Why I became radicalised – the sequel. Frying pan to fire.

This post follows on from ‘Why I Became Radicalised’

“Handwriting books?”

“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 Year One and Two were lovely but I soon found out that two children had been withdrawn from Reception after a term by worried parents.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.


More WHAT less HOW – or ‘your shepherds pie requires improvement’

I am most interested in what children are taught, within an education system that is obsessed with  how they are taught it, as an end in itself. You know when you are tempted to buy a delicious looking cake from the bakers and you bite into it only to find it is too dry or tasteless. I think many of the lessons most admired are similar. They are beautifully crafted and so may well be tempting, or ‘highly motivating’ but many of the ones I read about deliver limited substance. Ofsted don’t help. Inspectors are meant to check if children are learning though there is plenty of evidence that in the last few years they have been more concerned with style over substance.

I am now going to horribly mix up my metaphors because I have another food based analogy to illustrate my point.

For just a moment imagine that there were inspectors checking that families provided their children with adequate nutrition (Ofeat). At least that was the reason they were set up but in this report they appear to have extended their brief!

Report on the F family meal:

The shepherds’ pie in this setting requires improvement. While plate clearance was good there was no evidence that the setting was promoting a life-long love of nutritious eating. Poor attitudes to eating were observed with one nine year old heard to complain, ‘not shepherds’ pie again’. The cook included too much mushroom and this led to a lack of engagement in the meal. In another outstanding setting, enthusiasm for nutritious eating was actively promoted through encouraging eaters to follow their own interests and make their own pizzas with a wide range of possible toppings on offer to encourage creativity. However, when the shepherds’ pie was served too much dependence on the cook was shown, with one five year old having to be cajoled to clear his plate. By contrast another local setting had been trained to craft ice cream into the shapes of nutritious vegetables. The eaters of all ages, including the youngest eaters, in this setting showed high levels of eating engagement and were able to name with confidence all the ice cream shaped vegetables eaten. Vegetable themed decorations and well-chosen background music further promoted eater engagement.

(Perhaps you think the ice cream shaped vegetables analogy is a bit over the top but then maybe you haven’t heard about studying Romeo and Juliet through puppet making!)

Now to get back to being serious… I admire really well-crafted lessons and I’m sure I could improve my teaching by taking more care over the final delivery aspect of planning. However, I think beautifully presented ‘Ofsted’ lessons are only one part of good teaching (the icing on the cake). Well-crafted lessons can tempt students in like a wonderful iced cake or great dining ambience but if that cake is full of saw dust then a plain sponge (or shepherds’ pie) would have been better and most of the time it is all we have time for.  When I read Ofsted lesson observations or suggestions for great lessons on teacher forums, I read some comments on what content is appropriate but much more focus on great presentation ideas. This is despite the former being crucial and the latter simply preferable. All curriculum content isn’t of equal value. What you choose to emphasise and whether it fits into a broader framework that you have been carefully constructing for your students,  is central. It is also important that what is taught is remembered.

Teaching mainly KS 4 and 5 history, most of my planning time is taken up with ensuring the ‘story’ I deliver hangs together and planning how new content will build on what students already know. I spend lots of time thinking about how I can help students grasp the detail they will need, to structure sound arguments in their essays.  No matter how many years I teach, I still need to really dive back into the content of a fresh topic to remind myself how it all hangs together and what I will need to stress. At this point I remember likely misconceptions, notice what will be complicated to explain and the bits that are too easily forgotten by the students and bearing all this in mind, I plan ‘what’ I should teach. After all that planning I then think about what activity might address weaknesses I have noticed in the light of the last batch of marking. Finally I then plan how I will deliver all this but there is limited time left for crafting all of it into a beautifully presented learning experience and I often have to rely on a limited repertoire of simple tried and tested types of activities.  This may be weakness in my teaching (although I prefer to view it as a pragmatic choice of priorities given limited time). If my classes are more challenging I do make certain sure that all my activities are totally watertight but given that time is not endless and we must all prioritise, the bottom line is still the content over imaginative tasks or variety of activities. The ‘best’ lessons I read about are planned with little interest in everything I consider most important and I have no idea how they can be examples of good teaching unless there is real interest in what decisions have been made over content as outlined above. Why do I never read about these crucial choices in Ofsted reports or similar?

