7000 Hours challenges myths, bad science and woolly thinking in primary education.
A child has approximately seven thousand hours to complete their elementary education. Let's not lay claim to those hours for the sake of a fad. Our children will never get that time back.
Parents are being encouraged to ask
demanding, jargon-filled questions of their child’s teacher. In this post, I appeal for parents
to first consider, “What would I ask my dentist?”
A posting today on an educational blog provides ‘19 Meaningful Questions You
Should Ask Your Child's Teacher’.
These include such gems as:
· How are creativity and innovative
thinking used on a daily basis in your classroom?
· How is critical thinking used on a
daily basis in your classroom?
· How are assessments designed to
promote learning rather than simple measurement?
· What are the most common instructional
or literacy strategies you will use this year?
for how I imagine a real teacher would answer the nineteen questions.)
Rather than parents taking this list to the teacher, I would advise them to say to
themselves, “What would I ask my dentist?”
Seriously. A dentist is
a professional who undergoes training for about the same length of time as a
teacher, and then gains a huge amount of experience on the job. Teachers and
dentists both look after things that are precious to you. If you would ask your
dentist questions about what dental strategies they favour, whether they are up to date with the latest great initiative in fillings, how they direct the
assistant so that the support is targeted where it’s needed, what innovative
approaches they use – then fine, ask your child’s teacher the equivalent
questions. But if you trust your dentist’s expertise and reputation, then don’t
waste your time or the dentist’s or the teacher's.
bear in mind the level of quality control that exists in schools. Your
child’s teacher is subject to scrutiny from their line manager (in the UK, that
is usually the Head) and the Head is under the oversight of inspectors from
both the government and from the local authority or an academy chain. And
unlike your dentist, results are published annually and communicated to you.
It will be
clear by now that I am urging parents to trust the teachers. If you do not trust your
child’s teacher, then rather than undermining the professionalism of the
teacher with such questions, you should be either going to the Head with your
concerns, or finding a different school.
parents really require suggestions for questions at the parent-teacher
conference, I propose three, rather than nineteen: Is my child happy? Is my
child behaving? Is there anything I can volunteer for that would help the
school? Beyond that, don’t worry. Trust the professionalism of the teacher and
the quality control systems in the school.
(The author of those nineteen questions,
incidentally, appears not to be a practising teacher but rather a ‘former English teacher’ who
now describes himself among other things as a ‘social learning facilitator’.
Enough said perhaps. Here are the answers that I would imagine a teacher giving at this Parents’
Evening from Hell, for anyone who’s interested.)
1. How will you respond if or when my
child struggles in class?
Just as in all schools, tasksand investigations are planned to meet the
child at their level of challenge. A child who is not coping is given support
or challenged at a revised level. If it was a real problem, I would have spoken to
the special needs co-ordinator a long time ago and I would have consulted you.
2. What are the most common instructional
or literacy strategies you will use this year?
teacher. I plan the content of lessons, but as for strategies they come up
naturally. I have no idea which strategies I use more than others. It depends
on the lesson.
3. What are the most important and
complex (content-related) ideas my child needs to understand by the end of the
refer you to the published curriculum on the government/state/local authority website, which outlines
what children need to know year on year?
4. Do you focus on strengths or
an either/or, is it? I wonder if you would ask a gardener if they focus on
weeds or flowers…
5. How are creativity and innovative
thinking used on a daily basis in your classroom?
just happens? You can’t really teach without it…
6. How is critical thinking used on a
daily basis in your classroom?
I’m a teacher, ok? So there is critical
thinking in my classroom. Daily, you ask? Maybe one day last week I didn’t have
any. But I assure you it happens.
7.How are assessments designed to
promote learning rather than simple measurement?
you get these questions from? An educational blog? You’re kidding. But ok, here
we go. It is wrong to assume that ‘simple measurement’ doesn’t promote
learning. All assessment promotes learning because you are finding the gaps
that need filling. Assessment that doesn’t promote learning is not assessment.
That indeed is the essence of teaching – plan it, teach it, see if they’ve
understood it, and then respond accordingly.
8. What can I do to support literacy in
How about reading to your child and getting them to read to you? Just a thought.
9. What academic standards do you use,
and what do I need to know about them?
Curriculum levels [or local equivalent]. As for what you need to know,
if you are completely ignorant of the standards then it will make little difference to
your child’s education. We will refer to the standards in your child’s report
and provide definitions. If you do want to know more, Google it.
10. What kinds of questions do you suggest
that I ask my children on a daily basis about your class?
have a good day?’ That’s it. If they just say ‘yes’ and don’t want to say any
more, then drop it. The school is their life, not yours. Let your kid have a
break from your helicopter parenting.
11. How exactly is learning personalized
in your classroom? In the school?
our website. There is probably some platitudinous policy there saying how every
child is an individual and how we enrich them on that individual level. The truth? Your child is
one of thirty children in my class and most of the time most of the pupils will
learn in a group because that is the way the most learning is achieved with the
limited time that I have available.
