These houses are painstakingly taken apart, marked, measured and mapped, so that they can be repaired as necessary and then put back together in such a way that they are accessible to a very large number of visitors during each year. The team also reconstructs buildings of archaeological interest, recently building a Saxon Hall from evidence of a 950AD structure from Steyning in West Sussex.
This deconstruction serves a purpose; the whole is explored, then the structure is taken apart and the pieces examined for archaeological evidence, so that it can then be put back together and exist as a whole., having divulged some of the secrets within.
This whole-part-whole approach was the subject of a discussion with a PE adviser in the 1970s, looking at how games playing was developed. The principle, as such, has guided much thinking across the curriculum, throughout the rest of my career. It has been a case of share the outline of the learning journey, explore the details and keep putting it back together as a whole to practice using the parts that have been committed to memory.
The regularity of encountering phonics as a (polarising) topic on Twitter must seem monotonous to those not engaged with it daily. My school generation did sight words and letter-sound correspondence, learned the alphabet and read Janet and John and Ladybird books. According to some today, that would have been a wrong approach, but a large number learned to read and, in the absence of other forms of entertainment, enjoyed reading as a pastime.
In fact, variations on Janet and John/Ladybird, as updated schemes aimed at a different generation, Village with 3 Corners, Ginn 360, Oxford Reading Tree, underpinned or dominated many school approaches through the 60s to 90s.
The National Strategies “Simple View of Reading” approach stressed word recognition and comprehension, with a strong phonics base, which might still, in many schools, have been analytical in style. This was the case until the directive that Systematic Synthetic Phonics was to be the only route.
When my children were young, being naturally inquisitive, they regularly asked “What does that word say?” The response was the whole word, with perhaps a side order of sharing the first letter sound. Children want to understand the world around them, and awareness of words is a significant part of that. For deconstructing, in current parlance, read decoding, the new orthodoxy. Young children don’t necessarily want to know that “Road” says “R-OA-D”, or worse “R-O-A D”; or perhaps try “Crescent”. They want the word, perhaps because they are also naturally seeking meaning, to make sense of the world. That they are aware that a written road name “says” something is a step to note, in itself?
I have already said that I can see great benefit in deconstructing to determine the parts that can then be put back together. A large number of words conform to rules according to how letters are linked together; equally, there are many that don’t. Listening to children read who are over-reliant on decoding can be a painful business, especially if this is their approach to each word. Reading requires some fluency, to enable sentences to create an overall meaning, which, in turn, requires retention of whole words, or significant chunks of words that allow rapid construction of the less secure parts.
To my analytical mind, deconstruction (decoding) leads to reconstruction (encoding), then to retention, for rapid retrieval when required in context, by definition the reconstructed word, in memory becomes a (recognised on) sight word, a form of word matching.
I can remember the pleasure of playing with words, within “word families”. Having learned a simple word like “at” beginning to add letters to make additional words: - bat, cat, fat, hat, mat, pat, rat, sat, tat, vat, or “it”: - bit, fit, git, hit, kit, lit, mit(ten), nit, pit, sit, tit, wit. Coupled with learning nursery rhymes and simple songs, words like this and the idea of rhyming allowed children to be explorers of words.
I have worried about the potential for approaches advocated since 1997, with the National Strategies and Assessing Pupil Progress (APP), that the curriculum, as a whole has become disjointed through deconstruction, requiring the learner to make sense of large parts of the journey, without a clear picture of where everything fits; a bit like trying to make a complicated jigsaw without sight of the picture.
I made this point, in this way, to Lord Dearing at a local curriculum review conference, because teachers were finding themselves in a similar position. The current curriculum approach has an even greater feel of an incomplete jigsaw. In fact, at times, it feels like someone decided to throw the bits out and ask people to find them first; not much fun playing an incomplete game.
A lack of overall narrative, or breadth of knowledge and understanding, allows smaller elements that are in place to assume greater prominence than each perhaps should have, as busy teachers seek to cement some simplicities into the complexities of the curriculum demand. Some schools seek to simplify further by giving some subjects greater prominence at the expense of others, diminishing the conceptual and vocabulary base.
Much mention has been made recently of the need to memorise, thoughts in working memory leading to storage in long term memory, with the potential for cognitive overload and dissonance thrown in for good measure.
There is the idea that the current simplicity ensures no cognitive overload, that working memory is only put to a particular use and that this is then stored and retained, for easy recovery when needed.
If only life and learning were that simple, we’d have been doing that forever. The narrative of sharing ideas with learners often leads, in the telling, to the leader making links with other ideas, some of which are aroused in memory simply in the telling, a link having been made by the use of a word, or seeing something in an image that jogs a thought. These tangents can sometimes be seen as new insights, which arise as much within discourse as in “deep reflection”.
This, for me, is one reason why teachers need to be excellent storytellers and children need to talk their ideas, in discussion with an adult, who can offer appropriate additional linked asides that add value to the retelling.
We don’t know the capacity of a child’s working memory, nor do we have any idea about their long term mental organisation, but we can assume that these will vary. Unless there is very good modelling of ideas in a framework that makes sense to the child, they will be struggling cognitively. As an adult, if you have been in a lecture and found an idea interesting or challenging and spent time reflecting on that, is that at the expense of the next few minutes of the talk? I know that I have, probably on many occasions.
Learning can be hard.
The problem, for a learner, in a deconstructed environment, where they have no clear map or picture, nor signposts to how things link together, is that they then have to try to put things together for themselves. It is not surprising if many find this very challenging; some may be experiencing working memory or cognitive overload or, in extremis, stress.
It can be made even harder if it isn’t articulately presented and effectively scaffolded, through appropriate concrete and visual modelling and examples that encapsulate the concepts that are embedded within the subject specific vocabulary and processes being espoused.
Learning is often hidden in the language used.
The teacher is, at times, an interpreter, even in a home language, where extended vocabulary needs to have a developmental relationship to earlier forms. This may be specific within subjects, but needs unpicking if gaps in learner understanding are to be bridged.
Deconstruction, without reconstruction, leads inevitably to gaps, as bits are not picked up and put back into place. If the gaps are in the teacher element, it’s not surprising if the learner demonstrates those gaps.
Put your learning jigsaw together with clarity, share the overall picture, then unpick the pieces as they become relevant during the journey.