Personalised Learning Harms Children

Here is a transcript of the speech I gave at the Michaela Debate at City Hall yesterday. I was debating the brilliant Tom Sherrington on the subject of personalised learning. Here is where videos of the debates will be posted in a few weeks’ time.

 

 

I want to begin today by telling you a story about a boy called Jason.

About a year ago, a file landed on my desk. It was huge. About the size of a rucksack. It contained hundreds of pieces of paper about Jason: a boy who was due to start at Michaela that September. As I waded through all the documentation I thought: ‘crikey, we’re going to have our work cut out with this one!’

The list of needs was long and boggling. Weak social skills. Low reading and spelling scores. Low maths scores. Weak writing skills. Low confidence. Low self-esteem. Poor social awareness. Poor self-control. Poor concentration. Poor behaviour.

 

Poor Jason.

 

The list of support mechanisms was even longer: a personalised curriculum that was heavily differentiated, differentiated vocabulary, different methods of recording his learning, targeted questioning, an individually designed literacy and numeracy programme, speech and language support… the list seemed endless.

 

A few weeks later, I went to visit him at his primary school.

“Jason” his teacher said “is very different to other children. He is a very unique boy and therefore requires a very unique approach.”

She told me that Jason was not a happy boy and that his self-esteem was through the floor.

He struggled academically.

He was poorly behaved, lacked focus and concentration.

He struggled to remember things.

He was perpetually frustrated.

He lost his temper easily.

He had few friends.

 

The conversation went on. She explained how she gives him different tasks and delivers lessons in diverse ways to suit his needs. She needs to go at a slower pace, otherwise, he won’t stay focused. She needs to plan strategically to fill in the precise gaps in his knowledge. Everything had to be highly personalised in order to help him learn.

Jason requires a very unique approach because Jason is a very unique boy.

 

In my head I compared Jason briefly to some of the other kids I teach. Kids like Emily who didn’t know what a triangle was when she started. Kids like Tyson who couldn’t sit still at first. Kids like Mohammad who didn’t learn the alphabet until year 5. All of them have various issues, granted, but Jason was by no means ‘weaker’ than any of these kids, nor was he any less capable than they were of meeting our standards.

 

We don’t offer those children a ‘highly personalised’ approach because, even though they are unique people, they are not unique in terms of how they learn.

 

And I suspected that Jason was the same.

 

Personalised learning harms children like Jason because it is premised on the idea that every child learns differently. This leads to a multitude of different activities that aim to suit the child’s needs, but often overlook tasks that best suit the content being taught. For example, when teaching a novel, I might be tempted to give children different extracts according to their reading ability, or give the Jasons of the world a vocabulary bank to support them with the reading. I might ask them to read their extracts in groups or pairs and get them to look up words in the dictionary. But at Michaela, we choose not to do that. Instead, we choose to read the whole text together as a class, reading along line by line with a ruler, stopping to annotate new or unfamiliar vocabulary and practise new pronunciations as we go. In Michaela lessons, everybody reads and everybody writes. That’s it. This is guided by the teacher – the subject expert, and pupils are expected to keep up.

 

Personalised Learning harms children like Jason because it lowers our expectations and prevents us from really believing that they can achieve.

There’s no escaping the fact that personalised learning necessarily requires creating different resources and teaching children in different ways. Not only is this inefficient and a huge burden on teacher time, and the weakest children miss out on the benefits of quality whole class instruction, but it is a clear statement that children like Jason are unable to access the same work as other children.

Knowing that a child has a need of any variety subtly skews our view of them. Somewhere deep down, we think ‘well, that kid has x need, so he/she will struggle’. Some of you may be sitting here thinking ‘well I wouldn’t think that’, but we need to accept the fact that labels inevitably colour our view of the child. And our entire system is set up to encourage this. Ofsted inspectors and SLTs demand colour-coded, differentiated seating plans demonstrating exactly how we intend to personalise the lesson for the pupil premium kids, the dyslexic kids, the kids with behavioural issues, and so on. But this is harmful! It is harmful because it damages our expectations and prevents us from believing that every child really can achieve.

