Tradition or snobbery? Part 2

Yesterday I began to look at the reasons I believe there are two opposing camps in the traditional / progressive education debate. I cannot claim to have come up with a definitive answer, but I begin to suspect that it is more than just the personal educational experiences of the teachers.

Last Sunday, Harry Webb wrote about ‘obedience’ in schools (which garnered a fantastic response from Deputy John), in relation to the publication of the ‘educational vision‘ of Michaela Community School.

This is the school set up by Katherine Birbalsingh, the teacher who spoke at the Conservative conference in 2010. She has clearly stuck to her principles by including the line: We will expect our pupils to be polite and obedient. This caused quite a storm on Twitter, and I highly recommend reading Harry Webb’s post for a good insight into what this means in reality.

But what stood out for me the most on Michaela’s website, was the second paragraph on the Welcome page:

Michaela will bring the values and advantages of a private education to young people of all backgrounds by providing a highly academic curriculum and strong discipline.

And this, I think is the heart of the problem.

One blogger has even written a parody of Michaela’s website, substituting “Like a public school only for poor kids” for the statement above.

Michaela Community School has overstepped the mark – it has said the unsayable and there are many teachers who cannot accept this. Michaela wants to emulate a private school.

In the vast majority of independent schools, strong discipline and pupil obedience go hand-in-hand. In this way, the schools are able to concentrate on the education side of teaching, rather than on the crowd control side. Without this, the teachers couldn’t teach, and the learners couldn’t learn. In the state system, this is often the polar opposite.

In addition to discipline and high academic expectations, independent schools often favour a more traditional approach to teaching. This is not true in all cases, of course, but it is certainly a feature of the more academic institutions. Although children in these establishments will have the opportunity to do some independent learning and to participate in group work, it isn’t the backbone of the school in the same way that those approaches are in the state sector.

Additionally, it must be remembered that independent schools have never been required to follow the National Curriculum, and thus have not been subject to the shifting sands of educational policy. What they do, they do very well. And what they do, works.

In many cases, it also hasn’t changed in a long time. The school have discovered the best way to impart knowledge to their pupils, and they have continued with this without interruption for many years.

But private schools are elitist, divisive and promote social disparity.

So they must be wrong.

If the schools are wrong, then so is everything they do.

This, I seriously suspect, is at the root of much of the opposition to traditional teaching methods by many in the profession. They have an ideological opposition to anything which may be seen as supporting a two-tier educational system, even if that really isn’t the issue.

The headteacher I mentioned yesterday is a case in point. She detested the very idea of private schools, and would not entertain any activity or idea that seemed to be rooted in the private system. And she isn’t alone. I have heard a head berating an NQT for using the term ‘houses’ when he should have said ‘teams’, on the basis that the first term is ‘too posh’ for their school.

Thousands of parents part with millions of pounds every year, in order to send their offspring to a private school. Why? Certainly there is an element of ‘the old boys’ network’ for some of them, but this doesn’t account for all of it. The only rational explanation is that they know, that in the majority, their children will receive a good education there.

A good traditional education. One that has proven results over many years, that focuses on knowledge, that aims to equip all pupils with the ability to succeed in life. Is this really wrong?

There are clearly a number of teachers who don’t think like this, they’re the ones who advocate a more traditional approach to learning, irrespective of whether they themselves were educated in the independent or state sector. They believe that their approach works and they will pursue their course of action for the benefit of their pupils. I’m sure that a number of these teachers actively dislike the idea of private education, but they can see that there is a distinction between the methods and the system.

I’m not convinced this is true of all teachers though.

There are certainly some who truly believe in the ideals of a progressive curriculum, and I have a certain amount of respect for those teachers. I disagree with their outlook, but I applaud anyone who does something because they truly believe in it. However, again, I think those teachers are in the minority. From my experiences of discussions with teachers who advocate a progressive curriculum, their main reasoning seems to centre on the premise that it is the opposite of the traditional style that is used in the independent sector. This doesn’t seem very good reasoning to me. If teachers project their personal prejudices onto their educational outlook, they do the children they teach a great disservice.

