Do we really give children time to think, to make sense of what they are asked to do and to really embed their learning into a coherent developmental narrative? Having been an active classroom teacher at the inception of the original National Curriculum, I have seen, first-hand, the impact of subsequent changes that have gradually taken hold of education with consequential impact on learners. The curriculum can appear more piecemeal than before, with children often having to make the links between (ever more challenging) ideas, rather than having the time with a teacher to draw together the disparate elements into a whole.
In the wealth of writing about the difference between supposedly traditional and progressive educational approaches, it is often the case that one extreme will accuse the other of either “just telling them”, or that “all they do is play and discover”. To be honest, I have yet to encounter an example of either in its fully fledged form, after 45 years of school experience, 60 if you want to take me back to my own school days.
At the early stage, experiences that embed the notion of the colour blue, or the number 6 might include activities that are exploratory, or perhaps expressive; match the shapes in the picture and count them, put all the blue objects in this circle. An observing adult will be looking for the security of understanding of these relatively simple concepts, to be able to move to the next challenge; green or 7-ness.
For a year 11 or 13, the colour choices of a Marc Chagall or Van Gogh painting might be the subject of a more philosophical discussion, linking different elements of their lives through their choice of colour.
Reflecting on my Primary classroom career, there was a mix of sharing necessary information, followed by tailored tasks that enabled children to bring to the fore those things that had been learned and to revise those things that could be identified as less secure. The tasking, in itself, was a form of test, in that knowledge had to be used and applied, or identified, by the adult or learners as in need of revisiting. The practical situation enabled links to be made that demonstrated the point of the earlier, formal learning.
As children get older and, hopefully, more mature in their approach to learning, it is easy to assume that they can concentrate for longer, can retain more information and are processing the information to be able to retain it. That testing can then show a lack of security might be down to a lack of linking activities, to enable the child(ren) to process the new against what they already know. Guided reflection, at any age, can scaffold information appropriately, with models developed that highlight those links. I do like sketch notes in this regard, with children developing their own personal methodologies, rather than just secretarial note taking. “Showing your thinking” is a very useful stage in securing learning, especially if it is then the subject of reflection and revision.
Sometimes, it is attention to specific details that makes a difference.
On one occasion, teacher illness led to me taking a class over a longer term. I worked out early in my headship that long term supply need could eventually cause me greater time loss in dealing with resultant parent need for reassurance than to take the class myself for perhaps 60-80% of the time. With one particular junior class, early writing showed a need for spellings to be addressed. They largely had the essentials but were displaying insecurity in practice. As well as undertaking a phonics check with them, I decided for about 10% of them to work with the first 100 words and to secure them, with the other 90% it was from the 250 word list.
The principle was relatively straight forward. Each child drove their learning. After an initial testing, of reading and spelling, aided by the class TA, the child had to take home a list of ten words that they had selected to “learn”, or secure. These spellings were rehearsed through the look, cover, write and check approach. Parents were asked to do the testing at home, with the outcomes returned to school on a particular day. The correct words were ticked off their 100 or 250 word lists. By the end of term, security in spelling was greater, but with children having taken charge of their progress.
In lessons, words were rehearsed with phonic guidance and exploration. Building a bank of words recalled rapidly, helped writing fluency. The children learned how to learn their spellings, with focus and rehearsal. For some, it became personally competitive.
Some elements of this could be seen as traditional, while others might appear more progressive. I’m not sure it matters in reality; the fact that the children learned was the most important aspect.
Processing learning, to make a coherent whole, requires detailed planning over time, with reference to earlier learning and demonstrating how the new learning fits with the earlier information. Processing starts with teacher knowledge being shared, then a period of time where the child shows what they have retained and can use with facility.
We talk of a thought process. Outcomes are the product of this thinking. Limiting thinking or oral rehearsal time can result in a limited product. Classroom time is a school construct. How time is used or allocated to result in a worthwhile outcome that forms a new baseline of achievement is for the teacher to determine. Some children need a little more time to achieve than others. It has always been thus. Know your children and adjust their work time appropriately.
Quality first outcomes are motivating.