I have been in Primary education for all but a short part of my working life, having discovered that the dream of being a scientist foundered on the daily grind laboratory work, counting bivalves and worms in sea mud samples after a stormy week of collecting on the North Sea. Working with children would always be less boring and sickness was not a daily occurrence!
My own education started much earlier, of course, in the days of black and white television and photographs. Colour was around but expensive and the channel choice certainly didn’t justify the expense. It is possible to surmise that education was also a bit black and white, in the mid to late 50s, but my memories are coloured by recalling junk modelling, painting, reading outside in the sunshine, PE on rush mats in the playground, smelly outside toilets, having parts in the school Christmas plays. The colour was provided as much by the backdrop to school life; freedom to roam, to explore, to get into a spot of bother and get out of it again, to play with chemistry sets, to discover the explosive qualities of weed killer. Outside until dark playing football in the park.
At the age of 8, the five week trip to Oz as £10 Poms. Settlement camps, new home, with orange and lemon trees in the garden. Friends with whom stories of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn could be re-enacted. School where playing sport was expected, rugby (league and union), Aussie rules and cricket on a concrete strip, with a bit of occasional tennis. Further colour on the trip back, nearly four years later, then a sort of black, as divorce wreaked its messy havoc over several years. The colour of memories were a source of reassurance.
My first school was a strange mix of extremely well to do families at one extreme and a large estate where settled travellers had been placed. The village environment offered a wide range of opportunities to go out and explore. The church with the Roman tiles exposed, showing that there had been a settlement nearby. The 16th century tenement buildings with their Georgian facades. Open grass areas and wooded areas within walking distance. The churchyard where we read the opening of Great Expectations. Technology was very limited. We shared the few tape recorders and had to wait for the overhead projectors, while reproduction was on the Banda machine. Displays were important, to provide some further imagery, sharing photos, maps, children’s work. Occasionally a television programme was used to support information sharing.
With classes of 39 and no additional classroom support, it could occasionally be hard work, to keep the plates spinning. The job was still the same. Planning, teaching and marking were daily practice. Except that, we didn’t have the dead hand of oppressive checking up. If classrooms were visited, it was in the spirit of sharing.
Sharing of ideas was a common feature in the mid-70s. Teacher centres were vibrant places, occasionally during the day, if you were lucky, but more often as twilight sessions. These allowed experienced teachers to pass on ideas as well as their wisdom and insights. We were encouraged to read the teacher’s guides to schemes, as these held the philosophy and pedagogy behind the methodologies. Nuffield Science 5-13 was a staple, while the newer Fletcher maths was supplemented by Alpha and Beta workbooks.
Creating methodologies to deal with the numbers involved embedded home-school reading logs, with parents and teacher writing a short comment when the child had read, creating a purposeful, shared reading record. Art and writing became extended projects, often supporting the topic areas being studied. Learning about the craft of teaching was evolutionary, listening to the local area best teachers and having time to reflect on the best way to implement in my own practice.
Time to reflect was created by the lack of concern about heavy handed inspection. If an inspector came, it was to further develop what was happening, as individuals as well as collectively. Thinking teachers are the backbone of the profession. Unthinking teachers can become copyists or worse, clones, delivering what someone else has determined as good practice. Of course, as always gets pointed out, some schools thought themselves to a position which was an extreme interpretation of the greater norm, with disastrous results, so beginning a pendulum swing that still continues.
It is not progressive to want children to learn about the world around them, to walk around with open eyes and to see what is around them, to hear the sounds, to engage with the textures of the world, including the smells and tastes. They usually do that from birth, especially if they have engaged parents prepared to offer experiences and to engage with them en route.
“Learning styles”, as it has been interpreted, as the basis for teacher planning is a bad thing, but giving children real experience is a good thing, as it puts imagery into their minds which can form the framework for more abstract thinking and hopefully their own wish to explore and discover for themselves. Learning does not always happen through a teacher.
All naturalistic ideas, when they become formalised into prescribed activities become stereotypes. Groups formed naturally to sort problems, often encounter problems when they start to “organise” with nominated leaders. Someone wants to take charge of the direction of thinking. Sorting problems is the bread and butter of life. Sometimes they become a bit sticky and need a bit of a push or some extra effort.
This, now named “resilience”, is being interpreted as the need for rugby players to be involved in school, as “character building”. A number of the children will already be showing resilience and character by being there, after family breakdown and by being young carers. For these children, the need to be reminded that there is colour in the world might be greater.
It has never been easier to share ideas. Like all ideas, they are a point in time, born out of personal reflections and capable of being reformed through further evidence and reflection. That, to me, is what learning is about.
Action, as a teacher/leader is about considering options and selecting the best way forward. It is, in my mind, neither progressive nor traditional. It is pragmatic, based on the best, currently available evidence.
If children have never encountered a piece of learning, to offer them time to explore some aspect of the learning, though first-hand experience, or through some form of imagery makes the spoken narrative easier, as the words can then draw from the pictures in their heads. The words, spoken out of context, may not, in themselves draw out the images, for all children, as their personal internal imagery may be limited. This conversation regularly occurs, when talking about story settings, where young children may not have gone for walks through long grass, been in woods, visited a seashore; sandy, pebbly, rocky, climbed, got wet, had a picnic. Where these experiences are missing, they either need to be recreated or accept that the outcome in story writing will have limitations.
Story-telling and learning narrative, by the teacher, needs to take account of the audience backgrounds, including their vocabulary awareness and be prepared to “interpret” hard to understand concepts into forms that can be understood, while adding the new words/concepts into their understandings. We all work with images, either substantive or abstract. Too rapid a withdrawal of the concrete realities can put vulnerable learners at greater disadvantage.
Working with children and seeking to interrogate their capabilities has, in the past 25 years become known as “assessment”.
In time honoured fashion, the relatively simple task of ascertaining what children can regularly show that they can do, became a box ticking exercise that divorced some teachers from the descriptors of progress towards an over-reliance on the numbers. With each school having to determine its own policy in this area, it is putting significant pressure on already busy staff. It is likely that, as a result of time shortages, some decisions will be taken quickly, with future consequences, for both the schools and the more vulnerable individuals. Assessment is, at heart, getting to know the children better, so that, over time, they receive challenge and responses appropriate to their current needs, rather than generic challenge applicable to all. I accept that this is likely to be easier with a Primary classroom, although formalised setting and grouping can exacerbate this.
The grey men and women in their grey suits are currently dictating the direction of the education journey. The lack of thinking time available to teaching staff at all levels could mean that a “delivery mechanism” operates. This may not be to the advantage of learners in the longer term.
The schools that I visit are vibrant places of learning and the teachers I encounter are enthusiastic for learning, but express concern at the pressures that appear to come from above. Those whose job it is to create the colour in learning need room to breathe, to look around themselves, to think, to ensure that their environment is vibrant and supports learning and that they have the awareness of each child that enables them to have the developmental discussions that each deserves.
The current rhetoric will inevitably be adjusted, as the politicians have to accept that rushed change has not had the desired impact. Those schools that I have visited that achieve at the highest level for all children do so as a result of more personalised approaches to learning, rather than whole class teaching, with learning as the central narrative, learning from each other’s thinking, as well as the teacher, supported further by their families, who may in turn be supported to do so.
Why do we always over-complicate things? Is it just to sound clever?
It drains the colour out of living, and, as my youngest grandchildren are likely to see in the next century, I want them to learn to experience the world in colour, through their own eyes, not through mine.
My wish for everyone; Live a colour-filled, fulfilling life.