Polite, obedient, well-rounded children who have a desire to learn are not the preserve of some elite establishment. Potentially, they are the children we see every day, the ones from the broken homes, the council estates, the refugees and the abused.

If we give them a good base from which to grow, if we teach them things they need to know, if we give them knowledge, encourage good manners and enquiring minds, they can make some headway in escaping their current positions.

If we avoid anything ‘traditional’ in the misplaced belief that it smacks of public school, be it discipline or knowledge, we perpetuate the two-tier educational system, and by definition restrict them to a second-class life. We’re essentially saying ‘you can’t do what the posh kids are doing, you’re not good enough‘.

Is that really the message we want to give our pupils?

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Tradition or snobbery? Part 1

Going away for a while (both literally and in the blogging and Twitter sense) has given me the chance to consider an element in the educational debate that I hadn’t thought about before.

When I returned, I found that I had a lot of catching up to do, particularly in reading posts by bloggers for whom I have a great respect – even if I don’t completely agree with them. As I read, I was struck by the background information some of the bloggers had provided, and how, it appeared to me, this had influenced their opinions. It is, I have to stress, very much a personal interpretation, and perhaps I may be completely incorrect, having jumped to the wrong conclusions. Either way, I haven’t asked any bloggers if this is the case, but I do welcome any thoughts on the matter.

One of the strongest polarizing debates is that of ‘Traditional’ vs ‘Progressive’ education. There are many interpretations of those words, so for the purpose of this blog, by ‘Traditional’, I mean a formal, structured ‘chalk and talk’ approach, focusing on knowledge; by ‘Progressive’, I mean group work and independent learning, focusing on skills.

Catching up on my reading, I noticed that a few bloggers who favour the traditional approach to teaching had been educated privately. Their own experience of education had followed the traditional model, one that many private schools continue to use. It also included an expectation of good behaviour, coupled with the knowledge that refusal to adhere to this would result in sanctions being imposed – and expulsion was not beyond possibility. For some, the first time they had entered a state school may have been when they started their teacher training.

Although the blogs focus on the realities of poor behaviour and bizarre interpretations of educational theory, these privately educated bloggers are still working in the state system. They haven’t decided that they can’t stand the pressures of teaching in a state school, before quickly transferring back to the independent sector. Instead, they persevere in sometimes, some very challenging circumstances. There are many questions that could be asked about this, including just why they do it when there are far less stressful options available, but looking beyond the obvious questions, I began to wonder if their belief in a particular educational approach had anything to do with their own experiences as a pupil. In many ways this would make sense, familiarity with a system can often go hand-in-hand with fondness for it.

But then, I thought some more, and decided that this probably wasn’t the (whole) answer.

I was once overheard by my headteacher correcting a primary pupil’s use of the word ‘can’. I had been asked the usual question “Can I go to the toilet?”, and I pointed out that ‘can’ means ‘am I able to?’, whereas ‘may’ means ‘am I allowed to?’ and this should have been the word the pupil used. I was asked to see the head in her office, whereupon I was on the receiving end of a lecture which included the words ‘elitist’, ‘posh’, ‘unnecessary’, ‘irrelevant’, ‘boring’ and ‘public school’. It concluded with the statement “Our kids are normal ones, don’t try and make them do the same stuff or speak the same way as the posh kids – you won’t fit in here if you do.” This head had made it very clear in staff meetings that she thought private schooling was inherently bad and morally reprehensible. She dismissed any idea or proposed activity if it had even the slightest look of something that might occur in an independent school. The individual merits of anything were never considered; appearance was all.

Clearly, the majority of teachers working today must have attended a state school. The independent sector is far smaller than the state, it is therefore very unlikely that it has produced a large percentage of current teachers, and the number of those who were educated privately but now work in the state sector must be small indeed. And yet there are a considerable number of teachers who support a traditional teaching style – they can’t all have gone to private schools, can they? Even including Grammar Schools in the traditional camp, doesn’t account for this.