The Ofsted report you rarely read: “It was clear that students had been carefully taught the ideas and concepts necessary to understand the current content. Programmes of study were ambitious but carefully structured to systematically build understanding so even the work of the weakest students showed a reasonable grasp of the detail. Teachers clearly had strong subject knowledge meaning that they were able to explain with clarity and questioning showed they were anticipating common misconceptions.”

How often have you seen anything along those lines? Discussion is largely of stand-alone lessons and comments on a series of lessons are generally because the snazzy task described takes lots of time.

One of the main reasons content is side-lined and certain activities are prioritised is the belief that these activities will develop skills such as creativity or problem solving and encourage motivation. I would say that the onus is on those claiming those skills can be taught to prove it. This is where my shepherds’ pie analogy really comes in as the aims of ‘Ofeat’ were similarly problematic. It is actually highly contentious to claim that skills can be taught out of context or transferred readily between contexts – let alone that the trendy activities advocated are the best way to achieve these desirable skills based outcomes. While motivation is undoubtedly important, I don’t think we really know how far certain activities create long term motivation. For every kid that enjoyed ‘history Cluedo’ I can point you to one that just loves history because of the stories his or her teacher told and is desperate to learn more.

It is hard to decide what content children should know and understand. It is important that this decision takes account of what the most successful schools achieve because the priority on methods can lead to lower expectations in terms of outcomes (see here). I have strong views on the effectiveness of different methods but my specific point here is that we have a problem because teaching is being judged by whether certain methods are being used rather than whether the right content is being taught or learnt. (That said if the ‘what’ is realistic but non-negotiable, then some methods will be less effective for most teachers.)

So to conclude, I’ve served up meals I’m not especially proud of but I would argue that my shepherds’ pie was just fine!

Teaching badly – really badly

You may well have read that Liz Truss is bringing a large number of Chinese maths teachers to the UK to work in hubs within schools. She hopes that we can learn from Chinese teaching methods. I read one article in which a British maths teacher suggested that in many ways our maths lessons are better than those in China. This got me thinking about what makes English lessons better.

It is always good to look at those who get things wrong if you want to learn what is really good. A good place to start would be my own lessons last year with my year 11 history class of A* to C/D grade kids.  At my school I don’t have to teach any particular way and no one from management observes me much and so I am left alone to teach badly – really badly.

With that class…

  • I didn’t really do starters or plenaries.
  • Three parts? One part lessons were commonplace (in fairness lessons are only 35 minutes long) although I suppose I did sometimes talk for quite a bit before they got down to work.
  • I didn’t put up objectives and only sometimes thought to tell my class what the lesson was about at the start.
  • I didn’t ever fill out a lesson planning proforma – ever. I did have long plans scribbled on bits of A4 paper including phrases like: ‘Do cause thing’ or ‘ALEX Homework!!!’ but not sure that would count.
  • I didn’t think about learning styles.
  • I never, ever differentiated my tasks.
  • Peer assessment? – not really- although I did get them to read each others work.
  • I didn’t purposefully plan in any independent learning (in the Ofsted sense) – unless I suppose homework can count.
  • The odd time, on a Friday afternoon, we all gladly opted for a full 20+ minutes of ‘History File, Nazi Germany’.
  • I didn’t flip my classroom or innovate my teaching by getting them to write on desks while manoeuvering post it notes.
  • I didn’t really go in for group work – I suppose I did the odd debate and a decent amount of pair stuff.
  • I didn’t do taxonomies. Goodness knows what the kids would have understood by the word Solo but they wouldn’t have thought about improving their analysis.
  • Bloom was also unheard of and I didn’t try to focus on ‘higher order questioning’. Ditto de Bono and Claxton.
  • I am no raconteur and no one laughed at my jokes (they did laugh at me but again that isn’t the same…)
  • I never knowingly ‘did AFL ™’.
  • Sometimes I did teacher led stuff for the whole lesson.
  • My desks were in rows (of course).
  • My students did not have any formal targets, so that solved any problems about them knowing them.
  • I don’t even understand how you might use progress data to aid your teaching.
  • Sometimes to nail the events we read from the textbook around the classroom (After all it gave me a welcome break from hearing the sound of my own voice).
  • I didn’t do ‘interventions’. I did make some kids come back at lunch because they hadn’t understood their homework but no one was (scary thought) ‘targeted’.