At Michaela, we believe that everyone can do it. We believe that all children can access the same content if the teacher’s explanations and examples are good. CPD revolves around building teacher knowledge and determining optimal teaching sequences and concept explanations. And it works! Last year, our year 7 cohort made an average of 20 months progress in reading in just 10 months. The average pupil made 5 sublevels of progress in English and Maths, and pupils with special needs made 6. I promise you- nothing was ever personalised for these kids. Not Jason, not Emily, not Tyson, not Mohammed, not anyone.

In fact, the reason we achieved those results is precisely because we didn’t personalise learning at all! Instead, we prioritised whole class instruction where everybody reads and everybody writes.

Finally, Personalised Learning harms children like Jason because it lowers the expectations they have of themselves.

After all, if we don’t believe that they can achieve the same as their peers, then why should they?

Giving children personalised targets puts a ceiling on their expectations of themselves. Whether it’s “I need to work on sitting still” or “I need to work on analysing language in more detail”, the kid thinks that that is what they should focus on that lesson. And learning targets, just like any targets in life, are damaging because they are all we end up aiming for. It puts a ceiling on children’s expectations of themselves.

 

Since joining us in September, Jason has flourished. In his lessons, his teachers do not personalise his targets, set him different tasks, or record his learning in different ways. Instead, he gets consistently high quality, well-planned and delivered whole class instruction in a highly-structured, focused environment. He works at the same pace as everyone else in the class.

He works at the same pace as everyone else in the class because actually, he isn’t that different to everyone else. Lots of his peers found the same things difficult that he found difficult. He made the same mistakes as everyone else and got confused when everyone else got confused. Because that’s how learning works: our minds aren’t so different, but if the content itself isn’t presented to us in the right way, we stand less chance of understanding it. Get the instruction right, and everyone can learn.

And Jason has learned a lot this year. His reading age has improved by over 2 years. His behaviour has transformed. Where he used to lose his temper easily and end up in trouble often, he is now calm, focused and polite. He has made friends and earns lots of merits each week. He proudly wears a merit badge on his blazer for landing in the top 20 in the year group.

 

Sure, some pupils may require a little extra time to really digest new stuff, but they don’t need different approaches because they are somehow more unique than other children, or learn in a different way to other children.

 

We have mistakenly premised our entire system around the idea that each child is unique, when in fact they are not unique in terms of how they think or learn. Jason was far behind his peers, but that does not necessarily mean that he needs a personalised approach in order to make progress.

 

And yes, it was hard for him at first. He did struggle from time to time. But isn’t struggle a good thing when you’re learning? Isn’t struggle something we should expose kids to from time to time, to help build their resilience? Isn’t that how we learn to persist when the going gets tough? Doesn’t it make us feel even more proud of our achievements if we have to struggle to reach them?

 

Jason struggled at first, but he persisted, and consequently flourished.

 

Ladies and gentlemen, I know that before today, many of you voted against this motion, thinking that personalised learning doesn’t harm children. And intuitively it does seem like it’s a bit unreasonable to suggest that personalised learning is ‘harmful’. But I ask you to think again and in particular, to think of Jason. Is it unreasonable to ask that every child is given the same access to the same curriculum at the same pace with the same high quality teaching? Is it unreasonable to ask that every child is pushed as far as possible every single lesson, every single day? Is it unreasonable to want the best for every child, to believe that every child can achieve?

 

Every child can achieve, but it is precisely because we personalise learning that many in fact don’t.

Every child can achieve, but the cult of personalised learning tricks us into believing that some children are less capable than they really are.

Every child can achieve, and it is precisely because the system says that personalising learning makes things better that we actually make things worse.

 

Ladies and Gentlemen, personalised learning harms children because it reduces our expectations, it reduces their expectations, and most importantly, it reduces their outcomes.

