In the playground, as a child, we’d often play “Please Mr[s] Crocodile, can we cross the water in a cup and saucer, upside down?” The catcher, crocodile, would answer with a statement, such as, “If you’re wearing a green sweater.” Those children with green sweaters could walk across. When they were safe, the rest had to try to run across without getting caught and becoming the crocodile in their turn. It was a little safer than the later “bulldog”.
Chris Stewart, in his first book Driving Over Lemons, describes how the bridge that was a significant feature of the family life at El Valero, got washed away during a particularly heavy storm, and how, with the help of neighbours, they had to set up the equivalent of the bosun’s chair, to get themselves, and occasionally their groceries and livestock, across the water. Once the water subsided, a new set of foundations had to be laid and new timbers sourced and bedded into the foundations, to bridge the gap.
Paleolithic peoples would make stepping stones, by depositing stones large enough to poke through the water and allow steps to be taken in some safety. In some places, these stepping stones also had a flat top stone, to make a simple bridge. The bridge allowed regular and easy access from one side to another, supported on the simple pillars.
Some children run faster, jump higher, sing better, find maths easier, read and write better than others. That is one of life’s realities with which even young children can engage. At the end of each school year, children achieve across a spectrum of achievement, in different area of the curriculum. Where an artificial barrier is erected, let’s call it Age Related Expectation, or ARE for short, this will mean that a proportion of the children will fall below the level and some will achieve above another artificial level that says they are higher than expected.
The problem is that those who don’t achieve will be seen as having a residual gap in their learning from that year, which suggests a need to fill in the missing elements. This could either be done by throwing everything again into the gap, to try to fill the space, but, as with water, tensions might rise and the good intentions might actually exacerbate the problem. Bridging the gap might start with establishing the security of the foundations and then seeking a means to bridge without having to put in too many interstitial pillars to give temporary support. Regular check questions or conversations are necessary.
It is a situation where the ability to analyse or assess minute by minute outcomes and to reflect and react to the evident need is a key aspect. However, this is often a role given to a classroom assistant. Unless this person is well trained and well-versed in this role, there is no guarantee that the vulnerable child will make the necessary progress, yet the reality is that these children have to run to catch up, to stay near their peers.
Where a significant proportion of the education dialogue can veer towards the traditional whole class approach across Primary as well as Secondary, a narrow lesson focus can have the impact of leaving a proportion adrift, unless rapid in-lesson intervention occurs.
That some argue against mixed ability groups, or grouping per se, can appear perverse, as any group of children is mixed ability. Children, especially younger learners, can share ideas within a task, with the aim of finding a mutual solution. That one child might contribute slightly more than another in a group is akin to some achieving higher in any other lesson. It all becomes a moot point after a while.
The single most important factor in my experience is the quality of the challenge, requiring thought that proceeds towards finding a solution to the initial problem. Poorly designed tasks can become self-limiting.
In my last blog, I looked specifically at SEND issues. If issues are not addressed, vulnerable children might be left to flounder each year with the inevitable consequence of being labelled, not at ARE; shorthand “fail”. Unless the teacher can demonstrate that this is despite their best, recorded efforts, with quality teaching and intervention to need, it is possible to argue that the child may have been let down by the system.
Unless we can find these pillars, which may differ with each individual, the learners are condemned to fail each time. It’s not just down to their resilience, their growth mindset, or any other mantra of the moment.
Find out exactly what they need, provide it and check that it is secure, then move on, at an appropriate pace.
The Mr Crocodile game could, at times, become a little cruel, when the same children got caught regularly and spent the playtime chasing after the faster runners. Their frustration was real. Despite their best efforts, they couldn’t run fast enough.
Fitness for purpose should be the acid test for all intervention teaching. Help them all to run. It’s a matter of training and coaching.