Yes I was a very bad teacher indeed. If you saw the hours I spent every day planning those lessons you might well wonder what on earth I was doing. It is unfathomable that many of the class said that history was their favourite subject and a majority went on to do A level. How can I dare to be enormously proud of how I taught that class when I should be ashamed of my low standards?

The one plus is, like the students of the Chinese teachers, my class did get extremely good results ( .8 value added). That is something I suppose.

If you’d like to know more about what I did actually do with my class click this link https://heatherfblog.wordpress.com/2014/03/22/your-shepherds-pie-requires-improvement/


Always read the small print – the decoupling of skills and knowledge in our exams

There is a funny thing about the skills versus knowledge debate. It is odd that anyone presumes many people would seriously argue for what is obviously a false dichotomy, a choice between skills or knowledge. On the other hand I do know that many people decouple skills from knowledge. They try to teach generic skills with subject matter chosen largely for its suitability as a vehicle towards teaching those skills. Thinking skills, learning to learn and twenty first century skills are education buzz words.

However, there is actually quite a large volume of research suggesting that:

  1. Skills are the product of fluency of knowledge in a specific area.
  2. Skills learnt in one area don’t transfer readily to other areas.

The idea that it is very possible to teach generic skills such as critical thinking or creative thinking is so seriously contested by the research [this article is a clear summary of research in the area] that it seems odd that schools are so gung ho about buying into a skills based educational agenda. I suppose it is so beguiling – make schooling about the inculcation of transferable skills and you don’t have to try and justify curriculum content for its own sake. However, it is even more surprising that our GCSE and A level exams are entirely built around the assumption that skills can be separated from knowledge, decoupled, and separately assessed. Should a nation’s examination system really be based on assumptions seriously contested by science?

Which brings me to the first of many points where I fear you might start to drift off because I need to show you the most tedious part of exam specifications, the bit any sane teacher just skips over. I want to show you some assessment objectives.

Here are some old style (old specification) assessment objectives for history GCSE:

AO1: recall, select, organise and deploy knowledge of the specification content and communicate it through description, explanation and analysis of:

  • • the events, people, changes and issues studied
  • • the key features and characteristics of the periods, topics and societies studied =70%

AO2/3 for source work, 22% and 8% for interpretation of historical events.

Here are the some currently in use:

AO1: Recall, select and communicate their knowledge of history 37%

AO2: Demonstrate their understanding of the past through explanation and analysis of, and judgements about, key features and the concepts in history of causation, consequence and change. 36%

AO3 27% for source work

Can you spot the difference?

The problem is that this small change to specifications in most subjects is distorting our whole examination system.  We can’t ignore it.

The assessment objectives dictate the mark schemes and the mark schemes dictate how the students are assessed. We teach our kids to deftly hop skip and jump their way through those mark schemes, otherwise they won’t pass. But what if the mark schemes don’t actually describe progression in our subject? What if they attempt to a test a facility in demonstrating a totally fictional hierarchy of ‘generic’ skills?  Surely not…

Problem 1: Mark schemes assess skills separately from knowledge and understanding, when the distinction is meaningless.