 

 

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How can we get kids to read widely?

Getting kids to love reading is difficult at the best of times. Reading is hard, particularly for children who, for whatever reason, aren’t exposed to new language or reading in the early years. By the time they arrive in secondary school, many reluctant readers hate books: they see reading as dull, pointless and arduous.

 

One way round this is to give reluctant readers books that appeal to their interests, or are relevant to their lives. The view tends to be that so long as children are reading something, then it doesn’t really matter what it is that they are reading. In lots of schools, this means that ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’, ‘Guinness Book of World Records’ and ‘The Story of Tracy Beaker’ are the most popular titles.

 

This is something I have gone back and forth on over the last few years. On the one hand, we do want children to enjoy reading, and starting them on books they like seems to be a good way to do that. But I’ve always wondered what happens next? I’ve seen kids get into ‘Wimpy Kid’ and ‘Tracy Beaker’, but struggle to transfer that to other books that might be more challenging or different.

 

Ultimately, it is really important that children read as broadly as possible. Reading is one of the primary mechanisms we have for learning new things, and if we don’t promote wide reading in school, it is less likely that children will become wide readers in adulthood. So whilst I do think that children should be allowed to read books they like (obviously), I want to make sure that this doesn’t limit the breadth of their reading. At Michaela, we have several programmes in place to support children to read as broadly as possible.

 

Class Readers

 

At Michaela, we believe that reading is all about habit. For that reason, we read every day with every pupil. Our class reading programme is designed to give even the least able readers daily access to great works of literature. Books are carefully sequenced, and all titles have been chosen precisely because they aren’t the kinds of things that pupils would typically read on their own. We believe that reading with an adult is a powerful way to get through books that are difficult or out of kids’ comfort zones. When the class reads together, the teacher can pause and explain difficult vocabulary and concepts, and can ask questions to check for understanding.

 

These books – titles such as ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, ‘Silas Marner’ and ‘A Christmas Carol’ don’t tend to fly off the shelves in our school library, but pupils read them in class and, with the support of their teacher- get a lot out of them and end up really enjoying them. They may have enjoyed them had they read them alone, but it’s unlikely they’d pick them up in the first place! Class reading is a way to broaden pupils’ reading by pushing them out of their comfort zones.

 

Reading Club

 

Our least able readers stay for 30 minutes after school every day for Reading Club. Jo Facer, our wonderful Head of English, has created a brilliant sequence of Reading Club books. These books are more pupil-friendly, with titles that are a sort of halfway house between ‘classics’ and the books they’d pick up on their own anyway. They tear through ‘The Red Pony’, ‘Farenheit 451’, ‘The Woman in Black’ and many others. Again, these books are challenging for the least able readers, but with the support of their teachers, are made more accessible. Importantly, this means that the least able readers in the school are reading the most books with adults, and are reading even more broadly than other pupils.

 

Friday Reads

 

Jo Facer came up with this brilliant idea. We found that lots of pupils (of all abilities) were struggling to choose books from the library. Jo suggested that we recommend our classes one book every Friday. These are from all sorts of genres and appeal to a wide variety of interests. So far, we’ve had ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’, ‘My Sister’s Keeper’, ‘Gone Girl’ and many others. We hold the book up, talk about it a bit, and then it goes in the library. At lunchtime, loads of kids turn up to grab one of the coveted ‘Friday Read’ books.

 

Team Reads

 

Following the Class Reader theme, we have lots of full class sets of books in the library that pupils can take out together and read in groups. These are called ‘Team Reads’. These are a mixture of classics and modern novels, and pupils are welcome to come in to the library at lunchtime and read them together, or take them home to read and discuss. If you’re stuck for resources on this one, check out the Penguin Classics offer for schools– you can get loads of books for a relatively low sum.

