This post follows on from ‘Why I Became Radicalised’
“The quaint, ill-informed notions some parents have,” said the smile that crossed the face of Miss Dover, the acting head of my second daughter’s new infant school.
“No, children learn through play but we do model correct letter formation when we see children choosing to write…”
I was a seasoned veteran now and knew it was counterproductive to challenge what seemed nonsense to me. I wanted to ask:
- How children could possibly get enough practice from optional writing activities and minimal formal instruction?
- Didn’t this approach widen the gap between the keenest and the uninterested?
- Didn’t it just reinforce bad habits if children weren’t corrected?
However, I had just moved my daughter mid-year because of the problems at her last school and besides I felt really sorry for poor Miss Wilton the Reception teacher. She was flanked at this parents’ consultation by Miss Dover because the parents had been giving her so much flack. She was a failing NQT and looked like she was near a breakdown.
It had turned out I wasn’t just lucky to get a space mid-year at an oversubscribed ‘outstanding’ village school. Year One and Two were lovely but I soon found out that two children had been withdrawn from Reception after a term by worried parents.
EYFS advocates are right, Reception isn’t just about academic learning it is about learning to be one of a group, to cope with routines, to manage clothes, toileting, friendships and behaviour. Poor Miss Wilton needed some off the peg structures to give the children but no one seemed to have let her in on the secrets of the trade, clearly her training had focused on letting her find her own way when she didn’t even understand where she was trying to go. Her class were feral and parents couldn’t see progress in the basics. This combined with a series of shocking incidents among the children while they were apparently being supervised by Miss Wilton (involving, scissors, strangulation and nudity) led to the acting head, Miss Dover, calling a meeting of Reception parents to ‘allay concerns’.
I struggle to feel sorry for Miss Dover because she was most culpable for the problems. She had actually trained reception teachers in the county but she was rarely in the classroom with Miss Wilton and she suggested that to help Miss Wilton would require extra funding. That said, the meeting must have been horrible, managing articulate, aggressive parents. Miss Dover explained that we were wrong to think the children were not learning, they were learning intangible things – through play. As she read out a pre-written explanation of play based learning, a sort of ‘Gospel of Play’ as followed by true believers, a beatific smile spread across her face, the special sort of rapt expression I had already encountered on the face of my daughter’s old head teacher who also believed she was saving other people’s children from psychological harm by building a relationship with them over the stickle bricks, instead of teaching them.
I had learnt over the previous year that it was not enough to believe, as I did, that young children need to spends lots of time playing and that they can learn from play. Believers in what seems more like a ‘Cult of Play’ go further and claim ‘real learning’ only really happens through ‘extending children’s thinking’ as they play. So one play choice might be a shop set up to encourage children to count with coins. The role of the teacher is not to teach but to observe the 30 children playing and promote learning by joining in and pushing the children’s thinking in new directions mathematically. Teacher initiated activities must be playful and kept to a minimum (20% is often quoted). A shop role play to support mathematical learning of 4-5 year olds is an eminently sensible idea but I do seriously question an approach which precludes any systematic or deliberate practice – and this approach is actually enforced by law in England for reception aged children. Do look at this official guidance for the assessment of reading and maths at the end of reception. It clearly illustrates that the most novice of learners are expected to master reading and number with minimal teacher instruction, using discovery methods.
Advocates argue that there is robust research to support their views. The research I’ve read seems far from robust and the conclusions/extrapolations drawn from that research are decidedly shaky. Because there is plenty of evidence that play is important for children’s development does not mean they must learn to count through child led activities or that teachers need to hover about finding ways to develop kids ‘creativity’ as they play. To even assert that attributes such as creativity can be learnt generically and readily transfer, contradicts what rigorous research we do actually have and yet play based learning is built on this premise. Please feel free to follow the references in this document and make up your own mind about the research. The biggest irony is that many of those that most vociferously argue that play based learning is the only acceptable approach generally dismiss research in education as reductionist. However. many are happy to talk about robustly scientific conclusions when it comes to play. I’d argue that play based learning is more of a belief system. As a method it was not mainstream 15 years ago but it is now orthodoxy. The practices of a previous generation of nursery teachers have been dismissed and virtually disappeared. New teachers are indoctrinated and anyone who questions the tenets of the faith must be at least heartless and possibly evil. When it comes to play, zealots are willing to claim, as the ATL document ‘Playing to Learn’, (a good summary of the ideas behind play based learning) explains on p17:
“A highly structured approach to early years (birth to seven) does not foster or support the self-regulation or growth mind sets that we know are required for children to become motivated, independent and innovative thinkers… Children will in most cases remember and repeat what they are taught but have very little understanding or mastery over the concepts embedded within it… In some cases we can see how this type of teaching has led to children having a dislike of reading and writing and learning in general and worryingly high levels of stress.”
