The curator of memories (and other metaphors)

Teaching is a complex job. As an experienced teacher walks out of a classroom their mind subconsciously assesses a 3D mental map the lesson has just created.

A bad lesson:

A bad lesson may lead to a morose consideration of a stubbornly undulating, terrain. The high points of the teacher’s mental topography are the children or groups of children this professional just knows have ‘got it’. The lows are failures of understanding, so painfully apparent to the professional, from all the lesson’s subtle (and less subtle) feedback cues. To tend to the understanding of all 30 children (to mix my metaphors) can often feel like spinning multiple plates.

But I realised a while ago that teachers shouldn’t only create ‘understanding’ – the transient appreciation of the content learned just now. That newly learned content needs to be remembered because ‘if nothing has been stored in long term memory, nothing has been learned’. In the last few years I think my teaching has improved because I have become not just a creator of understanding but an active, conscious curator of those newly formed understandings, freshly and precariously held in the  memories of my students.

One of the most useful ways to strengthen memory is through short, low stakes factual tests. I set fixed regular tests, I work with other teachers, helping them introduce testing. Regular pre-planned testing is also a way we can automate our teaching. This can be no bad thing as automation saves time and relieves that plate spinning stress.

However, following any practice unthinkingly, whether regular testing or an Ofsted outstanding lesson formula, is dangerous. Rather than exercising our professional judgement we follow the magic recipe (sorry, another metaphor). There are superb off the peg teaching courses out there, perhaps akin to a magic recipe any teacher could follow and get results. Nonetheless we teachers just can’t switch off. To be successful we must always consciously work at creating and then curating knowledge.

Below I outline some of the methods I use to ‘curate knowledge’.

I think very carefully about the content of each test I write and try to choose the items that will be most useful, pieces of knowledge most likely to trigger whole webs of interconnections in my students’ minds. This means the lines of explanantion I utilised in class are used in the phrasing of the test items to re-trigger the same web of knowledge in my students’ minds. Here is an example of a test I’ve used with my year 7. I wanted them to be in a position to write confidently about the causes of the Reformation in England in three weeks time. This meant teaching a whole range of ideas but then curating them, keeping them alive in the minds of my pupils so they could all be used together at essay time. Therefore I recycled test items. This test recapped old learning on Wolsey and Erasmus and reviewed fresh learning on Luther’s teachings.

Test 4 – up to Luther:

Name the very corrupt churchman who ran the government of England for Henry VIII until 1530.

Name a famous critic of corruption in the Catholic Church.

What was an indulgence?

Why did Pope Leo X sell indulgences?

Name the monk who sold indulgences in Germany.

How did Luther decide that people get to heaven?

What different belief did Catholics have about how you get to heaven?

Luther said that many beliefs of the Catholic Church were wrong because they weren’t in the bible. Give 5 examples of Catholic beliefs which Luther criticised.

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

To keep memories alive in the minds of all your 30 students takes more than the weekly test though.

That goal of ‘active curation’ meant I thought hard about what else I could use to warm up my pupils’ memories. In this quiz I took another tack. I hoped that a reminder of the colourful descriptions I had given of key historical characters would trigger those rich interconnected memories I sought. (nb apologoies for the wonky formatting in WordPress!)

Join the character to the correct description:

Edward IV (of York)

Henry VII (of Lancaster)

Edward V and brother Richard (died 1483)

Richard III

Johannes Gutenberg

Empson and Dudley

Elizabeth of York

The ‘pretenders’ Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck

Became king in 1485, defeating Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth

They led rebellions against Henry VII by suggesting they were Edward IV’s relatives

Married Henry VII. Daughter of Edward IV and mother of Henry VIII.

Became king in 1483. Brother of Edward IV. Probably killed his nephews.

Died 1483 leaving 12 year old son Edward to inherit the throne and brother in charge.

The ‘princes in the tower’. Sons of Edward IV, probably killed by their uncle Richard III.