Unable to draw any real conclusions to satisfy myself, I started to look at the issue from the opposite direction. If supporters of traditional teaching models came from backgrounds where this had been the model for their own schooling, could those who advocate progressive teaching methods have experienced this at school? I am aware that this idea does not explain the rise in progressive teaching at the start of its popularity, but as it has been around for so long, the majority of teachers currently working would have been educated in this environment.

Of course, that doesn’t sit with my conclusion that a large number of teachers who support traditional methods would not have been educated in that style themselves. So clearly, there must be something else…

 

 

Part 2 tomorrow.

 

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Supply Teaching

Supply teachers, in terms of behaviour, usually get a raw deal.

In an ideal world, the agency calls at 7:30am, and we arrive at school by 8:30am, some schools even ask for 8:15am. We are handed an information pack upon arrival, shown where the staff room and the staff toilets are, introduced to members of the SMT, and told to call upon them if we have any problems. We are then given a list of the classes we are covering, along with registers and notes about the work the pupils will be doing. We are also given copies of any resources, and shown where to find any that may be hidden in the classroom. In addition, we are also handed a map of the school, a timetable of bells and lesson changeovers, and a copy of the discipline policy.

In reality, it’s often rather different.

The agency call at 8:09am, and expect us to arrive at a school for 8:30. After tearing across town (or through the countryside) we arrive at the school at 8:48am, only to be told off for being late. If we are lucky we are shown to the first classroom we are in, before the receptionist disappears into the calm of the office by the school entrance.

It is only then that we realise we don’t have a copy of the day’s timetable, nor any idea of what we are supposed to be covering. Sometimes, the teacher we are covering for has thoughtfully left a note on their desk, detailing the PowerPoint they have prepared for the lesson, and a note as to where the resources are located on the intranet. Unfortunately, SMT have decided that they cannot risk leaving the laptop in the hands of The Supply, and so have removed it from the classroom. Or, if the laptop has been left, we are not given details of how to login.

It isn’t a great way to start a lesson. Is it any wonder then, that the pupils don’t take the lesson seriously?

Of course, pupils who aren’t focusing on the lesson tend to find other ways to occupy their time, generally engaging in things they are not supposed to be doing.

And that’s the fault of The Supply.

Apparently.

Posted in Behaviour, Bookings, Supply Cover | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Neckache

This week, I have mostly had neck-ache. I attribute this to the three-week placement I completed last week.

As I mentioned, I had to attend all the meetings a contract member of staff would. That meant the weekly staff meeting, departmental planning meeting, key stage meeting and daily staff briefing. In a school with 253 pupils.

Although I consider that to be too many meetings per week for such a small school, it wasn’t the arranged meetings that caused me a problem, rather the arrangement of the meeting themselves. For some unknown reason, all meetings were conducted in one of the classrooms, rather than in the staffroom. This brought with it all the attendant problems of adults being expected to occupy spaces designed for small children.

One of the teachers is 6’2″, he preferred to sit on the floor, rather than try to fold himself onto one of the Year 3-sized chairs. Naturally, this made it rather awkward for him to make any notes, as he then attempted to contort himself into a position where he could comfortably write on the floor. Even teachers who were rather more vertically challenged than this ended up sitting sideways in relation to the tables as they were unable to fit their knees underneath.

After half an hour of this in one meeting, I made the excuse that I needed to go to the loo, and beat a hasty retreat out of the classroom. I wandered around until I found a quiet corner where I hastily did as many stretching exercises as could reasonably be accomplished in two minutes. Some years ago, I had lower back problems, and was warned of the dangers of sitting inappropriately for extended periods of time. My chiropractor would be horrified if he had seen the furniture we were sitting on! I knew that if I sat like that for too long I would get ‘fixed’, and well, frankly, if I’m going to be in pain and stuck somewhere, I’d rather it was at home on my sofa, as opposed to at school on a junior class chair.

