important as having one skill at which you are naturally better than other people. Anchor your self-worth on that one thing.

Someone called you ugly? How silly! You’re not ugly at all! = Someone gave a negative judgement of your appearance, but don’t worry because I’m judging you positively in that regard. There’s no need to question the entire premise of superficiality that underlies the insult and my response.

It’s hard to analyse the exact implications of every statement that we make. Heaven knows that I can put my foot in it.[iii] It’s worth being reminded occasionally of the importance of the implicit in every situation, not just in the day-to-day struggle of behaviour management. Sometimes words that are not said are the most memorable.



[iii] This blog post reminds me of my friend and colleague who, having returned to work following her pregnancy, was greeted by the following words from my stupid mouth: “Wow! You look like you’ve lost fifty stone!” The fact that she took my ‘compliment’ in the spirit that it was intended is indicative of her generosity and tolerance.

The main weakness of whole-class, explicit instruction (and how to minimise it)

A few years back, when my priority in lesson observations was to impress whoever was watching, I had a few tricks to ensure that a lesson ran smoothly and to make me look pretty good. The first trick was to teach something that the children hadn’t yet seen that was also conceptually fairly simple; this made it a doddle to ‘show progress’. (I know, I know…yuck!) The second trick was to ensure that my interactive whiteboard slides were extremely detailed, so much so that even if I lost my voice, the slides would give a decent explanation on my behalf. The third and most important trick was to plan a lesson with very little teacher talk or modelling. Why did I feel this necessary? Well, this brings me to the title of this blog-post…

Perhaps the greatest strength of whole-class explicit instruction is that it allows a teacher to break down a new concept into several small steps and to model each one. For example, rounding to the nearest hundred can be broken into five steps:

1. Recognise multiples of 100.

2. Find the next multiple of 100 above a given number.

3. Find the multiple of 100 below a given number.

4. Find the midpoint between two adjacent multiples of 100.

5. Compare a given number to a midpoint.

Explicitly teaching these five steps seems to promote a pretty decent understanding of what rounding means and how to do it (with shortcuts being taught later). It allows a teacher to see, and address, exactly which steps of the process might cause some to struggle. However, this same deconstruction into steps also accentuates the greatest weakness of whole-class explicit instruction, particularly to those observing a one-off lesson: Often when one group of students – let’s call them strugglers – needs further help with a step, there will be other students – let’s call them high-fliers – who already find the same step to be trivially easy. (Remember: these are not fixed labels; these two groups are merely the students who do and don’t struggle with a given step.) This is, of course, a more regular occurrence in a class with a large spread of current attainment. To anyone observing, this could look like the lesson has been pitched incorrectly or that differentiation is lacking. The alternative – typically a lesson with activities differentiated by task to the exact needs of various groups and with minimal teacher talk – certainly looks better in a one-off observation: the kids can all be busy and the highest attainers are demonstrably challenged. However, in the long run it is in the interests of the whole class – even the highest attainers – that the vast bulk of the class master the taught content so that their teacher doesn’t have to focus more and more of her attention on supporting those that have become irrevocably left behind.* A reliance upon frequent task-based differentiation – while it can lead to smooth-looking lessons – accepts and increases the gap between the highest and lowest attainers, and eventually is bad news for both. Whole-class, explicit teaching is a distinctly messier, less predictable affair, but it means that teachers constantly address the gaps between the lowest and highest-attaining students, temporarily privileging the interests of the former in the long-term interests of all, including the latter.

To recap, the greatest potential weakness of whole-class, explicit instruction is that the high-fliers will sometimes need to independently complete tasks that deepen thinking while the teacher’s attention focuses on the strugglers who are grappling with a single step in a new concept. This may seem less than ideal, but only by not moving on until the vast majority have mastered each step will a teacher lay the foundations upon which the learning of the whole class relies.

That said, what can we do to minimise this potential weakness of whole-class explicit instruction?

  1. When planning, consider each step of a new concept, and ask the following question: What task will I set to deepen the thinking of the high-fliers while I help the strugglers? (e.g. In my rounding example above, I could ask children to define a multiple or to write a list of numbers that would and would not be multiples of 100, explaining how they can tell the difference. The best examples require no extra resourcing. They can simply be written on a whiteboard.)
  2. Don’t be afraid to simply give students further examples to practice. A little over-learning is not the end of the world.
  3. Where appropriate (and this requires careful judgment), enlist the high-fliers to guide the understanding of those struggling with a step.
  4. Be flexible: students will surprise you sometimes with what they do and don’t understand. Accept that effective teaching needs to adapt to the current understanding of your students, and that sometimes you won’t see the true level of this understanding until you’re in the lesson.
  5. That said, pre-assessment is your friend. The more you can assess students’ abilities to tackle each step in a process in advance, the better you will anticipate when you will need tasks to deepen thinking.

Every teaching method has potential weaknesses. I advocate whole-class explicit instruction which privileges the needs of those that most need support and which underpins the learning of the whole class in the long run, even if it means I sometimes look less impressive to an observer and have to trust myself more to think on my feet.**

*Naturally, there will be some circumstances, especially in primary school, where frequent differentiation by task will simply have to take place, but it is best considered as a last resort in my view.

