The week of Autumnwatch programmes on BBC has been an opportunity to indulge in a nature fest, aided by the multiple technical advances that allow nightwatching in detail, or the identification of passing birds and bats from their signals.
Crabbiness could sometimes be use to describe reactions and interactions on Twitter, to Government edicts or press commentary on some, often narrow, area of school life.
The downside to crabbiness is that those caught in that mindset are sometimes somewhat stuck, or they feel under attack and seek to use the shield of their crabbiness to keep the world at bay. It becomes a self-fulfilling, self-limiting approach. However, the seeming simplicities uttered by Government ministers can drive some to stick to the basic need, rather than to go beyond and evolve. If it’s going to hurt too much, people will naturally show an aversion; the aversion creating the perfect place for reality to strike hard and hurt more…
It was the clip on Autumnwatch that showed spider crabs moulting in order to grow, that has given food for thought this week. Inside the hard shell, the spider crab, along with other crustaceans, is growing. It would be like a human never changing out of their clothes, yet still eating and growing. At some stage there would be a need to get out of them, in whatever way was possible, in order to develop properly.
At the same time, the crab’s body, after shedding the shell is soft and vulnerable, so it needs to find a safe space to avoid being eaten or attacked by predators. Damage at this stage would be life limiting. We all have similar experiences in life, where we hunker down and keep things as simple as possible for a while, to allow for some recovery time.
Growth also needs a period of safety, to allow the new skin to harden.
It can appear that the crab now appears to plateau in growth, but much is happening beneath the surface that cannot be seen, before this requires a new release and evident change. Like other arthropods, they may pass through several instars before reaching maturity.
The hope is that growth leads to maturity.
We are currently living through the strangest period of change in education that I have known since I walked into training college in 1971. In many ways it is the least mature incarnation, in that ideas are shared half-formed, with key elements to be devised at a later stage or left in the hands of practitioners, to be developed at the same time as getting their heads around and delivering the current expectation.
We have an expectation of the most rapid growth of young human potential; every child must succeed at a nationally set standard, at particular years, which is subject to very detailed testing, at the same time as the most limiting approach to the Primary curriculum that sets exactly what should be covered (and achieved) within each year. (Largely Maths and English, the foundation subjects can appear to be peripheral, when they are central to the thinking and verbal curriculum) We are also seeing a continued loss to the profession of teachers, often within the formative period of their development. This diminishes the development potential and the maintaining of the school “tribal memory”, seeking to avoid continual recreation of the wheel.
Teaching is a humane, thinking profession, whose main purpose is to engage younger humans in the act of learning, to share those things that they will need to know at different points in their lives. These lives, by the time they start school will already have started to impact on their development and they arrive at school at different developmental points. Understanding the different starting points is important, if children are not to be driven back into their shells, simply to safeguard themselves.
So what do we do?
We create a national curriculum, deliverable in year based chunks, assuming that all the children are at the same stage of development.
Schools develop approaches to planning, assessment, marking and data management that seek to ensure that the school is doing what is expected. In such a situation, it is not surprising if less experienced teachers “work to rule”. With more in post with careers of less than ten years and with visions of promotion, to stick to the script is a safe place to be. Schools who feel insecure because of their data and with the spectre of academisation for “failure” may well stick to the script, rather than thinking for themselves and their local needs.
We start to talk in mantras; we “do” growth mindset, learning without limits, go inside “black boxes”, gain marginally, create adapted (quicker) plans, BYOD bring your own devices, revere Shanghai maths… each one the panacea for all the current educational ills.
We use Wagolls (what a good one looks like) as a means to show what we are looking for. If this is a peer model, unpicking the process by which it was produced, with reference to key areas, it is possible for others to have a go at adapting their thinking processes and actions. Just to “copy” may ultimately become self-defeating, if a child can’t be “as good as x”. We may have devalued the process in the search for the ultimate product. It does need an aware guide and coach, to be able to pick up those moments where some additional support is needed.
We create “streams” and “sets”, and talk of creaming groups, such as “Grammar Schools”, so developing potential additional self-limiting elements within the whole system. The separation into defined groups automatically sets a limit on the potential for peer models to support general learning; let’s look at how x has achieved this. It creates the need for the teacher to provide the model, which automatically becomes a top-down directive of how children should think, rather than a peer unpicking how they thought. It leads to “recipe” thinking, delivery and expectation, so becoming a self-limiting system. It leads to three parallel classes “doing” the same activities, with one “expert” creating the activity for the team. Some will argue with the stereotype, but it is seen more often than might be healthy.
It was with interest that the following two tweet extracts from the TES 28.10.16 passed by my timeline.
The teacher is the key thinker in any classroom, not a functionary. Each class, whether streamed or selected, is mixed ability and has it’s unique dynamic, which can relate to the make-up of the group. This will impact on the levels of challenge appropriate to different children, or the levels of personalised need of some.
The “bell curve” teacher mentality can be a determinant of how challenge will be adapted, to the real or perceived needs of the class, which can mean under challenge for some, and over challenge for others. With a single activity, only a small proportion of the class may actually be challenged appropriately.
I feel crabby about the endless, pointless “debates” about traditional versus progressive and ancillary “discussions”.
Whichever “camp” a teacher feels themselves to be, they need to know their stuff; for Primary teachers, across ten plus subjects, at a level appropriate to the needs of the age group being taught.
All teachers need to be ordered, organised and good communicators. They need to have good class control. They need to know how children learn and develop as learners, how to challenge them appropriately, then engage with their journeys to guide and mould their steady progress. They need to be able to spot signs of insecurity and address these, to the limits of their ability, then to address concerns to a “knowledgeable other”, who may be able to offer fresh insights or suggest alternative approaches.
Teachers need to have flexible structures that allow them to know that it’s ok to start a lesson by teaching a group, whose need is to be primed or to overlearn previous information, to enable them to join with the main class lesson. At the same time, the rest of the class might be challenged to rehearse aspects of the previous learning.
The significant fundamental, though, throughout all this, and always has been in my career, is the capacity to design appropriate tasks that enable a child to embed and utilise what they know, to identify points where they will need additional knowledge or skill to be able to tackle the set problem. These are often called “open tasks”, with some definition of parameters, but with opportunities for a child to extend within their current abilities. Such tasks need classrooms set up to accommodate child decision making, providing a range of resources, or knowing where they are to be found, so that independent acquisition and return can underpin working practices. They need appropriate space and surfaces to enable children to work and perhaps to leave work in progress, so that time does not necessarily become a restrictive element.
Teachers need to be enabled to be autonomous thinkers in their own classrooms. They are the people who spend their waking minutes either working with or thinking about the children who make up their class. They need to know the children so well that their interactions are nuanced and specific to each child. They need to be allowed to create the environment where they can nurture their charges and impact on those aspects of nature that might restrict some or that need to be extended.
And in the best classrooms, they are.
Teaching is, and always has felt like the art of doing the impossible, but this is the reality of daily life. To have significant, limiting structures imposed upon teachers ensures that, over time, everyone becomes a little more crabby and looking for an escape.
Now, having shed my skin and exposed my soft side, I’m going to find a suitable rock under which to hide…