I noticed after that, that a few members of staff regularly went out for a couple of minutes too. Either the school routinely employs teachers with bladder problems, or they’re making excuses in order to stretch out. That strikes me as being a problem. The vast majority of the meetings did not require anything that was available only in the classroom (such as the whiteboard), in fact, only one of the 24 meetings did. There was no good reason to hold the meetings there, all those present would have easily fitted into the staffroom, which would have been far more comfortable for everyone, particularly the older members of staff.

I know that as a teacher you have to sit in ways which would be unheard of in an office. In fact, offices have to ensure that they provide appropriate furniture, but then again, there aren’t many children working in offices, so it’s unlikely anyone would install small furniture as a matter of course. Equally, the furniture in a school has to be an appropriate size for the children – they cannot be expected to cope with adult-sized furniture.

So I’m not surprised that when I attend a staff meeting based in a classroom, I’ll find myself sitting in ways that I find uncomfortable. I know I may have sore knees or an aching back after an hour or more sitting on something designed for someone a fraction of my height.

What I did not anticipate, however, was neck-ache.

The meetings were arranged so that whoever was speaking was in front of the whiteboard. The teachers were distributed around the room, sitting in the pupils’ places. Throughout the meetings therefore, each teacher had the same experience in terms of sight-lines to the whiteboard, as that of the Year 3 pupils.

As I looked around the room, it became clear why I was suffering from neck-ache. And it also became apparent, watching the squirming of the other members of staff, that I was not alone.

Not one person was sitting face-on to the board.

I had a sore neck from twisting round during 24 meetings in three weeks. How on earth do children cope when they do this for every lesson, every day?

In fact, I then made a point of looking at the set-up in every classroom in the school. They all followed the same principle – group the children in tables of four and make sure that they all have to turn their necks 45 degrees to see the board or the teacher.

Thinking back to when I was in school, I can remember an arrangement very similar to this. I also remember that I spent a lot of time copying from the child next to me as I got fed up looking at the board sideways. Sometimes I copied the wrong thing, but at least I didn’t have to keep getting up and walking over to see the board as the person I sat next to did. I also didn’t keep getting told off for sitting sideways on my chair as one classmate did, nor did I end up leaning across the table on my elbow to see past another child’s head as my friend did.

At the time I didn’t really give it much thought, and I believe that if I asked all the children in my last assignment school the same question, the majority would say they don’t really notice it – it’s how things have always been. But what are we actually doing for those pupils?

Are we putting them at risk of neck-ache due to our seating arrangement?

Possibly.

Are we putting them at risk of losing interest in what is on the board?

Possibly.

Are we prioritising an arrangement whereby group-work can be more easily accomplished?

Possibly.

Maybe that’s the problem. My annoyance, irritation and aching muscles stem from my dislike of the constant mantra of group work and independent learning.

I may be in the minority, but I know I’m not alone. I’ve heard teachers moaning about the table arrangement due to not all children being able to see the board, some not concentrating and others using the opportunity to mess about. But I’ve never heard one complain based on the idea that it may be uncomfortable. Ah, maybe I am on my own in thinking this, after all. But if I’m not…

Are we going to do anything about it?

Posted in Classrooms | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

The more things change…

… The more they stay the same.

It’s as true now as it was in the mid 1800s.

I’m in the middle of a three-week assignment, on an interim maternity cover (baby arrived unexpectedly 3 weeks early and the maternity cover teacher couldn’t start earlier than his agreed date), so I’m in the rather odd situation of being a short-term long-term cover teacher.

Unfortunately, the school has taken this to mean that I will do all the things a salaried position teacher would do, despite the fact that there is little real benefit in my doing them. In general, of course, I don’t have a problem with this – I have to adhere to the same standards as everyone else, and rightly so.

But I see little real benefit in attending staff meetings which discuss strategies that will be implemented in the Summer Term.

So it was with a degree of reticence that I attended Monday’s staff meeting.