Today I have been marking politics A level mocks. Here is an example at random of a 10 mark question:

Explain three political functions of pressure groups.

  • Up to 7 marks are available for: ‘developed knowledge and understanding’
  • Up to 3 marks are available for ‘Intellectual skills’: specifically ‘the ability to analyse and explain how pressure groups function.’

So there we have it, the decoupling of knowledge from apparently generically teachable skills in the assessment objectives means they must be assessed separately in the mark scheme.

I sat and looked at those descriptions today till my head began to spin. How can a student show level 3 understanding of the functions of pressure groups (AO1) without explaining how they function (AO2)? How able are we to analyse anything convincingly without deploying good knowledge? Marking becomes easier if the mark scheme defines the content that will count as AO2 but while that might help the markers it leads to a check list approach to essay marking and hardly solves the core problem. Sometimes it is nice to clearly reward a candidate that knows loads but hasn’t got it together in an argument and that feels like the grain of truth behind this approach. However, they have hardly shown good understanding of the issues (AO1) if those facts are not well used. Serious worthy examiners, perform feats of mental gymnastics to make this stuff work in their own minds. If ever there was a case of the emperor’s new clothes…

However, if this incoherence in the mark scheme was the only problem the decoupling of skills and knowledge would be simply a frustration. However it is not just nonsense, it is pernicious nonsense.

Problem 2: Assessing skills distorts the mark scheme progression and leads to unreliable assessment.

I teach Political Ideologies to A2 students. I prepare students to answer essay questions such as:
‘Socialism is defined by its opposition to capitalism, discuss.’

I returned from a long maternity leave four years ago to find the A2 essay titles were exactly the same but mark schemes had decoupled knowledge from skills. In fact they went further than a two way split:

AO1: ‘Knowledge and understanding’

AO2: ‘Intellectual skills’ of ‘analysis and evaluation’

AO2: ‘Synoptic skills’ which means being able to ‘identify competing viewpoints’ and awareness of how they ‘affect interpretation’ and ‘shape conclusions’.

AO3: ‘Communication and coherence’

We have to judge politics A2 candidates using four different level descriptors for the one essay and thus make four different decisions as defined in the box above.  Can you identify competing viewpoints while not analysing? Can you show consistently good understanding incoherently? Three quarters of the marks are now for discrete skills that can apparently be demonstrated separately from knowledge and understanding.

When answering the question above weaker students tend to give descriptions of the different sorts of socialism and then they might say in passing how each strand of socialism viewed capitalism. My aim as a teacher is to try and improve their understanding so they can get beyond this. Able students are able to really actively compare types of socialism and explain WHY they had different approaches. I have done years of external examining and was used to marking essays using a set of level descriptors that had some flexibility but were built on the assumption that meaningful analysis comes from a foundation of secure knowledge and understanding and by definition is not frequently evident in ‘C’ grade answers.

Now though… to score a C grade, students must show ‘C’ grade ‘analytical skills’, to match their ‘C’ grade knowledge and understanding when almost by definition those with only ‘C’ grade knowledge cannot effectively analyse.Teachers and textbooks routinely provide students with lists of arguments they can make in essays to help them do this because they would struggle otherwise. It is a delusion to believe that these students are now genuinely analysing rather than describing and that they are developing generic analytical skills that they can apply to this or any other question. They are parroting arguments they could not have developed themselves and sometimes barely understand (despite my best efforts.)

Given that it is actually virtually impossible to really judge the knowledge and understanding separately from the analytical skills it is inevitable that examiners are often told which responses to judge as AO2, rather than AO1. Sometimes weak students have learnt off these AO2 arguments and miraculously get ‘A’ grades. On many other occasions I have seen from photocopy scripts that able students have neglected to hit the points that have been identified as AO2 and plummet to a ‘C’ grade. Either way, the mark scheme is not actually describing the real progression between weaker and stronger responses and this will inevitably lead to distortions and injustices.