12. How do you measure academic progress?
every school, formally with occasional tests and informally from observations. Mostly I just know where the children
are because I am a competent and experienced teacher.
13. What learning models do you use (e.g.,
project-based learning, mobile learning, game-based learning, etc.), and what
do you see as the primary benefits of that approach?
are interviewing me for a job then by all means ask me questions like that but
I have to say it’s a bit odd at a parents’ evening. To be honest I don’t think
of ‘learning models’ from one year’s end to the other. I teach and the pupils
14. What are the best school or district
resources that we should consider using as a family to support our child in the
Please, please don’t. Just listen to your child read and practise their times
tables with them occasionally, but otherwise leave the curriculum to the
school. I will teach them, and if they need help with homework they will ask
15. Is there technology you'd recommend
that can help support my child in self-directed learning?
16. What are the most common barriers you
see to academic progress in your classroom?
is fine though I could do with forty-eight hours in the day.
17. How is education changing?
talk to you until sunrise about this, or you could find your answer via Google.
I’d prefer the latter.
18. How do you see the role of the teacher
in the learning process?
Oh, sorry, you wanted something more cuddly.... Enabling. Facilitating.
19. What am I not asking but should be?
child happy and doing as well as can reasonably be expected?”
The Telegraph claims A-level analysis offers good news for the
Government’s educational programme – but something dodgy is going on.
A report in
the Daily Telegraph today gives the
Government something to seize on – “England's best 500 state schools are
outperforming the top 500 private schools”. This is according to an analysis of A-level
results. The Government might indeed like to make something of it, as it would
seem to justify their educational policy. But it is interesting that the Telegraph could not find a member of the
Government willing to be named, only a “senior source” who claimed that this
shows that the independent sector should be learning from the maintained sector
rather than the other way around.
that the reason the Telegraph failed
to pin down anyone who would put their name to such a conclusion, is that the
conclusion is nonsense.
assumes that people send their children to independent schools in order to get
good A-levels, and therefore if state schools are ahead in A-levels, then they are better schools. However, parents who choose the independent sector do so for so many more reasons than the exam certificates at then end. They may choose this sector for the greater range of extra-curricular activities and access to sport; or because their children lack confidence and the parents believe that the pastoral care is better; or because the parents work away and they need their children to board; parents
may consider that these schools will develop resilience or other virtues in the
child. Or, simply, the local comprehensive has a reputation for failing to address
behavioural issues and the parents are not prepared to tolerate that. Whether it's right or wrong to choose an independent school is a different discussion, but certainly the
choice of school is made on a more subtle basis than academic achievement, and education is more
and this is the killer – the article is statistically disingenuous. They have compared the
top 500 out of about 3500 state schools, with the entirety of the UK independent
schools (approximately 500) that offer A-level courses.
This would indeed be a versatile statistical tool, to compare the top seventh of one category with
the totality of another. Here's my idea. Take 70 women at random and ten men at random. Tell the
shortest 60 women to go away, then measure the remaining ten women and all the ten men and declare that women are on average taller
than men. Or that Greeks are richer than Germans, Austrians are plumper than Americans, or Skoda drivers drive faster than Saab drivers. Or whatever you want to prove, really.
I hope that pupils in or out of the top seventh of schools would be alert
to the dubious statistical practices here.
It impresses inspectors, promotes healthy lifestyles, meets
many Science learning objectives, and ticks PSHCE boxes – and everyone can
achieve. This September, why not take up some of that surplus turf and lay out garden
When a ten-year-old writes a story, he or she might be very proud
of it, and we might indeed say it is a great story, and tell them why. But it
will not be of the standard that a university student could write – how could it
be? We acknowledge it on its own terms. Likewise when they compose a piece of music,
or sketch a still life, we judge it and praise it as being of a good standard for
that child, for that age. Always, it seems, our acknowledgment of primary children’s
efforts is de haut en bas.
But just imagine if their stories, music and drawings were
of such a high standard that when we gave them feedback, we would have to
evaluate their product as if they were adults.
There is a discipline in which children
can achieve on the same level as adults, namely in the garden. I know this, because
as I write I can see my runner beans at home, which are flowering spectacularly
and are promising to deliver a weighty harvest before many weeks have passed.
Yet the runner beans that currently tower over our plots at school, planted by
groups of KS2 children last spring at the foot of beanpole wigwams that they
had set up themselves, are flourishing just as brightly and with just the same
potential as mine. In fact, the plots on which the pupils have grown their
vegetables and flowers are better weeded and more stone-free than my own
garden, and are considerably more appealing visually, with their additions of
windmills and the occasional gnome. (Last term’s ‘best garden plot’ competition
concentrated their minds.)