The school (small primary) has previously been rated as either ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ in its last four Ofsted reports. The Head, naturally, is keen to maintain this as it has resulted in a demand for places, which, in turn, has brought more money into the school. In the last six years the school population has nearly doubled, and a major building project has only just finished. Good Ofsted judgements have had measurable impacts on the school in the past, and this is something that, understandably, the Head and SMT wish to continue.

So Monday’s staff meeting was titled ‘Instigating the New Curriculum – Achieving Outstanding’.

I felt trepidation from the outset. Sadly, my worst fears were confirmed.

The school have bought into a curriculum scheme that stresses ‘independent learning’ as one of the main methods of progress for children. It also demands ‘Wow’ lessons at the start of each new topic in order to ‘hook the children in’.

We were given handouts detailing the structure of this scheme, and just how important it is. The main points, we were informed, of the general ethos are:

  • Learners at the centre
  • Enquiry based learning
  • Outcomes of high quality and valued
  • Embedding application of basic skills
  • Writing for a purpose
  • Research about learning & neurology
  • Matching to the context
  • Cross-curricular

In many ways I can’t argue with some of the points. If we don’t equip pupils with the basic skills they need to function in a school, we’ve lost our way. It was the part that came next that began to concern me.

The Head and Deputy then proceeded to give a demonstration lesson, in which they looked at the topic of , well, see if you can guess. We, the staff in the meeting, stood in for the children as they ‘taught us’. We were put into groups.

The Head handed out beautifully wrapped shoe boxes, which we were instructed to open carefully as they contained something precious. This turned out to be a washing-up glove filled with ice. We were asked what we thought when we were given the box, what we thought when we picked it up and began to unwrap it, and what we thought when we discovered the contents. At each stage we had to draw a mind map of our thoughts. We were then given a sheet where we had to describe the appearance of our box and its contents.

We were then handed another box, again wrapped beautifully and tied with green ribbon, and instructed to draw another mind map about this – what did we think was in it etc. – before opening that too, and repeating the whole mind-mapping process. This one contained models of trees, flowers, various animals (mammals and birds) and, rather bizarrely, dinosaurs. Again, we had to mind-map what we thought the lesson was about based on the items we had been given. This was followed by filling in the description sheet for the second box.

We were then shown various slides on the whiteboard, varying from busy cities to mountains and beaches. This was followed by yet more mind-mapping.

We were assured that the clues would build up and that we would understand everything clearly. Most people still looked baffled, those that weren’t, were bored.

The next ten minutes were given over to discussions and slides about holidays in warm places and how people fly by plane to such destinations. At this point, a number of staff thought that the topic was geography and travel, but apparently this wasn’t the case.

The next activity was a game whereby we took it in turns to describe an organism that had been written on a card, without actually using the organism’s name. Not too difficult when it was ‘dog’, rather harder when it was ‘fly’!

We were then asked to return to our boxes, and to complete the description sheets with updates for our two boxes. We also had to complete a third column on the sheets, which detailed all of the international places we had visited, along with our method of travel to get there.

Finally, we were told to link together all of the information we had been provided with, and steered to consideration of the ice-filled rubber glove. By now, much of this had melted, and a few people did manage to make a link between the items and the topic that we had been ‘studying’. It was revealed that this was an exemplar lesson for introducing the topic of Global Warming. We should, apparently, have been able to discover that easily as the clues were revealed. In fairness, most of the staff did just that.

But we’re adults, and our target audience for this are children – I wonder if they would be able to make the same deductions?

At this point I looked at the clock. It had taken 35 minutes to reveal the topic for study, which is apparently a better use of time than simply telling the children what they will be studying and then studying it.

The Head and Deputy were at pains to point out that the topic may not be one that would be taught to primary pupils, but that the principle remained the same. Further, and crucially, we were told that this was the method of teaching that must be applied from the Summer Term in order to prepare for the new curriculum in the Autumn. We should, we were informed, make sure that at the end of that session, once guesses had been taken as to the topic, send the children off to explore ‘global warming’ on the internet, encouraging them to make notes. This was to be an entirely independent task, and we should not direct their learning, as that contradicted the ethos of the creative curriculum.