Problem 3: Mark schemes now describe a fictional hierarchy of ‘generic’ skills

GCSE and A level mark schemes assume students will make progression in skills, apparently independent of the content they grasp. Questions are written, expecting  to test analytical skills and the subject matter  is simply the necessary vehicle to demonstrate these skills.

The following is from guidance to AQA GCSE history examiners:

“Each ‘level’… [of the mark scheme] represents a stage in the development of the student’s quality of thinking, and, as such, recognition by the assistant examiner of the relative differences between each level descriptor is of paramount importance…Indicative content must not however determine the level into which an answer is placed; the student’s level of critical thinking determines this.

But there is no such thing as measurable progress in a stand-alone skill of analysis or critical thinking.

There really, really isn’t. You can’t judge quality of thinking and then adjust within the level depending in quality of content because the grasp of the content dictates the quality of the thinking. Any mark schemes which try to describe this fiction are nonsensical. The research is pretty clear. It is grasp of the detail that allows a student to analyse effectively. We all actually know that students will quickly lose this apparent skill when faced with a topic or entirely new subject they don’t understand. When we hear a student reasoning intelligently about football but then unable to transfer this ‘skill’ to his history work, is this because he has suddenly lost command of a skill? How can one have ‘quality thinking’ without deep knowledge and understanding? A question is actually more difficult depending on the complexity of the content. In fact it is very common to hear history teachers complain that the NC levels, which have similar flawed assumptions, do not actually describe progression in history.

Despite this AQA decide how examiners might identify evidence of a generic ability to describe, explain, assess and compare in GCSE history because the assessment objectives require  progress in these ‘skills’ to be assessed. So mark schemes try to define, inevitably quite narrowly, how apparent stand alone skills can be demonstrated. What we all know is that in practice students won’t conform to these criteria without some pretty clear guidance.

A student won’t conform to the mark scheme description of progression and get the marks unless they are drilled.

So those flawed assessment objectives bear a heavy responsibility for the miserable hours of technique coaching necessary to ensure candidates get the grades they deserve. Did we really believe that by teaching the technique to climb a particular mark scheme our students were really mastering transferable skills?

So why is the whole structure of our exams based on this nonsense? Why is no one questioning such flawed assumptions? Lots people who are influential in education know that skills can’t be decoupled from knowledge and it isn’t like our exam system isn’t important enough to make a fuss over. It even looks like the new exams will be keeping these problematic assessment objectives. I don’t really understand why no one is making a fuss about this.


Some of these points have already been blogged here. A detailed look at mark schemes can be found in the comments section of that post.

Why I became radicalised or the problems with discovery learning.

“That’s not real reading”

It all began four years ago with that sharply worded reaction to my earnest and naive question.  I was sat in a meeting for new reception parents. I didn’t quite understand why the new head was changing the way reading was taught. When my eldest had done reception , two years previously, we had been amazed and thrilled by how quickly she had learnt to read.  Why were they going to jumble up all the easier books, rather than take each child systematically through a scheme that carefully added new difficulty incrementally? It seemed I had asked something that was not an acceptable part of the script. The deputy looked at the head and she swiftly moved in to close down any dangerous debate. She was actually shouting at me and I began to shake. Later the deputy told me, with shining eyes, that I should look on the TES website (she knew I was a secondary teacher) where I would find lots wonderful descriptions of success with their methods.

I did look, but it must have been in the wrong places. I found out that schools were meant to be teaching reading using methods outlined in the government  ‘Rose Review’ which advocated systematic phonics. That was what lovely Mrs Williams had done with my eldest but Mrs Williams, an experienced reception teacher, had now been moved to year 5 and I found my second daughter was getting taught using quite a different approach.  I was a parent volunteer and went in to do reading with the reception class and I could see the kids weren’t taking off as they had previously.  Among parents whose elder children had been taught by Mrs Williams there were increasing rumbles of discontent. Their younger children weren’t making the same progress and there were more tears as kids tried to read books they couldn’t access. Some parents reasoned that perhaps it was because child 2/3 was a boy or younger in the year. A few actively pressed for their child to be given those ‘Jelly and Bean’ books Mrs Williams had used. I had already been savaged once so I kept my head down.

