Recently, I was in a school that had done a similar thing – they had moved to 100 minute lessons, and I was doing an audit with the deputy head in order to work out what the next steps might be for staff CPD. Out of the mouths of the children came our focus points:
“I hate the longer lessons, my bum gets numb. At least when they were shorter you got to walk from one lesson to the next before you had to sit still for a long time.”
“I start to drift off. The lessons are more boring – the teacher just talks for longer and I can’t listen to so much information before my head proper switches off.”
It seemed that the longer lessons were exposing a rising intolerance from pupils of having to sit for extended periods of time and listen. That’s not an argument for shorter lessons, by the way, but it exposes the reality of many children’s expectations and experiences of learning in school. That it is a largely static and passive activity. I know that listening can be active, by the way, but not when your head is ‘proper switching off.’ So what is to be done?
When we were exploring the possibilities for our new school day and curriculum, we started off with pedagogy. We wanted children to be actively and humanely engaged with their learning. We wanted to link knowledge to big questions and moral/ethical dilemmas. So onto our English curriculum came big concepts like poverty, democracy, humanity, inhumanity, law, justice and love. Hand-in-hand with this content came research-informed pedagogy – Triple A Learning.
Although there is evidence to suggest that people demonstrate understanding through gesture (see ‘Activity’), words don’t come out of our hands. Or out of our pens for that matter. They come out of our brains, and they take shape through a complex interplay of memory, experience and practice. Hirsch’s research points out that a child with poor oral skills at the age of 5 will be 5.2 years behind the children with good oral skills in reading age by the time they are 13. Vocabulary is crucial. Articulating and explaining that vocabulary is essential in fixing and contextualising it. An obsession with reading as a technical decoding skill elicits a warning from Hirsch:
"While the process of decoding from letters to language is the foundation of reading, it isn’t the essence of reading, which is the comprehension of written language." (Hirsch, The Schools we Need and Why we Don’t Have Them)
He argues that leaving content and comprehension too late disadvantages children for years to come. It is certainly a picture I recognised as our first Phonic Boom Babies entered year 7. Their decoding skills were great – they could read the words off the page relatively fluently, but they didn’t understand many of them. Comprehension is being undermined by technical word recognition, and is creating a worrying gap; examinations are in essence about comprehending a question and understanding what it is asking of us.
Assumptions about our language and culture bar many children from successfully answering a paper. A SATs paper, a few years ago, stumped many children as it asked them to formulate an argument to persuade their parent to let them stay up late. The children told their teachers “I didn’t get it – I can go to bed when I want.” Which leads me to the second point about articulacy. In addition to words, children need experience. And if they can’t access that directly, you need to put in place imagined experiences so that they can access even the most remote of questions. For example, another SATs paper asked children to write about a busy place. One group wrote about a large shopping centre nearby. Another group wrote about an ancient Greek city. They’d been in fully immersed, gossiping about Medusa as an anxious Perseus strolled by. They had set the scene, researched what the place would look like, smell like, sound like and accessed it through role. Writing about a busy place for them was linked to relevance and experience. But it was an imagined experience.
And so back to articulacy – our vocabulary, linked to experience, forms our language. Before we can write it, we have to be able to 'talk' it. That talk might take place in our heads, or from our mouths. The work of Susan Greenfield and Antonio Damasio show us that our ability to reason effectively is rooted inherently in an emotional realm – that emotions aid reason (although when uncontrolled, can override it altogether).
Reasoned talk comes from somatic cues, and these cues help us to decide what the ‘right’ thing to say is. Good writing and good reasoning stem from vocabulary, experience and emotion. So it stands to reason that if we make educational experiences deep through challenging language, exposure to new knowledge and emotionally memorable encounters, that good learning will emerge.
Getting children to articulate is essential to effective understanding and learning. Michaels and Resnick’s (2008) work on accountability makes clear the gains to be had when children are taking part in activities that are structured and accountable to the learning community, to reason and to knowledge. For all these reasons and more, Articulacy became one of the three foundations of our base pedagogy for learning. The second was…
Let’s be clear; the bored mind does not learn. It may be useful to teach children to endure boredom as a life skill – to get them through long car journeys with no technology for example, but if you’re trying to make content stick then you’re on a losing streak. Resilience is complex – it’s connected to self-belief and to goal setting, much of which is rooted in confidence. So when we were thinking about what makes for an autonomous learner, we knew that building self belief, agency and confidence was critical. To this end, the work of Carol Dweck and Daniel Pink was helpful.
We developed formative assessment criteria in which children looked at feedback not grades. We gave them high levels of challenge – getting Years 7 and 8 to write 2000 word extended essays for example, but giving them ownership over content and question. We set them the task of presenting their learning to parents and visitors, and outlining their next steps. All these were done to try to foster Daniel Pink’s three principles that create motivation:
- A sense of purpose
- Having time to master something
Making your own decisions, based on the evidence before you, is an essential skill in any subject. I was once astonished when a child handed in homework to me written in French. I’m not a French teacher by the way. We too were immersed in a hypothetical situation – as Aid Agency workers, exploring the threats of water-borne diseases as the rainy season hit Haiti. I’m not a Science teacher either. The pupils were producing leaflets for the workers on the ground. The child handed me the leaflet.
“It’s in French,” I said.
“Yes, well they speak French over there don’t they? So I wrote it in English and then put it through a translator tool on my computer. I’ve shown it to my French teacher – she says it’s alright.”
That’s autonomy in action. Business leaders call it initiative. But the child did this because they were engaged in something purposeful, they had ownership over the process and they were given a degree of autonomy. This allowed them not only to master the skills required, but to exceed them.
We knew we needed to avoid numb-bum syndrome by making sure that children were able to get up and move during lessons. In primary school, children will often get up to collect an item they need, but it seems that this is a sin in secondary. But it’s not; it’s biologically beneficial. Standing up and moving improves blood flow, increasing the supply of oxygen to the brain. Being able to stand up every 20 minutes or so gives the brain a little boost of the very thing it needs to concentrate.
John Ratey and Jackie Andrade have made very persuasive cases for the impact of movement on memory, retention and attention. In addition, Susan Goldin-Meadows’ research into how our hands help us to learn show how important gesture is to conceptual understanding. So it made sense for us to use movement in a number of ways:
- As a means of reinforcing memory – perhaps by adding a movement to a key word or term.
- As a biological means of ensuring a supply of oxygen to the brain.
- As a means of understanding communication – building tasks into lessons that allow children to read, create and interpret gestural signals to strengthen their ability to understand others and to be better understood.
- As a means of using language to create physical connections – our bodies respond physically to language cues that are intended to be metaphorical – so if we talk of ‘giving’ an idea to someone, the parts of our brains connected to movement prime our hands to extend in a gesture of giving. We rarely put the response into action, but we feel and think it. The power of language on the body helped us to think about how we used language in the classroom to empower and engage the body.
We talked. We did. We stepped back and let them work out how to evidence and share their learning. They grew. It worked.
But we still learn, we still look for new ways to understand the ways in which we learn. And this is not the only answer. The important thing is to always know why you’re doing what you’re doing and to never assume that what you’re doing is an end point.
Have you used such methods in your teaching? Let us know in the comments.