 

Personal Reading

 

Finally, our pupils are all expected to have a library book with them every day. They read this in silence in morning tutor time and at home in the evenings. This gives kids the flexibility to choose anything they want to read. Interestingly, pupils often choose books related to the topics they are studying in lessons. So we see lots of kids reading about Ancient Egypt or Astronomy, for example. ‘Tracy Beaker’ is still popular, but lots of our pupils challenge themselves to read more widely and push themselves out of their comfort zones.

 

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Like the sound of this? We’re hiring! More information here: http://mcsbrent.co.uk/teacher-vacancies/

 

How can we help the weakest catch up?

“So let me get this straight: we’re behind the rest of our class and we’re going to catch up to them by going slower than they are?”- Bart Simpson

 

Our instinct is often to assume that a kid with a reading age of 7 couldn’t possibly be asked to sit and read a Dickens chapter in class for an hour.  So rather than cruelly forcing them to do so, we might perhaps choose to watch a film clip and draw a storyboard instead. On the surface, this seems entirely legitimate and reasonable. After all, pupils cannot be expected to run before they can walk. But this is where I think we have been going wrong with the weakest pupils for a long time. Our good and caring intentions have unwittingly lowered the bar for the pupils who struggle the most. By reducing the expectations we have of their behaviour and output in lessons, we limit them from ever being able to achieve the best possible outcomes. Weak pupils will simply never catch up if they are rarely exposed to truly challenging tasks and aren’t pushed to meet the demands of an academically rigorous curriculum.

 

The weakest pupils need more focus, more rigour and more practice if they are to stand any chance of catching up with their peers.

 

  1. More Focus

 

For some reason, we don’t expect weak kids to behave as well as we expect top set kids to behave. 7.1 may be a dream to teach, but why, in the same school with the same teacher, are 10.8 a complete nightmare? Bottom set kids are doubly disadvantaged: not only do they come in knowing the least; their lessons are often the most disrupted. They need to spend the maximum amount of time in lessons listening to the teacher, following rules and working hard, yet often they are surrounded by chaos.

 

Think about the precious minutes that are melting away whilst the weakest pupils sit in a chaotic classroom. Think of all the things they could learn during that time if they were actually listening. School leaders must do everything in their power to ensure that every child has the opportunity to learn from their teacher every single lesson.

 

 

  1. More Rigour

 

When pupils find extended reading and writing difficult, there is a temptation to reduce the rigour in the content and tasks they are asked to do. It’s tough to give a kid with a reading age of 7 a full page of text to wade through, but surely it is better for them to struggle and come out the other side than to never even attempt such tasks. Again, we feel like it might be cruel to expect a bottom set pupil to sit and read a challenging text for an hour, but isn’t it crueller never to give them the chance? Reading texts in lessons with weak pupils is tough, but it isn’t impossible. If they get into the habit of doing it every lesson- perhaps, even across subjects- they will get better at it and will feel successful.

 

  1. More Practice

 

If a child has a reading age of 7 and cannot spell, they need to spend the bulk of their time in lessons reading and writing. They are literally years behind where they should be, and we simply do not have a moment to spare. Every planning decision we make gives us a choice: spend time doing things they can already do (drawing a story board), or spend time developing skills they desperately need to master if they are going to stand a chance of being successful in the future.

 

We must also remember that pupils only spend around 25 hours per week in lessons. This time is so precious. With such limited exposure to teachers and their expertise, we should strive to make the most of every second they have. They can watch films, make posters, do a bit of drawing and chat to their mates at home. They can’t work out how to solve quadratic equations or read and understand a Dickens novel without the support of a subject expert.

 

 

 

The weakest kids have the biggest mountain to climb. With the support of their teachers, a rigorous curriculum, meaningful lesson activities and focused behaviour in lessons, they stand the best possible chance of reaching their potential.

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If you found yourself nodding along in agreement with this post, why not apply to work with us at Michaela? We’re hiring English, Humanities and Science teachers. More information here: http://mcsbrent.co.uk/teacher-vacancies/

Women: Know Your Limits.