Established the first printing press in Germany in 1450

Very unpopular officials of Henry VII who made nobles and other people pay the miserly Henry VII lots of money to help him stay powerful. They were executed when Henry VII died.

Pope Alexander VI

Pope Leo X

Prince Arthur

Catherine of Aragon

Tetzel

Erasmus

Martin Luther

Cardinal Wolsey

Eldest son of Henry VII. Died in 1502 aged 15 after marrying Catherine of Aragon.

Sold indulgences around Germany in 1517. A great salesman.

A very clever Catholic who wrote books criticising corruption in the church.

A pope who was famous for ‘debauchery’. He held all night parties and had affairs.

First wife of Henry VIII. A Spanish princess who had a daughter called Mary.

A monk who began to argue in 1517 that the teachings of the Catholic Church were wrong and you get to heaven by ‘faith alone’.

A pope who organised for indulgences to be sold to pay for St Peter’s church in Rome.

Corrupt churchman who ran England for Henry VIII until he failed to get Henry’s divorce in 1530. From poor background but very arrogant. Built Hampton Court Palace.

If we return to the plate spinning metaphor. I deliberately chose items for this quiz that I knew would give another spin to the memory plates in particular children’s minds.  Look at the bottom description of Cardinal Wolsey. Some of my class had been taken by a description of his arrogance. I made sure to include that point in my description of him here but that word ‘corrupt’ is also in there on purpose as I hoped to reawaken notions of the word learned previously. I remembered a number in the class nodding vigorously at the mention of Hampton Court Palace. So another shove of the memory plates by adding that too.  I phrased these descriptions to latch onto previously taught memory hooks of the sort I’ve outlined.

I was aware that the chronology of events was still an issue so the class worked on putting sets of 5 events in order over a homework and repeated over a series of lessons (see below). I’ve put Gutenberg in the first set to emphasise a chronological point. I wasn’t sure many in the class had really grasped that printing presses were well established by the time of Luther. Many of the other points echo the learning for the basic knowledge tests but the same details are now in the context of testing chronology. While the class thought about chronological order I was simultaneously taking the opportunity to get those memory plates spinning again.

Henry VII marries Edward IV’s daughter, Elizabeth of York. This unites the rival noble ‘houses’ of Lancaster and York. Edward IV dies Henry VII wins the Battle of Bosworth Richard III becomes king Gutenberg sets up his first printing press
         
Thetford Priory is closed Thomas Cromwell is executed The Dissolution of the Monasteries begins Henry VIII dies Henry VIII gets the Act of Supremacy passed by Parliament. This makes him head of the Church of England instead of the Pope.
         
Martin Luther nails his 95 Theses to the door of the church in the German town of Wittenberg (probably) Henry VIII marries Anne Boleyn (who is pregnant with their daughter Elizabeth) Henry VIII decides he wants to divorce Catherine of Aragon Henry VIII becomes king Pope Clement (prisoner of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V)

refuses to grant Henry VIII a divorce

         
Pope Leo X commissions Tetzel to sell indulgences around Germany to pay for rebuilding St Peter’s Church Henry VIII becomes King Pope Clement refuses to give Henry a divorce Pope Clement becomes a prisoner of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V whose army have captured Rome Henry VIII gets the Act of Supremacy passed by Parliament. This makes him head of the Church of England instead of the Pope.
         

Once I am happy my class have some confidence with these bite sized chronologies they can begin to practise putting longer strings of events into order that are in a card sort format. I’ll keep adding to this card sort below for the rest of the year. That means whenever this is a starter activity all that old knowledge is reawakened. Note that I can’t resist using the marriage to Anne Boleyn event card to give sneaky fresh spin to the Elizabeth I memory plate…

Gutenberg invents the printing press in German
Edward IV dies leaving his young son, Edward V to be king.
Richard III makes himself king, probably murdering Edward V.
Henry Tudor beats Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth and becomes Henry VII.
Henry VIII becomes king
Henry VIII marries Catherine of Aragon
Pope Leo X commissions Tetzel to sell indulgences around Germany to pay for the restoration of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Luther publicises his 95 theses criticising Catholic beliefs
Pope Clement becomes prisoner of Emperor Charles V. He refuses Cardinal Wolsey’s request of a divorce for Henry VIII.
Henry marries Anne Boleyn, pregnant with Elizabeth.
Parliament passes the Act of Supremacy in 1534 making Henry VIII head of the Church of England instead of the Pope.
Dissolution of the Monasteries begins

The quiz below got a number of outings. It will come out again to prepare the ground for Puritanism and Archbishop Laud. I knew how useful developed notions of these terms would be later and so I curated that knowledge as best I could ready for future use and development.

Quiz! Which ideas are:

Catholic (C) or Luther’s Protestant ideas (P)

1.     Priests are allowed to marry and are encouraged to live like ordinary people.

2.     The head of the church is the Pope, who lives in the Vatican City, Rome.

3.     The bible SHOULD be translated from Latin into ordinary language.

4.     Church services (called Mass) should be in Latin, as should the bible.

5.     Nuns or monks should live religious lives in monasteries or abbeys.

6.     Churches are plain so as not to distract people from thinking about God for themselves.

7.     What is written in the bible should replace traditional practices.

8.     Churches are colourful and decorated with lots of gold and painting.

9.     You get out of purgatory by doing good works

10.   People should pray to the Virgin Mary, pray to saints and keep relics.

11.   You get to heaven through faith alone – what you believe – not what you do

Meanwhile I kept going with the standard regular testing which is set as homework learning. There are enormous benefits to building habitual working practices. You might think I had no time to teach the actual material with all that supplementary recap but I only averaged one recap session within each lesson. You do also move faster when your class carry in their heads so much useful and relevant foundational knowledge.

Memory curation starts with careful planning of the knowledge you want children to remember. It involves presentation of that knowledge in ways that make it memorable, consciously creating memory hooks as you teach. Tending memories means planning new tasks that utilise old learning wherever possible. It means an ongoing awareness of the likely memories as well as understanidng of each of 30 class members. What memory plates are spinning in their minds and what actions might be necessary to keep all those different plates spinning?

What is high challenge teaching?

This post appears in in Schools Week:

“A question for you: What does high challenge teaching look like?”

“Oh, easy answer: make the work harder”

“OK, another question – what is harder work?”

“Er… more difficult work?”

“And what is the nature of more difficult work?”

“[now trying desperately to break out of synonym soup] I suppose work which moves pupils on further and faster…”

“And how does the work achieve this?

“Umm… by being highly challenging?”

We were asked the first question at one of our regular trust Curriculum and Assessment Group meetings. Perhaps aware that playing with synonyms wasn’t going to take us any nearer to a useful definition, we didn’t spend time on this game!

We were also unlikely to attempt to define challenge by using descriptions of good summative performance.  In so doing, as  Christodoulou explains, we simply confuse ‘the description of a phenomenon with its explanation’.  Sure, an observer with subject expertise could decide a class must have been challenged because of the high quality of their work but if we define high challenge by what it achieves (described in summative level descriptions) we move no closer to defining what teaching that challenges looks like or what tasks provide the challenge that will lead to great performance in a summative assessment. Giving our own pupils these summative descriptions of their academic destination also moves them no closer to understanding the route to get there.

So we cannot define what high challenge teaching looks like by describing more successful outcomes. Perhaps we can reach a better answer by identifying the sorts of tasks that do move children on ‘further, faster’ as being ‘high challenge’. On the face of it this seems quite straightforward: “I will give my history class tasks that require them to really struggle with difficult concepts and explain those ideas in increasingly analytical extended writing.”