Meanwhile I was on a journey, voraciously reading everything I could find. I bought ‘Beginning to Read ‘ by Marilyn Adams and ploughed through its complexities in only 5 days, outrageously neglecting my 2 year old in the process. I surfed the TES comments and read articles by Stanovich and Gough and Tunmer. I discovered the Reading Reform Foundation which was treasure trove of information on reading research. I went on Mumsnet and joined the endless debates on reading in the Primary Education section.  I tried to find out about the other side of the debate but it always seemed to be based on anecdote and didn’t address the research on reading. I was soon a fully paid up ‘phonics phanatic’. When the ‘ph’ word was mentioned the mists would descend and my friends would run a mile to avoid the inevitable rant.

However, it wasn’t my 5 year old in reception I was really worried about.  My eldest was in year 2 and didn’t seem to be learning anything. The new head stated proudly that children learnt best through ‘doing’. Most of the tables had been taken out of the year 2 classroom and after some whole class work, sitting on the mat, the majority of the day’s activities were optional. My daughter could choose between a lovely outdoor role play corner, Play Mobil and similar imaginative topical play stations or the literacy table and the maths mat. The literacy tasks were relevant to daily life and the maths was practical and hands on. For example for maths there was a water tray with gel filled numbers floating in it and fishing nets. Kids were meant to fish out answers to word problems. I think this was so the kinaesthetic learners could learn too. Work sheets were banned right up to year 6. At a meeting for parents we were given a worksheet with A level maths on it and asked how we would feel if we were asked to do it. We were then told that this demonstrated the problems with using work sheets. In year 2 the children chose what to study each half term. One half term they chose castles and the next they chose knights. Apparently they then chose ‘hot and cold’. The head told the children in assembly how much they now enjoyed learning and they then told prospective parents ‘how much they now enjoyed learning’.

But – arghhh – it was all so irrational!

-I was meant to believe that my daughter ‘chose’ her topics when I knew she had actually suggested other ideas.

-How could children choose stuff they didn’t even know existed, didn’t that just narrow their horizons? My friend’s daughter was learning about the Celts in her school and I was SO jealous!

-If teachers were actually free to interpret the children’s suggestions wasn’t the choice just a trick anyway?

-My daughter seemed like a dry sponge, thirsty to learn but just being given drops when there were floods of great stuff to learn.

-Wasn’t it exhausting for teachers to be continually preparing topics from scratch on the whim of six year old children who might say something different five minutes later? I knew that I taught a topic better second or third year running so although I had no problem with responding to student interests, why were primary teachers being forced to ceaselessly innovate?

-It was surely delusional to believe 6 year old kids offered their favourite play obsession, would then choose to do some extended writing or work out a few maths problems. The teacher finally stuck a sticker chart up to reward children that ‘chose’ maths and literacy options. The chart didn’t have many stickers on it and I was saddened that my daughter was being bribed to do something she would have done willingly, and enjoyed, if it was compulsory.

-Didn’t learning have to build on previous understanding so how could such a non -systematic approach achieve this?

-I could see that the lack of tables in the classroom meant it was never possible to do any form of desk work as a whole class. A teacher plus assistant can only ever work with two small groups. Were all those unsupervised six and seven year olds really  learning that much from a week playing with a marble run?

-There were big claims of all the different skills being learnt through these optional play activities but a strong feeling the justification came after the teacher chose the activity. I could as easily claim my children learnt skills such as cooperation, cultural awareness and problem solving when they agreed to watch Scooby Doo on a Saturday morning, or helped me clean the house. If skills could be picked up so easily, from activities my child also did at home, why should she go to school to do them?