Growing up, I was fortunate enough not to have to worry about gender inequality. As far as I was concerned, I could run just as fast, shout just as loud, and be just as smart as my brother or any of the boys I knew at school. My dad was a Judo coach, so from about the age of 8 I spent weekday evenings throwing boys twice my size around a hall in the local community centre. Of course I had heard about gender inequality, but I saw it as a thing of the past. From my perspective, the women  who fought for women’s rights had given me the chance not to have to do the same for myself. Through their chastisement of the status quo, I was liberated from the limits that had been imposed on them for millennia, and for that I was grateful.

 

Over the last few years, as I creep steadily towards my 30s, a few things have helped me to see that perhaps I was naïve to believe that women were unquestionably equal to men. The usual stuff kept cropping up: woman are ‘emotional’ and ‘bossy’, must be married with kids before 35, should weigh no more than 8 stone, and should spend more money on hair cuts than rent to avoid being considered a slob. Bla bla bla. But I was most shocked when, recently, at an event hosted by an older man, I sat myself between two guys I know well and respect deeply; the host engaged sincerely with them, shifting his eyes from the man on my left to the man on my right, and yet overlooked me completely. I was more than a little annoyed. My inner Judoka wanted to leap up and thrash him to the floor in the names of feminism and good manners. Of course, I didn’t. I sat there politely and nodded along, trying occasionally to squeeze a word in or earn a second of his focus, to little avail. His loss. I’m great.

 

Explaining these lurking concerns to a devout feminist acquaintance, she declared: “Yes, Katie. Welcome to the Patriarchy!” She’s right. The Patriarchy does exist and it is terrible that women aren’t as equal as they ought to be. But I fear that looking at the world through this lens is problematic. I fear that too much acknowledgment of ‘the patriarchy’, and all the evils that go with it, renders women less powerful. In doing so, we place subtle, damaging limits upon ourselves, and I am not about to let that happen to me.

 

Maybe it wasn’t because I’m female that the host was rude. Maybe he was just rude! Maybe he didn’t like me because he disagreed with something I wrote in a blog once. Maybe I’d accidentally said something that annoyed him. Maybe he thought I was an arrogant idiot (a fair assumption). I’ll never know the truth, but by instantly jumping to the conclusion that his rudeness was a response to my gender, I actually did myself a disservice. Gender inequality isn’t the answer to all of life’s woes. I blamed abstract ideas – ‘society’, ‘the patriarchy’, ‘misogyny’. Ideas are easy to blame, but very difficult to change if they come to define us. It’s like we are all standing around pointing to a massive neon sign saying ‘PATRIARCHY’, giving it more credit than it deserves. By viewing the world through this prism, we subtly impose further limits on ourselves.

 

I may be great, but I cannot control the minds of others. I cannot control their thoughts, their prejudices, their attitudes, their ignorance. I cannot change history, either. Yes, men have had the power since time immemorial, but I cannot change that. Focusing on the fact that this is unfair won’t change it either. It’s a huge leviathan composed of an infinite number of moving parts. It’s extremely hard to pin down. Focusing on it too much risks removing women of their agency and ability to overcome the lingering barriers that society will inevitably present.

 

So I urge women not to allow the problems in society to limit them, but instead to move beyond them. So the next time someone says something that triggers your inner feminist, don’t allow that thought to limit you. Overcome it. Realise that you cannot change what is not within your control. Carry on as you would have, had misogyny never existed. Be brilliant, and work to improve the things about you that you can control. There are things that all of us need to work on, but don’t let gender inequality posses you. Know the limits that lie within, and ignore the limits that lie beyond, and perhaps one day the apparent need for ‘Feminism’ will cease to exist.

Grammar and the Art of Writing: ResearchED Literacy

Here is a write up of the presentation I gave at ResearchED Literacy in Swindon yesterday, in case anyone missed it and is interested in what I have to say about grammar (feel free not to be!).

 

What makes a good writer?

When I first began teaching English, I thought carefully about what it meant to be a great writer, and how I might be able to help my pupils get better at writing themselves. At the time, I was reading ‘Revolutionary Road’ by Richard Yates. It has since become one of my favourite books, and I re-read it at least once every year. The story is good, but I adore Yates’ writing style. There’s something beautiful about the way it flows. Struck by a couple of wonderfully rich, yet concise, sentences of his, I came to a conclusion. I believe that great writing is characterised by the ability to control and manipulate clauses. So that is what I needed to help my pupils get better at: controlling clauses. By beginning with a clear goal in mind, it is easier to understand the direction and purpose of grammar teaching. From there, I began working out what knowledge pupils needed to know in order to be able to control clauses effectively.

 

Parts of Speech

Joe Kirby began sequencing a grammar curriculum into three parts: the parts of speech, syntax rules, and punctuation rules. I agreed that these were helpful categories.

 

One of the main criticisms grammar receives is that parsing sentences is a waste of time. I hear some teachers say that knowing that the word ‘run’ can be both a noun and a verb is unnecessary. I can understand why some may see it this way. On the surface, knowing the parts of speech doesn’t appear to be particularly useful. However, since I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve come across a number of examples that demonstrate why this knowledge is in fact extremely helpful.

 

Take the following examples:

 

He married an intelligent, charismatic woman.

 

He wore a bright red coat.

 

Why is a comma necessary in the first sentence, but not the second? The parts of speech hold the answer: ‘intelligent’ and ‘charismatic’ are two adjectives and therefore should be separated by a comma. ‘Bright’, however, is an adverb modifying the adjective ‘red’, so no comma is necessary. Knowledge of the parts of speech also enables us to understand why we say a ‘bright red coat’ rather than a ‘red bright coat’. Red does not qualify the adjective bright; rather, the adverb ‘bright’ tells us how red the coat is.

 

Whilst most people will intuit this knowledge, many people will not. As teachers, we should be as systematic as possible to ensure that every pupil knows how to punctuate sentences properly. Even the humble listing comma cannot be applied correctly without an understanding of the parts of speech.

 

I gave more examples of this during the talk. I’ve attached the presentation to the bottom of this blog post if you’d like to read more on this.

 

Sequencing

Sequencing a grammar curriculum is key. I argue that it ought to have 20% of curriculum time at KS3. Over three years, pupils ought to study 9 units.

 

Year 7: The basics of the parts of speech, syntax and punctuation. These units should provide a broad overview. For example, when teaching the parts of speech, you wouldn’t want to go into the detail of types of nouns (proper, common, abstract, etc.) as this will overload pupils. Instead, simply teach them what a noun is. Come back to nouns in year 8 and then teach the different types.

 

Year 8: Detailed breakdown of the same three units. Here is your opportunity to teach the more nuanced aspects of what was taught the year before.

 

Year 9: Deepen pupils’ knowledge of the complexities of grammar. A strong emphasis should be placed on its impact on meaning.

 

A Grammar Lesson

Grammar lessons should be ‘DEaD’ good: that is, it should contain a clear definition, illuminating examples and unrelenting drills.

 

For example, when teaching adjectives to year 7, I would begin the lesson with a recap of the parts of speech that I have taught previously. I would do this by giving pupils a few phrases to parse, for example:

 

Our house

Lucy’s kite

A window

The door! Jamie!

Karen’s doll.

 

Next, introduce the concept. At Michaela, we have created a short story about grammar. In each chapter, a new part of speech is introduced in the form of a personified character. The Adjective Ladies are the eponymous heroines of this lesson. They are a group of gossipy old women who sit around and describe people. The story contains several examples of adjectives, all italicised.

 

The next step is to learn the definition. Pupils learn that adjectives describe nouns and we chant this together as a class. This is quickly followed by a sequence of examples and non-examples.