At the end of the session, the Head took questions from the assembled staff. Most asked about preparation time and the number of resources required, but one Year 6 teacher asked about the need to teach in this manner. The Head’s reply was terse:

“On the new Ofsted criteria, “Independent Learning” is needed to gain an outstanding, it’s one of the features of an outstanding teacher. In fact, it’s essential under the new Ofsted criteria.

A teacher should lead less – focus on the children doing the work and research instead.”

This happened on Monday. Unless Michael Wilshaw and  Ofsted have suddenly altered their position with regards to particular teaching styles, I cannot find any reference to this on the Ofsted website. In fact, quite the contrary. Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted’s chief inspector, has said on a number of occasions that he favours no particular teaching style over another.

It must be noted though, that there have been a number of instances where individual inspectors and teams of inspectors have disregarded Wilshaw’s stance, and have criticised schools for not promoting independent learning. Old Andrew has given a good analysis of this on his blog Scenes from the Battleground.

So should I really be surprised that the Head is telling staff that Ofsted insist on a particular teaching style? Is she being deliberately misleading in order to promote her own preferred teaching style, or is it simply ignorance of the current stated position? But then again, the Head is married to a current Ofsted inspector.

Perhaps she knows something that Michael Wilshaw doesn’t?

Posted in Ofsted, Supply Cover | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

The mantle of the expert

Last night there was a big debate on Twitter about the usefulness (or otherwise) of the Mantle of the Expert. If you’re unfamiliar with this idea / theory / technique, there’s a lot of information on the website Mantle of the Expert.com.

A number of those in favour of the technique, claimed the reason for their support was because it worked for them. I’m not sure if that means they really believe all the claims made about it, or simply that because their pupils liked doing the activities, they feel that it was a successful (ie: not a riotous) lesson.

On the NFER blog there’s an exploration of the idea of ‘It worked for me‘, worth reading, and I’m not going to delve into the issues raised.

But I’m left wondering just how many teachers really use this? How many believe in it? How many think it’s mad? How many are utterly baffled by the whole thing?

I can’t find anything that gives me a clearer picture how widespread support is for this (or not, as the case may be), so please take a moment and complete the poll below. I’m aware that won’t give a definitive answer, but it seems like a good place to start.

I’m also interested in your thoughts about it, be they supportive or dismissive, so please add a comment too.

Posted in Theory | Tagged , , | 11 Comments

A little balance

Sometimes it seems as though I only write about the negative aspects of teaching, but if things really were a constant diet of doom and gloom, I wouldn’t be doing this job.

I’ve written about one particular day which turned out to be unexpectedly good in my post A good way to start the week. And it’s true, it really was a thoroughly enjoyable day.

But I don’t want to leave it at just one post, there have been many, many more good days, and I think I should reflect that a little more in my blog, thus bringing a little more balance to it. Today was one such day.

I was sent to cover a nursery class at short notice. Nursery is completely out of my comfort zone as a teacher, but very young children can be completely charming in a rather unpredictable way, so although I wouldn’t make it my first choice, it can be an enjoyable experience.

The staff were helpful, informative and extremely understanding when I told them that I normally teach much older pupils, but I was going to do my best, and I would appreciate their input so the day would run smoothly for the children. The pupils were fun, polite, inquisitive and infectiously glad to be there. So much so, that I began to think that perhaps Early Years was worth doing more often, despite the pressures of very dependent children.

I walked out the school happy, glad that I’d had the opportunity to see pupils before they became disillusioned with the whole schooling behemoth, wishing that it was a state that they never lost. Perhaps, for some, that is true, but too many children lose that wish to learn, just when they need to have it the most.

Writing this, I’m inwardly smiling again. Days such as this may not be the norm, but they’re more common than my blog may imply. And I know I’ll have another day like it very soon – I’m going back there tomorrow!

Posted in Behaviour | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment