Never ending or beginning on an ever spinning reel
Like a snowball down a mountain, or a carnival balloon
Like a carousel that's turning running rings around the moon
Like a clock whose hands are sweeping past the minutes of its face
And the world is like an apple whirling silently in space
Like the circles that you find in the windmills of your mind!
It’s funny how over the space of 24 hours a number of ideas can coalesce and begin to crystalise. A Primary Rocks conversation about carousel approaches linked with a Twitter chat about setting and streaming, plus another about the teaching profession becoming younger.
Some thoughts that underpin my own thinking.
1) All collections of children/people are mixed ability. No group is homogenous.
2) Some school arrangements are based on age, with August 31st and September 1st becoming the deciding factor.
3) Some selections, into sets, streams of even separate schools are made on some kind of test score, with the cut-off point being the number of available spaces in the groups, so being 30th can be deemed a “success”, while being 31st, even by one mark, will imply failure, along with others lower down.
4) Within a class, organisational tools are used to create in-class groupings that facilitate the smooth running of the class. This in-lesson setting can have a similar perspective to the 3rd point, where it is feasible for a “top group” to number six members, because “that’s how many chairs are around the tables”. (This is a reported anecdote)
5) Group reading approaches derive from these arrangements, with children of similar achievement levels being put together to enable the selection of appropriate reading material that challenges the group generically. Within this selection, there will be higher and lower achievers, in reading.
6) Within groups, teachers can get to know the individuals better, enabling a refinement in their interactions; personal, rather than generic.
7) However good a teacher is an exposition, often supported by images, carefully selected language structure and vocabulary that scaffolds and models as clearly as possible what they are trying to get across, there will inevitably be a range in the take-up of the information across the class. This becomes clearer when the children have to interpret the information in their own way, although this can be complicated by different achievement levels in the recording medium.
8) However good a teacher is at organising their classroom as a learning workshop, with appropriate resources, spaces and time that should enable children to achieve, the variety of working approaches should also be anticipated, as should a range of outcomes. That these outcomes are now being considered as a basis for what is being called “Comparative Judgement” is an interesting development. Decision making across every sphere of school life can be premised on a simple formulation; how well do you know the children for whom you are responsible and do you understand the year group parameters of expectation, as a baseline to underpin and frame your judgements?
The prevailing teaching style when I started with my first class (in 1974) was called an Integrated Day. This meant that there could be a variety of approaches selected to achieve the desired outcomes with the large classes of 39 children. Sometimes, because there was a need for every child to know the same things, direct instruction was used. In between, there could be a variety of activities happening at the same time, in groups; perhaps a mixture of continuation tasks for some, such as extended writing, that allowed for some start-up activities with specific groups. While one group might be doing a maths task, another might be doing a science-based practical or research task, while there might also be an art or DT group or a group with a reading task. This “carousel” approach, carefully monitored over the weeks(s), allowed closer access to the learning needs within the groups, enabling personalised challenges for those within each group who achieved rapidly. They allowed dynamic decisions within each lesson. The carousel was premised on each task challenge level being designed for each group, either in an intellectual frame, or occasionally in a social frame, to support collegiate working and develop independence. It was complex, and often required significant lateral thinking, not least in the nature of challenge. However, as a result, peer to peer discussion often then facilitated others to understand the processes that led to achievement, with the teacher role to intervene appropriately to promote and develop the challenge.
Setting, streaming and selection can imply differentiation, with no further need to consider the dynamics within each classroom, especially as there has to be a system that enables upward or downward movement of children, depending on their ability to “keep up”, because class size is the determinant. Mind you, given that children who achieve less than others require exceptional teaching, there’s a case in my mind for classes in “top” sets, streams or in selective schools to be much larger, to enable “lower” achieving classes to have more personal approaches. Top set of 40 to allow a lower set of 20?
Guided Reading took over from personalised approaches, in many schools, sometime around 1997, with the National Strategies. Where guided groups were able to be challenged between sessions to continue to read for themselves, the approach could still embed some level of personalisation. However, if the taught sessions did not have an interim rehearsal challenge, it led to discontinuous learning and a loss of reading momentum. Where this was an obvious issue from the beginning, as a HT, I ensured that there was sufficient stock and range of “teaching level” books to allow for between lesson reading, together with considerable additional stock that could be read at a “fluency” level and changed at will. Where guided groups took place, there was the potential to incorporate continuous activities for others connected with the current reading book, or to allow for sustained silent reading from the fluency books, with opportunity to change these when finished, within their colour band. Every group had some purpose. In other settings, reading related activities were created, which sometimes felt like “fill-in” tasks, not necessarily leading to reading.
We now talk of “reading for pleasure”. Where children can find pleasure in the act of reading, they are likely to read for themselves, which, for me, is a signal of reading for pleasure. The level of appropriate challenge will vary with individuals, but the dynamics and forward momentum is key to future success.
All structures can be made to work effectively where teachers understand the needs of the children in their charge. Whether integrated approaches, called carousels, or sets, streams and separate schools, success will be determined by teacher expectation of each and every child. This can only happen if teachers structure their classes to be able to work with different groups and get to know them well, in so doing, having quality learning conversations that enthuse and cause children to think, reflect and act between sessions.
Perhaps we ought to instigate “thinking, talking, reading, discussing for pleasure”, encouraging reflection between sessions, through more purposeful approaches to homework/home activities.
The structure of the lesson is less of an issue than the quality of challenge and tasking, leading to continuity in thinking. Teachers are front line thinkers, responding to the moment, creating and enhancing the learning dynamics.
If we want pleasure in learning, there is a need to avoid the “lesson syndrome”; what happens in the lesson stays in the lesson…