Once pupils are consistently giving correct responses to the question ‘adjective or not an adjective’, they are ready to practice. Begin by asking them to circle the adjectives from a list of simple words. Increase the challenge in subsequent activities by asking them to circle the adjectives in simple sentences, then more challenging sentences. Increase the challenge further by asking them to tell you which noun the adjective describes in every example.

 

Finish the lesson by carrying out further parsing activities, this time including adjectives. For example:

 

Our lovely house

Jane’s delicious meal

The music? Wonderful!

Matilda: a reader

Frightening, that ride.

 

To ensure pupils don’t forget this in between grammar lessons, and to increase the chances that they will apply grammar to writing across other lessons, carry out daily drill exercises. For the first five minutes of every lesson, pupils parse a few sentences/ underline all the subjects/ punctuate sentences with non-restrictive clauses, etc. as appropriate. On the whole, these should be aligned to the unit you are currently teaching them, but recap of previously taught content is also helpful.

Thanks to Tom Bennett, David Didau and Ruth Robinson for organising what was a brilliant event. I’d highly recommend looking into the work of James Murphy, Eric Kalenze and Dianne Murphy. I attended their talks yesterday and all three were totes amaze!

 

Here is the PowerPoint I delivered yesterday, which includes the sample lesson I have explained above: ResearchED Literacy Grammar

 

Give him a break

Palmer was a popular lad: square-shouldered, dishevelled, dramatic. An eternal creator of classroom chaos: he and I did not share many positive interactions.

 

On a typical day, he would wander in late, toss his JD Sports bag onto his desk, slump into his seat, and immediately turn around and chat to his mates. In Palmer’s eyes, reading and writing were unnecessary distractions from his social life, and his disdain for me- a teacher, and therefore the unfortunate embodiment of such hindrances- could be felt in his every scowl and grimace.

 

In those early months of my teaching career, I was permanently exhausted. I had been warned about the late nights, absurd SLT demands and excessive workload, but nobody had quite managed to express to me the emotional toll of teaching. In the first term, I must have been trying to diffuse around thirty arguments a day. Most people won’t experience that in a year. It was draining. I found myself pleading with children who wouldn’t sit in their seats and sworn at by children who threw things at me. I was ignored when I tried to get the class to be silent; I was laughed at when I tried to sanction them.

 

Palmer was a frequent sparring partner, and he often pushed me to the limits of my self-control. Any instruction I gave was not only ignored, but sneered at or derided as if I were treating him like a prisoner.

 

It turned out that Palmer had quite a lot of ‘issues’. I won’t go into them here, because the issues themselves aren’t particularly relevant, but they were profound enough to manifest as they did. I found him difficult to teach, and I’ll admit that a wave of relief would rush through me every time he was absent. He was tough, I couldn’t handle him, and I felt guilty about that. Perhaps, I thought, I wasn’t being sympathetic enough to his needs or trying hard enough to understand them. Perhaps I wasn’t a kind enough person. Perhaps I wasn’t patient enough. Perhaps I was expecting too much. I couldn’t reconcile it all in my head, so I made the decision to give him a break. When he was naughty, I would try to understand why he was behaving this way and try to see things from his point of view. When he was rude, I’d remember what was going on in his home life and would calm myself down. When he was bored or angry, I gave him a break from the lesson and let him take a breather outside, as was his wont.

 

I gave him a lot of breaks. It didn’t work.

 

I now think that giving kids a break often isn’t the solution. Palmer’s life was an unfortunate mishmash of circumstance and bad luck. Disempowering and inescapable, he chose to shove two fingers up to the world and hide his anger behind a veil of heroic self-confidence. His brashness made him a tricky classroom customer, and his teachers became helpless victims of his every whim. It wasn’t just me who had decided to cut Palmer some slack. All his teachers had, because they were all human. Multiple simultaneous sighs of relief; a collective exhale of expectations. We lowered our standards because it was easier than not lowering them.