**I don’t stick religiously to whole-class explicit instruction. When appropriate, I quite often teach using collaborative activities, open-ended enquiries (once concepts are mastered), etc. However, explicit whole-class teaching is my default choice when I want a class to understand a new concept.

Year 6 SATS and “playing the game” – the dysfunction of misaligned incentives

You juke the stats, and majors become colonels. I’ve been here before.

Roland Pryzbylewski – The Wire

Imagine this: Two ambitious teachers in the same school are desperately seeking promotion. They’re equally qualified and have similar levels of experience. Knowing that above all else the head teacher values dedication (and has a keen eye on the signing-in book), Teacher A decides to stay until 6 pm every night to clearly exhibit her dedication. In response, teacher B decides to stay until 6:30 pm the next night. This causes Teacher A to stay until 7 pm the night after that. This battle of one-upmanship continues until both are staying late into the evening every day. In this zero sum game, two people who would benefit from cooperating are forced into actions that leave neither person better off despite the cost to both. This is an example of a ‘race to the bottom‘, a phrase usually associated with economics. Thankfully, the hypothetical head teacher sees what is going on and intervenes: she states that she values time-management skills as much as hard work and actively discourages the two ambitious teachers from working late into the night. Problem solved.

There is a similar race to the bottom in primary schools with regards to year 6 SATS preparation, one that equally requires intervention from those in authority. It has taken place gradually, in small increments, so that the shift has hardly been noticed, but all involved seem to agree that something has gone wrong. Secondary teachers bemoan the unreliability of the results. Parents despair at the unnecessary pressure placed upon their children. Primary teachers complain about the narrowed curriculum, the Easter schools, the after-school SATs clubs that often begin in year 5 and the nudge-wink grey area between perfectly administered assessments and outright cheating.  It is an open secret that this part of our education system is broken.

As with the example of the two ambitious teachers, the problem is that SATs results and league tables are a zero-sum game.  No individual school benefits when the majority are pushing boundaries to tip SATs results in their favour, or “playing the game” as it is often called. To choose not to “play the game” is to burden one’s school with a significant disadvantage in the key measure against which every school stakeholder is judged. When a cohort consists of as few as 30 students, every small part of the game can have a large statistical impact. I’m sure there are head teachers who completely ignore the myriad ways – some subtle, some less so – that SATs results can be nudged in the right direction at the expense of children’s overall educational experience. However, head teachers are human beings, and human beings follow incentives. Rather than demanding that individual head teachers risk their careers for the sake of integrity – in a system that encourages them to compete against others that may not – why not change the incentives that have caused this mess?

Ofsted have taken a first small step towards fixing a problem that they inadvertently created. A greater focus on curriculum and less on statistically measurable outcomes is a start. (Nevertheless, one might argue that the Ofsted’s choice to ignore internal data – though done for sound reasons – may intensify the focus on SATs results.) The problem is that it takes effort to shift people from the status quo, and right now the status quo in primary schools is dysfunctional. Forceful new incentives are required. Here are three suggestions:

1. Ofsted could make it clear to schools that they will try to find out how much SATs-based revision has taken place, and communicate that this will be taken into account when looking at results. (I tweeted Sean Harford on this subject, and he referred me to the draft inspection handbook; however, unless I am mistaken, there is no clear and robust disincentive relating to this subject mentioned in the handbook.)

2. SATs could be administered at the start of year 7 with results feeding back to primary schools.[i] This would incentivise primary schools to – shock, horror – actually continue to teach core subjects properly all the way up until July. It would also incentivise primary schools to focus on long-term retention rather than cramming and exam strategies. (Naturally, end-of-year 6 summer schools would need to be disincentivised as these would no doubt start to crop up; such is the system that currently operates.)

3. Ofsted could get rid of the four grades. Schools should be judged as acceptable or not. Acceptable schools should be given improvement priorities that will contribute to the next Ofsted inspection. Unacceptable schools should be given immediate and wide-ranging support, and – obviously – where irremediable incompetence is found, people should lose their jobs. High Ofsted grades create complacency and low ones create despondency. Ditch them. Where Ofsted find particular practices that they think are potentially worthy of imitation, they should take note and share this information with other schools.

I’m sure there are other solutions to this mess, far more achievable than I could propose. Either way, the current state of affairs cannot be allowed to continue.

[i] One argument against point 2 is that secondary schools would not be able to meet the array of requirements that year 6 children have for these tests: readers, scribes, transcribing, 1:1 confidence-givers, quiet spaces for children who feel the need to read aloud, rest breaks, etc. However, given everything we know about working memory, I think that it is fair to say that some of these access arrangements are up for debate. For example, shouldn’t the ability to independently read and comprehend a question be part of what is assessed in a mathematics assessment? Is it appropriate for a child who can read 91 words per minute to have one hour for a reading test, while another student who reads 89 words per minute gets an additional 15 minutes. Is reading fluency not part of what is being assessed? This is a thorny topic and is beyond the scope of this post. It suffices to say that this is another grey area where schools are incentivised to do anything that might boost SATs results.