But this definition is flawed in several ways:

  1. Challenge varies by subject. Increasingly analytical extended writing won’t provide the requisite ‘high challenge’ in maths. The tasks that push pupils ‘further, faster’ vary enormously by subject. It seems the moment I use specific tasks to define challenge I have to abandon any non-subject specific description of ‘high challenge’.
  1. It goes beyond tasks. Surely in history the range and specificity of the knowledge students can deploy (a key summative descriptor of quality) will depend in part on the quality of prior teacher explanations? I’m going to have to abandon the attempt to define ‘high challenge’ just through the tasks pupils do.
  1. Challenge ≠ struggle. Does moving pupils ‘further, faster’ have to involve ‘struggle’ or difficulty? I’m very familiar with Direct Instruction programmes for literacy and maths and they are highly successful despite being designed to introduce new learning in easy, incrementally tiny steps. There is progress with no struggle. Working memory theory from psychology suggests cognitive overload is a threat to learning when tasks are complex which means struggle can be a bad thing.
  1. It’s about the process. My description of a ‘high challenge’ history task is not specific enough anyway. It is still really a summative description of success. What prior work would make success in this particular analytical task more likely? As Christodoulou points out ‘the process of acquiring skills is different from the product’.

The term ‘high challenge’ is often unhelpfully associated with the experience of struggle. Perhaps a class will feel challenged as they grapple with a complex text, assimilate detail or force themselves to knuckle down and learn when they aren’t in the habit of revising. However, a strong teacher explanation of a difficult concept and its use in different contexts might feel painless. The important practice of learning times tables to automaticity might even feel too easy.

I’ve realised that it is impossible to meaningfully define ‘high challenge’ in any general way. Summative descriptions simply define the outcome and the suitability of tasks is entirely context dependent. Observations can look at outcomes but teachers must simply use their expertise to ask themselves what actions will most efficaciously move their class forward ‘further, faster’ at any given time.

'May I be excused? The pressure is getting to me.'

The ‘quite tidy garden’ …or why level descriptors aren’t very helpful.

Dear Josh,

Thank you for agreeing to sort out our garden over your long holiday. As we’ll be away all summer here is a guide that tells you all you need to know to get

from this…

…to this

STEP A: You should begin by assessing the garden to decide its level. Read through these level descriptors to decide:

Level 1: Your garden is very overgrown. Any lawn has not been mown for some years. Shrubs have not been pruned for a considerable period. There are no visible beds and typically there will be large areas taken over by brambles and or nettles. There will probably be an abandoned armchair (or similar worn out furniture) somewhere in the overgrowth as well as assorted rubble and the old concrete base from a fallen shed. Boundary fencing will have collapsed.

Level 2: Your garden is just a little overgrown. The lawn is patchy though neglect and has only been mown sporadically. Shrubs generally have not been pruned recently. Beds look neglected and are not well stocked. There may be various forms of old rubbish abandoned in the far corners of the garden along with old lawn clippings and hedge trimmings. Boundary fences are in disrepair.

Level 3: Your garden is well tended. Lawns are mown regularly and contain no moss and weeds and shrubs are regularly pruned. Flower beds are well demarcated and contain no weeds. They are well stocked with appropriate bedding plants. The garden is quite tidy and boundary fencing is new and strong.

STEP B:

Josh, if you decide the garden is Level 1 (that is certainly our view) then I suggest you look at the Level 2 descriptor to guide you as to your next steps. It is clear that you need to move the garden from ‘very overgrown’ to ‘just a little overgrown’. For example, in a Level 1 garden, shrubs ‘have not been pruned for a considerable period’. You need to move on from that to a Level 2 garden where ‘shrubs have not been pruned recently’. The lawn needs to move from having ‘not been mown for some years’ to Level 2 ‘has only been mown sporadically’. Aim to move the boundary fencing on from Level 1 ‘will have collapsed’ to Level 2 ‘in disrepair’.  To move on from Level 1 for rubbish, for example, you’ll need to move that old armchair to a far corner of the garden.

