All of the trainees with whom I work are in Primary schools, some Infant, some Junior and one in Special. One thing that strikes me each time I visit to observe and support is often the number of adults in the room, sometimes the student, the class teacher and usually one (or more) teaching assistant(s).
During the lesson, each of the adults has to be effectively deployed to support learning; after all, that is what they are paid to do. This can mean, in an extreme case that every working group in the class has an adult, who needs to show that they are doing their job, so that no child is learning to work independently, thinking for themselves, making decisions. And yet, learning to think for yourself is a fundamental aspect of learning to cope in the real world.
Where the National Curriculum has become ever more prescriptive, in my opinion, since 1997, the transition to year one and beyond can often mean a significant difference in approach, more teacher/adult led, with, currently, the significant focus on English and Maths seemingly diminishing the roles of other subjects. I have argued in other posts that the wider range of subjects provides the bread and butter for English teaching, as they should all be taught through spoken, reading and writing based activities.
Where there is a significant number of adults involved in the class, there is every possibility that in each group, the dominant voice will be that of the adult, unless each of the adults has been trained to elicit open-ended discourse from the children, rather than single word, “guess what’s in my head” answers, teacher “cloze” procedures.
If children are to learn to think, to develop a “growth mindset”, they need appropriate challenge, space and time to reflect, to think and plan, to make rational decisions, before acting. They need to take some control of their actions, not have them continually moderated, adjusted and vetoed by the adult, if they are to learn from their mistakes through evaluation. The recipe approach to teaching does not, of itself, embed the ability to think. It is more a follow instructions approach; a “good outcome” is often assured, but may not be repeatable. It can also be subverted by an adult who wants their own efforts to be applauded.
Children certainly need language and language models through which to understand their world and to be able to participate fully in discussing their current awareness. Without this essential, every adult can be left guessing, so that plans are based on assumptions.
Learning to think is a process; we talk of a thought process. Life is a series of experiences through which we pass, picking up information in passing, or as a direct result of being in a formal learning situation. This happens from birth. From this point, the life experiences that a child might experience will be determined by others for a large part of their formative years. If they have parents who travel, and take them to museums to theatres, galleries, parks, forests, the seaside, a farm, who share books and watch information programmes with them, they are likely to develop a broad vocabulary, with the opposite also likely to be the case. There are often statements about children from language rich environments having significantly greater vocabularies. Not only that, but they will have a store of visuals from which to operate in an abstract manner. So an awareness of an individual’s experiences outside school will inform expectations in the formal learning environment.
It was interesting to me, in visiting several London Primary schools during the summer of 2014, just how rich was the curriculum offered, with all of them taking advantage of transport and free entry possibilities, as well as arranging for local theatre, dance and music companies to visit to enhance the internal experiences. Coupled with “forensic knowledge” of each child, as described by one head, the only surprise was that they achieved 95%+ level 4 SATs with 35+ heritage languages. They offered much that was valued and reaped the rewards of effort.
The central premise of this model was initially created some thirty years ago, when I was a science coordinator in a Junior school, evolving from an earlier incarnation, created for a Primary school where I was responsible for the topic based curriculum, in a setting that valued first-hand experience where possible. The model seeks to describe how ideas are deepened from the initial experience through to checking things out and reappraising new information.
The whole is premised upon good communication in a variety of forms. The experience, explore, explain mantra was the essential shorthand, with picture it, test it and reform ideas as an underlying methodology. Whether everyone goes through, or needs to go through all the phases will depend on the teacher awareness of the individuals who make up the class. It does not presume a step by step linearity. In practice, some children might have been scaffolded through the process to instil the essence of exploratory thought, while other might have been challenged to plan the scaffold and execute the exploration for themselves.
It was not context, or knowledge free, as it overlaid most aspects of the Topic curriculum, covering pretty much everything apart from Maths, as English often took advantage of the exploratory aspects to provide the stimulus for talk or writing. It gave a clue as to what might be called a learning maturity, from dependent to independent approaches, with children challenged and expected to use and apply previously learned skills and knowledge.
That children can take some charge of their learning, from an early age, is an aspect of current practice that can be overlooked, within “delivery mechanisms”.
When you teach a child to tie their laces, you might expect them to practice and repeat the exercise each time with greater proficiency, not require them to be shown each time, nor to defer to the adult for an easy life.
Let them think, let them learn, then let them use what they can do for themselves.
That way they will learn to think for themselves, because they know that they can.