That is EYFS orthodoxy but it is an astonishing claim. The reason children must learn through their play is that otherwise they won’t really understand. That explains the bizarre and statutory requirement to assess reading when you discover children reading spontaneously, rather than just asking them to read and seeing what they can do! This assertion, integral to the approach, contradicts the clear evidence that children can learn very effectively through direct instruction. In fact for the ATL, direct instruction (a teacher explanation and giving some practice)is beyond the pale. The document even condemns ‘highly structured forms of play’ which, perish the thought, are driven by an adult agenda to achieve ‘fixed learning outcomes’. (see p17)
Learning to read is a fixed outcome imposed by adults and if Miss Wilton had absorbed one thing from her training it was that children would learn to read when they were ‘ready’. I soon realised how disastrous this assumption was. I had started to teach my daughter at home, systematically, using phonics. Her ‘advanced’ level was a talking point at a parents’ social and I found myself next to a rather desperate mum whose son was making no progress and becoming increasingly unhappy when asked to read. When she found out I had taught my daughter she asked for help. She was at her wits end as Matthew seemed unable to learn the sight words or get anywhere with his reading book. I told her I wasn’t a teacher of reading, just someone who had read the research. She pointed out that I had more experience than Miss Wilton and she only wanted some advice so in the end I agreed to read with her son, in case I could offer any guidance. I saw Matthew at the start of the Easter holiday and discovered he only recognised 7 graphemes. In lay man’s terms he was being asked to learn words and read books but in two terms he had only learnt to recognise seven letters of the alphabet! He couldn’t sound out words with the graphemes he did know. I showed him how to blend( c- a-t) and after 20 minutes he proudly showed his mum the words he had actually, really read! He found it hard to concentrate but by the end of the holiday he knew all the basic graphemes and some digraphs (ch, sh, th) and was confidently blending simple words using these. On return to school Miss Dover, a fully paid up developmentalist suggested that his sudden progress was probably because he was a ‘spring bloomer’.
Matthew had been taught ‘phonics’ in discrete lessons but had not learnt much. Fine, said the play based learning approach Miss Wilton had been trained in, expose them and they will learn when developmentally ready. As the ATL guide explains:
“If we are looking for superficial evidence of learning like colours, numbers and shapes then we miss a child’s potential for deeper thinking which involves them concentrating, being involved, possibility thinking, meta-cognition etc… (p31)
Miss Wilton was following the manual (so to speak) – not common sense. Most reception teachers know that children need plenty of exposure to ensure they recognise graphemes but Miss Wilton had been told that judging learning by such superficial indicators as knowing your numbers (or indeed your letters) comes at a cost of ‘dumbing down the real potential of children’ (p31). Regular practice is ‘drill and kill’ after all.
I volunteered to hear reception readers and so knew that by July at least half the children still didn’t recognise many basic graphemes readily and they were just memorising their books and reciting them. Virtually none of the children could blend confidently and it was not a strategy they used to read. I cannot think of a better way to breed dyslexia than encourage children to ignore the phonological basis of words they read. None were forming letters correctly, (although they had actually been doing some structured writing tasks) and I had started teaching my daughter maths at home because she wasn’t learning anything at school.
Miss Wilton was struggling and needed more support. I think that whatever method she used she would not have succeeded. However, my point is that she was following ‘the manual’ but in its purest form, unleavened with common sense, the doctrines of play based learning are sure to fail. Quite simply many children need more explicit instruction and more practice than play based learning provides or will allow and so this approach entrenches inequalities as some children cope better without guidance or get more outside help. I’m not sure the most fundamentalist play based learning zealots would care about this failure to teach the children the basics. They have redefined learning away from mundane outcomes such as ability to read or add up and you can’t actually measure improved generic thinking skills (largely because they don’t exist – thinking is dependent on knowledge of the context).
Some teachers need to help more damaged little ones that don’t seem to know how to play. If you are able to help these children then you are indeed stars and I can even summon up the beginnings of a beatific smile when I think of what you are doing. However, my children, like most, don’t need help to play and have plenty of opportunity. I wanted them to spend lots of time playing in their Reception class and I am sure it can make good sense to introduce or support what is taught with play based activities. However, elaborate approaches can simply distract from the learning intention and waste precious time and many children need a systematic approach with plenty of deliberate practice to become confident readers and mathematicians.
Children don’t need to learn numeracy and literacy through play. They will learn well, be happy and flourish even when teaching is not even playful.
Some readers will have no idea how heretical that statement is…
Post script: Miss Wilton did get extra help – with her end of reception assessments. All that my daughter had not learnt to do at school was carefully observed and recorded… Both Miss Dover and Miss Wilton moved on that summer. Year one was infinitely better. I can only hope Miss Wilson got the support she needed at her new school.