STEP C:

Now move the garden from Level 2 to Level 3. This means you should ensure the garden is ‘well tended’ rather than ‘a little overgrown’. What useful advice!

Using level descriptors makes it so clear for you doesn’t it? Hubby is trying to insist that I also leave you his instructions but they are hopeless as he doesn’t understand that you need to know your next steps to make progress in gardening. He’s written reams and reams of advice including instructions like:

‘You’ll find the strimmer in the garage’

‘Start by clearing all the nettles’

‘Ken will come and help you shift the concrete’

‘The tip is open from 10-4 at weekends’

‘Marion next door can advise you about the best bedding plants to buy’

His instructions are just too specific to our garden. To learn the gardening skills that will achieve a Level 3 garden what you need is to really know your next level targets. I won’t confuse you by leaving you his nonsense!

We’ll see you in September and in the meantime we wish you happy gardening!

 

With apologies to any actual gardeners out there who know what they are talking about and enormous thanks to Daisy Christodoulou whose recent book helped me appreciate just why we shouldn’t use level descriptors as feedback. 

The Secret Of My (Maths) Success

I had an interesting chat with a friend recently who’s just done a PGCE as a maths teacher. He’s been trained to build understanding through plenty of problem solving tasks.

The discussion made me reflect on the stark difference between the way I’ve taught maths to my own children at home, with the lion’s share of time spent learning to fluency, and the focus in schools on exercises to build understanding. After all, I reflected, the progress of my children has stunned even me. How is it they missed out on SO much work on understanding while accelerating far ahead of their peers?

It isn’t that I don’t appreciate that children need some degree of understanding of what they are doing. I remember when I discovered that the reason my friend’s daughter was struggling with maths at the end of Year 1 was because she had failed to grasp that crucial notion of ‘one more’. Her teacher had advised that she needed to learn her number bonds (and indeed she did) but while she did not grasp this basic notion the bonds were gibberish to her. What we call ‘understanding’ does matter (more thoughts here).

I’ve realised the reason I’ve never had to invest significant time in exercises to build understanding. It is because when my children are given a new sort of problem they can already calculate the separate parts of that problem automatically. All their working memory is focused on the only novel element of a procedure and so it is very quickly understood. Understanding is just not a biggy. Identify the knowledge necessary to calculate the component parts of a problem and get fluency in those and generally activities for understanding become a (crucial but) small part the maths diet.

The degree of focus on fluency that my children were given is highly unusual. I have huge piles of exercise books full of years of repeated calculations continued a year, two years, after they were first learned. My children learnt all possible addition and subtraction facts between one and twenty until they were known so well that recall was like remembering your own name. I did the same with multiplication and division facts. There were hours and hours and hours and hours of quite low level recall work.

Generally the the focus in schools is the opposite and this creates a vicious cycle. Children are taught more complex problems when they are not fluent in the constituent parts of the problem. Therefore they struggle to complete calculations because their working memory breaks down. The diagnosis is made that children don’t ‘understand’ the problem posed. The cure is yet more work focused on allowing children to understand how the problem should be solved and why. The children may remember this explanation (briefly) but it is too complex to be remembered long term as too many of the constituent elements of the problem are themselves not secure. When the children inevitably forget the explanation what is the diagnosis? – a failure of understanding. Gradually building ‘understanding’ eats more and more lesson time. Gurus of the maths world deride learning to fluency as ‘rote’ but perversely the more time is spent on understanding instead of fluency, the harder it is for children to understand new learning. By comparison my children seem to have a ‘gift that keeps on giving’. Their acceleration isn’t just in the level of maths proficiency they have reached it is in the capacity they have to learn new maths so much more easily.

gift_keep_giving_13Fluency… the gift that keeps on giving.

I’ve not got everything right but I’ve learned so much from teaching my own children including that the same general principle is true of understanding maths and understanding history. If understanding is a struggle it is because necessary prior knowledge is not in place or secure.