-Can children really learn all about gravity from a marble run? When I took my kids to science parks they had fun with the hands on displays but did they really intuit many scientific principles? Surely a teacher explanation and a chance for everyone to have a go was more effective and enormously more efficient than a week (however lovely) of playing at the marbles play station?

-What about practice? I had no problem with my six year old having some time for free play in the school day and I thought playful learning was lovely but my daughter was not writing much or practising much maths.  Surely this approach was enormously inefficient? I knew as a secondary teacher that you can’t afford to waste whole stacks of time on one thing.

-Weren’t work sheets often an efficient way to provide practice and didn’t their effectiveness depend on their quality?

-I was continually told that because learning through play was fun it would create a love of motivation for life-long learning but I never saw the evidence. What if it just led to kids that could never knuckle down? I hadn’t got my qualifications by only do stuff when I enjoyed it.

-I was pretty sure that the head teacher would consider learning by some methods as ideologically unacceptable (learning with systematic phonics teaching wasn’t ‘real reading’) and so wasn’t she accepting poorer progress from the students because this was the best that could be gained with the methods she approved of?

I was one of a concerned huddle of year 2 parents, by no means all ‘Middle class’. I still felt a strong emotional loyalty to the school I had chosen for my first child. It was not the popular school in my small, affluent town because the travellers went there. I had decided it was good and been disgusted by the snobbery and, for a year or so, I had been right! But every week I now heard of another child leaving to go elsewhere. Then, in response to an invitation to parents I went in and looked at my daughter’s books. For a whole month she had done no writing whatsoever. Perhaps she hadn’t done much maths either but the writing was the one thing there had to be a record of. Another mum had complained and been told it was her problem that she was over anxious about her child. I was fired up as much on my friend’s behalf as my own and finally stuck my head over the parapet with a letter of complaint. The head knew that no writing for a month was indefensible and I got a properly apologetic letter but some rather awkward moments with the class teacher who knew she’d got it wrong. However, if there had been a few short pieces of written work for that month I would have been unable to complain and would that have been much better?

My daughter’s school had so lost its focus on the 3Rs that it was possible to pass a month without noticing a teacher had neglected her core duty to her class. The school had got so caught up in how to teach they had lost sight of the end product. They focused on whether the children were happy learners, not what they managed to learn. The school had got a ‘good’ from Ofsted and been praised for their pupil centred learning. When I looked on TES chat rooms  I could see that schools across the country were trying to emulate their approach or principles with little interest in what was actually being taught to the children. As long as they learnt it joyfully, actively, independently, collaboratively, in small groups not as a whole class and following the children’s own interests, it was good teaching. I teach secondary and cocooned in the private sector, without the pressure to produce Ofsted lessons, I somehow manage to get good learning with none of the above approaches.  My own research had now shown me that these methods are grounded in ideological assumptions about how children learn that can and should be challenged.

I have come across good, effective, teachers who would defend some of the methods I have described. I think they are good because they have a subconscious bottom line. They expect a certain amount of learning. They do not focus on the means for their own sake.  They do not consider jumping through some Ofsted boxes as the key to a good lesson. If primary teachers have success (rather than having to redefine the criteria because their students have not acquired the basics) good luck to them. However, as Tessa Matthews wrote in a recent blog, many of the most needy children are being short changed by a focus on methods whose innate effectiveness is highly questionable and so once more I will stick my head over the parapet to say I agree.


I moved daughter number two to a local village school. Daughter number one began year 3 at the local prep school where I can get  fee remission. She didn’t seem to miss her old school. Mrs Williams, possibly the best teacher in the school, left the next year. The results at the school gradually went down and so in the next Ofsted the school was given ‘requires improvement’ and the head took early retirement.

The story continues with part 2 here