At my school, gardening is not a lunchtime or after-school club,
as at many schools, but is a timetabled part of the curriculum. It was not an
easy decision to make – after all, what other part of the curriculum would you give
up in order to accommodate what many would see as a hobby? – but I have never regretted
it. Many of the skills we want the children to develop are addressed by gardening.
There are planning and logistics – the children have to decide what they are
going to plant, where and when. If they plant lettuces here, what sort of gap
has to be left before planting a row of radishes? What are the optimum times for
succession planting? Social skills are encouraged by gardening, because the children
have to collaborate with their plot-mates. Indeed, in my school we don’t even
allocate the plots: the children negotiate with one another for their choices at the
beginning of a new ‘gardening’ year (which runs from one October to the next) and the pupil-run Garden Council inform us of who is to tend which plot.
As we have been doing this for a number of years, the children
tend to educate one another in horticultural techniques – we encourage groups that
comprise children from a range of school years so that experience cascades to a
new generation. Of course the children need guidance, and it is
essential to have knowledgeable, experienced gardeners on the staff - my school is fortunate in that respect, and sometimes garden enthusiasts on the parent body come along to advise and help. The pupils aren’t always
getting their hands dirty and knees muddy, as we also have occasional classroom sessions, where we
give the children advice on what to grow, and relate what they are doing to the
science of life cycles, ecosystems and photosynthesis.
We don’t do gardening for the entire year – it’s only timetabled
during the first half of the autumn term, and then again from about March
onwards, and one has to be flexible when the weather is inclement. But on or
off timetable, it is remarkable how often the children ask to spend their break-times and lunch-times on their plots. This is because they can all succeed (I really
mean all – one of our most successful gardeners of recent years was a
statemented child who was disapplied from SATS) – and they reap plenty of healthy
food that they can proudly take home, and, hopefully, eat with their families –
the most popular food crops are lettuce, spinach, potatoes, radishes, runner
beans, broad beans and strawberries.
And if you’re not convinced by the Science and PSHCE links,
or by the healthy eating that is promoted, or by the outdoor lifestyle, or by the
possibly life-long enthusiasm you will have engendered – maybe you will be
convinced by the inspectors. In their last visit to us they expressed themselves
deeply impressed by the way our garden initiative contributed to so many
aspects of the academic and social needs of the pupils.
Just because teacher training applications are down, is there
anything to worry about? Yes, lots – but maybe there are positives to be drawn from the situation.
At first glance, the report in the TES last week seems alarming: a 9% drop in applicants to be teachers, at a time
when we know that the school population is rising, and is due to hit 8 million
by 2023, the highest level since the tail-end of the Baby Boom reached school leaving
age in the early 1970s. Who will teach all these children?
Is it actually alarming? It should be emphasised that this is a drop
in applicants, not in the number of those accepted for a place – what the story
doesn’t say is that there are still three and a half applicants for every place
available. Having said that, it is important for training providers to have a
choice. Unless the applicants are very committed and confident, or very foolish,
they will also have applied for other courses or jobs, meaning that as
university results and A-levels appear, many of the 120,000 applicants will
drift away. Last year with 10,000 more applicants, only 93% of teacher training
places were filled; it was 95% the year before. The really worrying figure is that
over the five years to the end of 2014, new entrants to the profession fell by 16% (Daily Telegraph). A downward trend in teachers and an
upward trend in children is not great news for the quality of education.
The negative implication of the news story is in fact borne out by a
deeper look at the statistics. We do have something to worry about. In 2013 the
primary outlook was slightly better than the secondary one (secondaries have shortfalls
in practical and scientific subjects) but in 2014 it had declined to the same
93% new entrant level.
There is not much to cheer us in the situation. The government’s
statistical report disingenuously boasts that ‘New entrants to initial teacher
training are becoming better qualified’, with 73% of postgraduate trainees holding first class or upper second class degrees. So - there are fewer, but those there are, are better. However, this percentage is not substantially different from the national picture (71% of all students achieve these grades, which are on the up) and let’s not forget that those with
less than a lower second are barred from teacher training anyway, so with only
three degree classes to choose from, that 73% figure is not particularly magnificent.
The truly alarming thing is that of those who do complete
their training courses, a high number (it could be 40%) will start as a teacher
and then leave within a year – the quit rate after graduation doubled between 2005 and 2011 (Guardian). It might be that the government’s recruitment targets
allow for this sad haemorrhaging of potential talent – but it is the same
impetuses behind both these stories - depression of recruitment and discouragement of retention. Repeatedly
we hear and read of teachers’ disenchantment with the consequences of the changing
systems over the last decade – incessant governmental fiddling, increased workload and the unrealistic
expectations of inspectors and managers.
It is indeed a time-bomb, but maybe there will be some good to
come out of this situation. Teachers’ conditions are going to have to improve
if schools are to retain and recruit. Maybe this will involve a serious look at the professional and personal consequences of the target-driven