Go back – as far as you can get away with.

Diagnose those knowledge gaps.

Teach and secure fluency.

You’ll find understanding is no longer the same challenge.

Why can’t our students read fluently?

Lots of children learn to read well despite very poor or minimal teaching. I think I was probably one of those children. I don’t think my mum ever listened to me read but somehow I now read fluently. I remember seeing my big sister chuckling over an Enid Blyton Image result for child reading blytonand feeling jealous because I couldn’t read and then I remember being able to read Blyton myself. I think I must have read constantly from about the age of six to twelve only surfacing for school lessons. With my sister I spent every Saturday in the children’s section of the local library. I had a long walk home from school and I would hitch my bag straps over my forehead to allow me to read my latest volume as I dawdled along the pavement.
At first sight my experience does seem to suggest that motivation provides the key to growing a strong reader and that is certainly the assumption of our schools. I disagree.

There are, in fact, many factors that make it more likely that children will read well, the area is very well researched, but perhaps the most crucial factor tends to be overlooked – bulk practice. Surely, you may say, we all know children need to read lots. Schools bend over backwards to encourage children to read lots. I’m not so sure we really DO appreciate the importance of bulk practice for reading fluency OR that we do the right things to ensure that this practice happens.
At the heart of the problem is the faulty supposition that the only lever teachers have is exhortation. The assumption seems to be that we must persuade our children that reading is fun and if they won’t listen we just throw our hands up and bewail the situation or embark on ever more elaborate campaigns to entice reluctant readers to open a book. Motivation is important. We do want to ensure our children have good role models, attractive environments and great reading options. Schools are right to ensure these elements are in place. I think though that we forget that it is not motivation that grows a reader – it is reading that grows a reader – bulk reading. The world renowned reading researcher Keith Stanovich calls this the ‘Matthew Effect’.
It is true that I was motivated to read but that is hardly surprising when you consider that my unusual childhood involved no computer screens, no television, no after school activities; nothing to provide higher gratification than I could gain, aged six, from puzzling out the letters that let me into the world of St Clare’s and the hilarious tricks the girls played on their French mistress. I had nothing ‘better’ to do and so I read in bulk. Can we simply cross our fingers that children today, faced with a plethora of instant forms of gratification, will be persuaded to persist with a book?

Image result for child on a screen

One way or another children need to read enough words in a day, a week, a month, a year, to attain fluency. As Quirky Teacher pointed out in a recent blog, at primary level the typical group reading sessions involve very little sustained reading (see here also). At secondary levels teachers try and cut the amount of reading in lessons, using other mediums to make the subject learning more accessible. Thus in the average school day a child does not encounter anything like the number of words they need to read to become fluent readers. To be blunt, currently the education provided through school alone is not adequate to create fluent readers.
The fascinating work of the late Jeanne Chall suggests this drive for accessibility has been very counterproductive. She found that in America schools had been gradually reducing the reading age of subject textbooks to make learning more accessible which correlated with a decline in reading ages. Chall suggested that, as children were less challenged, the reading ages of children gradually dropped, creating a negative spiral in which textbook publishers continued to lower the challenge of text to keep up with the falling reading age of the students.
Children need to read lots because the vast majority of the vocabulary children encounter in text is not used in everyday speech. Written communication follows different conventions to the spoken word. However, even those children who do enjoy some David Walliams aren’t therefore being exposed to more academic forms of writing which build the stamina for engaging with more abstract texts that children will need if they are to succeed academically (as I explain here.) For this they need to engage with the more academic forms of writing they should repeatedly encounter at school.