 

Some convinced themselves they gave Palmer a break because he really needed it. They did it because they cared about his welfare. Even I convinced myself that I was letting him get away with all sorts because of I cared about his wellbeing. After all, if a kid has ‘issues’, it would be cruel to expect them to function like a person without issues, wouldn’t it?

 

But by the end of the year, he had no controlled assessments, was catastrophically under-prepared for his exams, and couldn’t have a normal conversation with an adult without getting into an aggressive altercation of some kind. Was this what ‘care’ really looked like? Was giving Palmer a break really the right prescription?

 

I have taught too many kids like Palmer, and whilst I still have a lot to learn about building the strongest relationships and providing the best possible support, I am sure about one thing. If you give a kid a break, you reduce your standards for them, and to do so is to allow them to fall to those low standards. We do care, and caring is a thread inseparable from the complex tapestry of teaching. But sometimes, the most caring thing we can do for a child is to raise our standards even higher.

 

 

 

Knowledge is Power

When I began blogging in 2013, the argument that knowledge should be at the heart of the curriculum was readily rejected. The most common counter-argument was that rote learning of lists of facts was a waste of time as it would not lead to ‘deep learning’ (whatever that means) or understanding. Since that time, the debate seems to have shifted somewhat. Fewer people now argue that knowledge is irrelevant. Instead, critics argue that knowledge is just the beginning, or that we should somehow teach knowledge and skills simultaneously, or that a distinction between knowledge and skills is a false dichotomy (yawn).

I’ve always been a firm believer in the power of knowledge. It’s one of the reasons I joined Michaela– where our motto is ‘Knowledge is Power’. Although I’ve always believed that a knowledge- rich curriculum could lead to great things, I had never seen it in action until I came to work at this school. Over the past year, I have come to see the impact that knowledge can have on a child’s ability to make interesting connections and links, and to analyse and evaluate ideas. At Michaela, all our children are expected to learn lists of facts by rote. This is still very unusual and there are many out there who criticise us for it.

But time and time again, I have seen the value of learning such lists of facts. Not only do pupils genuinely enjoy knowing loads of stuff, this rote learning has proved to be incredibly useful when they come across new knowledge. They are able to make connections and inferences that someone who lacks such knowledge would simply not be able to make.

Here is one of my favourite examples of this:

I was reading through a biography of Percy Shelley with ‘Poseidon’- one of my year 7 classes and my tutor group. Many of the pupils in this class have reading ages far below their chronological age. More than half the class have Special Educational Needs.

On this particular occasion, we were preparing to study Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’. In the biography, we came across this piece of information:

Shelley began writing his poem in 1817, soon after the announcement that the British Museum was to acquire a large fragment of a 13BC statue of Rameses II from Egypt.”

I explained that Rameses II was a powerful Egyptian Pharaoh.

Within seconds, a forest of hands shot up. Slightly baffled, I asked one of the pupils to tell me what was wrong.

“Miss, how could Rameses II be a Pharaoh in 13BC when Egyptian civilisation ended in 31BC? Miss, that doesn’t make sense.”

I was stumped and couldn’t answer for this. It later transpired that there had been a typo in the printed version of the biography. Instead of 13BC, the date should have said 1213BC. Because I lacked knowledge of the date of the end of Egyptian civilisation (which the pupils had learned in Mr Porter’s History lesson), I would never have been able to spot the mistake. In fact, I would have had a completely incorrect understanding of Rameses II and the statue, which was over a thousand years older than I had believed it was.

In this instance, a lack of relevant knowledge rendered me incapable of grasping an accurate understanding of the facts. I consider myself to be a relatively good ‘critical thinker’ (although I’m sure many readers may disagree!), but my ability to think critically was useless in this instance because of the gaps in my knowledge. My pupils, by contrast, had been empowered by their knowledge. Consequently, they were in a far stronger position to critically analyse the text they had been given than I was.

Rote learning is perceived to be a dull, mindless activity that leads to little other than parrot-like recall, but this simply is not the case. On the contrary, mastering lists of important dates is essential for critical thinking to take place.