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 Year One and Two were lovely but I soon found out that two children had been withdrawn from Reception after a term by worried parents.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



18 thoughts on “Why I became radicalised – the sequel. Frying pan to fire.

  1. Another tour de force and an area that I last had (limited) experience with when my long grown children were there; it was very different then it seems! Thanks, I will pay more attention to this phase in future.

  2. This is a fantastic blog posting that should help provide a first inoculation against play-based learning.
    Children growing up in environments that are well structured and in which parents supply all the cultural requirements on which to build schemas for future learning will probably survive a pbl approach – though I’m sure they’ll lose a huge amount of time during which the foundations for developing high levels of early literacy and numeracy could be laid. However, children from less advantaged situations simply don’t move forward at all and, as suggested above, sometimes become alienated by their lack of success in comparison with their more fortunate peers.
    Should be re-tweeted to every early years student teacher in every training institution!

  3. Do you think it might just be possible to combine structure through highly focused play activities – i.e. embed the structure in the activities – just a thought.

    1. More like another good Greek word – hyperbole. I think some practitioners are aware of what strategies work best for whom and at what point. Not everyone “appears” to teach to a script no matter how much anecdote may be thrown at into the mix. Life is full of grey areas I suspect.

  4. Sorry, I might have misunderstood your first comment as I don’t understand your second. Sorry for being totally dense.
    Are you saying my description of Miss Wilton’s struggles are hyperbole and she might have been doing just fine – I was looking for signs of structure that successful teachers don’t necessarily display?
    If so, is there any way in which you would feel that you could identify that a new teacher is really struggling?

    1. No I was saying it was hyperbole – here are some pointers:

      “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. “.

      “Miss Wilton was following the manual (so to speak)”.

      ” 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).”

      (my quote marks for examples)

      You seem to imply that this is the received wisdom in EYFS or you lump her in with emotive language in high relief – and it is this I object to and which I contest and I would say most practitioners that I have worked with over many years, specifically, most practitioners – maybe not Miss Wilson as is portrayed – can use their professional sensibilities; common sense didn’t do much for science I’m afraid. As I said in my comment, and it is very clear what I said:

      “I think some practitioners are aware of what strategies work best for whom and at what point.”

      I didn’t say Miss Wilson was doing just fine now did I; not by any stretch of the imagination whatsoever within the context of the words I used?

      My other point is that life is full of grey areas and it is very easy to be anecdotal and add follow ons of false logic through the reasoning following selective anecdote. i.e. this person is inexperienced she justifies this because she refers to something written somewhere and ergo there are ‘zealots’ out there damaging “some” children or that their ways are not effective for some children because of this. In fact even some of your cheerleaders use the word ‘inoculation’ which if not hyperbole I’m not sure what it is.

      I think all it shows is that we might need the necessary conditions to be more forensic about the methods we choose to adopt diverse strategies and professional expertise about where to use what technique for which child and this is finely honed in a lot of EYFS teachers’ classrooms already and I would wonder that they may well be in the majority.

      How a new teacher is struggling – by the behaviour and attention to detail of their students in response to their pedagogy and whether this is successful or not.

      Common sense really doesn’t enter into it – that got people burned before Galileo Galilei.

      1. First just to be clear, I told you I was not sure what your last comment meant and I took a stab at what I thought you might mean. I am more than happy to stand corrected and I in no way meant to misrepresent you. I’m finding it hard to understand some of your points.

        I chose to combine a serious discussion of play based learning with my own personal experiences and reactions. You are quite right that I can’t use the anecdotes I tell to support my arguments. The blog, is in part an explanation of my own journey, with all the emotions it provoked when faced with these ideas. The title suggests this.

        I think I was clear enough about when I was giving my own emotionally charged reaction and interpretation and when I was simply explaining the ideas of PBL. When explaining the ideas I played safe and largely quoted directly from a good source, with links. I disagree with your suggestion of misrepresentation as I am pretty confident that these sections are a fair explanation of the ideas behind PBL and I made it easy for people to check.

        It is the ATL document that I believe demonstrates zealotry. I don’t want people to be swayed by the story I tell but I do want the story to provoke people to find out if I am right. I’d like them to go and look at the documents and judge for themselves. I also think that when I say ‘the most fundamentalist play based learning zealots’ this doesn’t really suggest I am talking about EYFS policy because my very description makes it clear there is an extreme end to the scale of PBL advocates. However, Interestingly enough the redefinition of goals I describe are clearly followed by some as I quote from the ATL document to illustrate it.

        I do think you are right to suggest that when I use an anecdotal example of failure it is easy to falsely imply that I am proving my points about PBL. I don’t intend to, which is why I write that Miss Wilton would probably have failed whatever method she used. I think I have faith in my readers to discriminate between what is indisputable (the quotes and links) and what is clearly my reaction.

        Finally I might be totally misunderstanding again but I’m not sure there is much difference between what I describe as common sense and you describe as professional sensibility.

      2. Maybe we both need to work a bit harder then?

        I’d rather people go into more classrooms and see for themselves or even help out if the culture of their school encourages and can facilitate that.

        Common sense is nothing like professional sensibility. Professional sensibility is, as I would define it, underpinned and honed by effective and challenging practice over many years in tandem with other professionals’ insights and shared experience over time but common sense, is received wisdom which, obviously, can be totally erroneous and has little substance even though it may sound sound because everyone professes to believe it. And it is all a question of scope.

        It might depend what your view of teachers is I would think – if you consider them not to be professionals then you might opt for common sense under that definition.

        I do not see ‘common sense’ as anything other than unsubstantiated shared nostrums underpinned by nothing more than a repetition of opinion which may or may not hold true for a variety of contexts all quite unquantifiable – professional sensibilities have a bit more bite and a bit more focus in my experience.

        If you have been teaching 20 years you will appreciate that there are classes with different individuals with different qualities. When I taught reception I could pick up on things fairly quickly – want a specific example? Within days I could usually tell if a child had colour blindness; a paucity of spoken vocabulary; poor fine motor skills many things which would set your antennae twitching.

        Behavioural and learning difficulties can become apparent almost immediately but sometimes how and why they are the case might not be obvious without specialist help. One child I taught had a degenerative disease that led to death that was only picked up much later; the behaviour was one outcome – the cause unfathomable without medical diagnosis and intervention. The child presented one way and ‘the case’ was entirely another thing once the context was established. Adopting a common sense attitude would have been absolutely no help whatsoever in fact it would not have helped in the least.

        Which one do you think more precise in outcomes in real terms over several years’ practice especially as you yourself state that certain children have specific needs and processes that may not be met before effective learning can occur?

        Anecdote is an easy peg to launch opinions from and to push out correlated beliefs as an aside especially towards a bête noire – I’d really wish people would leave them out in blogs but I realise I’ll never win that battle.

      3. From your definition my, obviously very sloppy, use of the term common sense WAS to describe what you mean by professional sensibility.
        Anecdote is an easy peg to launch opinions from but I wasn’t quite that lazy, I think that is unfair. I did give opinions based on anecdote, as this was a description of my journey, but I also spent quite some time quoting from actual documents and am happy my extracts were not a misrepresentation. At one point I make it very clear that I knew I had not explored the evidence on the research backing for PBL (or the blog would be a book) as I invite the reader to go and look at the evidence that has led to my opinion for themselves.

  5. I know this post was ages ago but as a primary Headteacher who has just read this and the previous post I’d like to reassure you ( not that it is much help to your own children) that there are plenty of primary schools who would think the practice you describe inflicted on your children as barking mad. It’s not representative at all of the early years practice I’ve encountered. Yes we use play based learning some of the time but 50% of the day is given over to phonics lessons, writing lessons and maths lessons. And even the PBL has adult guided activities within it that reinforce more writing, more maths as well as the rest of the curriculum.

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