Whatever children may choose to read should be a bonus. Something as crucial as reading fluency should not be dependent on whether we can cajole children to read for pleasure.  In their schooling they should encounter enough text, fiction and subject based, at the right level of challenge, to ensure they progress towards becoming fluent readers. This may be partly through initiatives like ‘Drop Everything And Read’ although for weaker readers this won’t help –they need more time reading with an adult. Not much of this bulk reading should be in maths or PE lessons BUT sustained reading should be a normal part of most lessons – including science, geography, business and RE etc. At one school (which many on the blogosphere may have heard of it) children read ten thousand words a day. I’ll repeat that with emphasis TEN THOUSAND WORDS A DAY! I think we can rest assured that Michaela school is growing fluent readers! I’d suggest that in most schools children don’t come anywhere near this total. When children present as struggling readers it would be interesting to investigate just how much bulk practice they have had in the past. I’d bet quite a lot that it was not very much!

For a very clear and more detailed outline of the problems of primary see this.

Research and primary education

I took part in a panel discussion at the national ResearchEd conference yesterday. The subject of the discussion was primary education and I thought I would post the thoughts I shared:

At all levels of schooling classroom research is undoubtedly useful but the process of generalising from this research is fraught with difficulty. As E D Hirsch explains, each classroom context is different.

I think ideally we would like to base educational decisions on

  • Converging evidence from many years of research in numerous fields
  • That integrates both classroom research and lab based work so…
  • We can construct theoretical accounts of underlying causal processes.

These theoretical insights allow us to interpret sometimes contradictory classroom research. We actually have this ideal in the case of research into early reading and the superiority of systematic synthetic phonics. Despite this evidence the vast majority of primary schools ignore or are unaware of the research and continue to teach the ‘multi-cueing’ approach to reading.

While research on phonics is ignored some lamentably poor research has been enduringly influential in early primary education and treated with a breath taking lack of criticality. In the 1950s a comparison study of 32 children found that children taught at nursery using teacher centred methods showed evidence of delinquent behaviour in later life. However, this was a tiny sample and there was a tiny effect. No account was taken for the fact the teacher led research group had many more boys than the comparison child centred group – among other fatal flaws. Despite this that piece of research is STILL continually and uncritically cited. For example, the OECD used this study to support character education.  It is also central to the National Audit Office definition of ‘high quality early years provision as ‘developmentally appropriate’.

That flawed research features in the literature review for the EPPSE longitudinal study that has become one of the highest impact educational research programmes in Europe and whose findings underpin billions of pounds of government spending. EPPSE claims to have demonstrated that high quality pre-school provision is child centred and to have shown that such provision has an incredible impact on outcomes at aged 16. However, merely scratch the surface and you find there were obvious flaws with EPPSE. The scales used by classroom observers to discover the nature of quality provision lacked validity and actually predefined what constituted high quality provision as child centred. The researchers admitted problems with the control group meant causal connections couldn’t be drawn from the findings but then ignored this problem, despite the control group issue undermining their key conclusions.

It seems the key principles influencing early years education are too frequently drawn from obviously flawed research. These principles are also the product of misuse of the research we have. For example, it is statutory to devise activities to build resilience in early years education. However, Angela Duckworth, an international authority, admits that although it is a desirable trait we don’t really know for sure how to create it.

What explains the astonishing situation where theoretical research from cognitive psychology is ignored, obviously flawed huge government funded research projects become influential and new pedagogical approaches, based on faulty understanding of the evidence, are made statutory?

A glance along the bookshelves at any primary teacher training institution gives us a clue. There is a rigid child centred and developmentalist  orthodoxy among primary educationalists. This explains the lack of rigorous scrutiny of supportive research. In fact, except on social media, sceptical voices are barely heard.

Mastery does NOT mean full understanding

“For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully even as also I was fully known” 1 Corinthians 13 v12.

‘Mastery’ means ‘full understanding’ according to many teachers on twitter. So ‘mastery teaching’ means not moving on with your course until something is fully understood. I don’t think teachers really think this because there is a one insurmountable problem with this definition of mastery – there is no such thing as full understanding. For example:

  • When a KS1 child is first taught ‘place value’ is it conceivable that they can fully understand the notion, with all its implications? Surely many GCSE students could do with understanding place value better than they do?
  • My year 10 history class use the word ‘dictatorship’ with some confidence in their writing suggesting they understand it but sometimes they do use the term incorrectly so do they understand the full implications of the term? I know they don’t because I have a better understanding of the term than they do. Do I understand the full implications of the term dictatorship? I know I don’t because the historian Richard Evans definitely understands it better than me.
  • My eight year old son has started reading Harry Potter books by himself. Does he understand them? Well I don’t suppose he realises (as J K Rowling must have appreciated) that the Hogwarts house elves illustrate the Marxist notion of false consciousness. I don’t even think he gets the same depth of meaning from these books as his thirteen year old sister. So when will he be able to ‘master’ Harry Potter? Should he wait to read them until he is able to gain an appreciation of Marxist theory or just until he is mature enough to understand Harry’s teen romances?

In reality of course teachers, as professionals, don’t hang around waiting for FULL understanding – that would be ridiculous. They actually make sensible decisions about the ‘degree’ of understanding necessary for a child at that stage with the curricular content they are learning. The word, ‘mastery’ can’t tell us a thing about what this sensible degree of understanding might be.

Unfortunately the mistaken notion of ‘full understanding’ is not harmless in practice. It can mean teachers do hang around for too long focusing counter-productively on ever greater understanding. A maths teacher may be convinced that a KS1 child must fully understand place value when the notion has been taught at a basic level. They may introduce word problems to check for mastery or ‘full understanding’ of place value. In their pursuit of ‘full understanding’ they fail to consider:

  1. Ability to use learning in new contexts (like word problems in maths or knowledge in history sourcework or applied GCSE science questions) tends to lag behind initial learning because newly learnt knowledge is what is called ‘inflexible’. To overcome this inflexibility you need to accumulate a greater store of related knowledge, facts and examples.
  2. In the case of reading, holding children back so they can ‘fully understand’ what they read, can mean they lack exposure to the very new words and ideas that will allow greater understanding to develop.
  3. As Willingham explains, knowing more facts makes many cognitive functions such as comprehension and problem solving operate more efficiently. Therefore a focus on memory (really knowing what is taught long term) as well as initial understanding is important. This means better understanding often develops after greater FLUENCY OF KNOWLEDGE has been achieved so, for example, lots of practice gaining confidence and really knowing a mathematical method can open up the possibility of further understanding of related concepts. Knowing more about the causes of World War One will make it more possible to demonstrate understanding in an essay.

I like to think of understanding and fluency of knowledge as the partners in a traditional dance. Sometimes they work in unison:

Netherfield Ball 4 (2)

And sometimes they work apart, one going before the other, like dancers executing moves that do not involve their partner.

netherfield ball 1

This means, dare I say it, sometimes it makes sense to teach knowledge and ensure it is remembered even though it means understanding lags behind. It is the teacher that needs to decide whether greater fluency of knowledge or greater understanding is more necessary at any given point. When making this decision perhaps we should bear in mind that in modern education the trend has been towards overemphasising initial understanding at the expense of necessary fluency of knowledge through ensuring that what is taught has been remembered confidently long term.

Where does this leave the word ‘mastery’? We’ve already established that mastery is not a principle we can use to judge the degree of detail in which students must grasp curricular content. Mastery can, however, describe how well children have grasped or can perform whatever the teacher has considered that they need to know or be able to do at that given point  whether that is fluency of knowledge or understanding. When used in this sense the term mastery is useful. The confusion occurs because teachers think about ‘mastery’ in curricular rather than pedagogical terms:

Curricular decision: What should I teach? I should teach this concept fully

Pedagogical decision: When should I move on? When they understand and have committed to long term memory what I have decided they need to know.

The latter pedagogical goal is a useful way to think about mastery. The former curricular goal is actually impossible (unless, perhaps you are in heaven with God and the angels…)