Play dates: Do not get involved!

odd

I lingered awkwardly in the kids’ bedroom.

The Boy’s New Friend had arrived for a playdate and with the Girl’s overenthusiastic help they had already pulled out all the Busy Books, all the Sylvanian family furniture and most of the cuddlies. I made micro-adjustments to the Sylvanian house and picked up some discarded socks. It really was time for me to leave them to it.

“You are not allowed in there,” The Boy announced imperiously to his friend, pointing at a shut door.

“Why not?” she wanted to know. She had not shown any interest in the door until then, but the Boy had sparked her curiosity.

“That’s Mummy and Daddy’s room. They don’t want friends to go in there. Only us. When they call us.”

I was listening in from the landing where I was fiddling with washing I had already hung out to dry. I was itching to jump in and make corrections to his pronouncements, which made us sound like crazy dictators. I was already imagining how this would sound when inevitably his friend would report back at home, Chinese whispers style.

I hurried to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. Soon, the children came down as well and the Boy and his friend sat down at the table to do some drawing.

“Did you know you are made of atoms?” I heard the Boy say. Then with a swift change of tack: “Did you know that two sheep can get together and make a baby sheep?”

I was on the sofa in the other room, staring at my book, trying to make myself relax. It was impossible not to listen. Over the course of the next few hours, I heard the Boy tell jokes with no punchline, casually discuss death and religion, give dodgy science lessons and tell his guest that she was playing wrong.

With this last one, I finally felt I was allowed, nay, obligated to step in. “Don’t be bossy! You can’t tell other children how to play.”

More and more, since the Boy has started school, I have had to come to terms with the fact that he spends most of his time outside of my direct supervision. Listening to him chat away today made me realise with cold dread: He could be saying anything to anyone. He is out there in the world, potentially sounding bossy, precocious, pretentious, being insensitive or inappropriate and making us or himself sound a bit strange. He might be messing up what could be good friendships by acting more crazy than the other person likes. Or by being inflexible about how to play, or by crying every time he bumps his shoulder into a door frame. And I am not there to see or control it.

A terrifying thought.

And suddenly I feel a rush of sympathy for my mother’s irritated exclamations when my brother or I did not perform as expected in company.

“What business is it of yours?” I wanted to shout.

But I feel that ache now, of being separated from a small person that you invested in and brooded over for many years, trying to give them everything you thought they needed to do well in life. Not to repeat the same mistakes you did. To have everything you loved and avoid the things that caused you pain when you were growing up.

I realise that I can’t control this mad flutter of inexperienced wings on their maiden voyage, slowly flying down, on what may often seem like a collision course with the ground. And that is right and good. I can explain and I can demonstrate, but the rest must come with experience, with developing instinct. While he is learning that, there are going to be falls and disasters.

All we can do is put good stuff in and hope it will come out at the right moments.

 

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Should children be able to skip a class?

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(c) Quentin Blake

“Is Back to the Future real?” my son wanted to know.

“No.” I said regretfully. “People don’t know how to travel through time yet.”

“Oh.” The Boy looked disappointed.

“Hey, maybe you will invent time travel one day!” I said.

The Boy laughed modestly. “I might need a bit of help,” he mused. “Maybe Daddy and I can do that next week.”

He is nothing if not ambitious.

But honestly, I would not be surprised if he did invent time travel one day. He has already worked out his own method of doing multiplications at 5 years old, and can add two digit numbers and reads books in two languages and draws world maps with “Rusher” and Mexico on them.

In the Netherlands, if a child is bright and has an autumn birthday, it is not uncommon for them to skip a year. Often this is done right at the start of a new school, so you don’t have to join an already estabished class and be both the youngest and the newest.

In the UK the accepted wisdom seems to be that having an autumn birthday is an advantage – it is better to be the oldest, especially for boys, they say. Also, moving children out of their age group away from their immediate peers is just not done.

However, there is definitely a precedent of a British child successfully skipping not just one, but several years. I present you with: Matilda.

I mean, seriously. Moving her up to the top class, despite her age, was clearly the best thing to do. Differentiation was a nightmare for Miss Honey, she was getting far too invested in that one student to the detriment of the rest of the class and, generally speaking, you don’t want your kid to resort to telekinesis in order to get rid of their excess brain energy.

I have been thinking about this issue a lot lately. On the eve of The Boy starting reception, I considered asking if he could go straight into Year 1, as he was already reading and doing Maths at about year 1 level. I was concerned that the school would not be able to help him on with so many other children to guide through the basics at the same time. I was worried about him getting bored.

All the people I spoke to about this said the likelihood of him being moved up was practically zero, so I decided to just resign myself to it and hope for the best. As it turned out, they have excellent extra support in Reception and the Boy has two or three one to one sessions in the week to stretch his literacy and his maths, to fill in the blanks that he definitely has and to move him along. I am delighted at how he is doing and his class teacher is brilliant. Also, he is making friends and the thought of him moving out of that group is sad – I am not sure he would even want to.

But the doubts are creeping back in. Reception has these extra resources, but what will happen further up the school? As a teacher, I have plenty of first hand experience of the wide range of abilities you get in a class, and what you need to do to make sure everyone is learning. I don’t have teaching assistants or extra pairs of hands in my class, so catering to the different levels is all down to me.

It is so easy to just let the capable ones be a little bit bored.

This afternoon I sat with a student who was really struggling. I wanted to help her get just one answer to just one question about a reading text. I was painfully aware that my top two students had finished in minutes and were just keeping themselves occupied. But I had to help the weaker student: if I didn’t, she would lose motivation and lose faith in herself and stop learning. If the stronger students are a bit bored now and then… what then?

My students are adults and very self-motivating.

My students pay for their course and have clear goals they are aiming for. This helps them carry on, even when they are not being stretched enough sometimes.

But children live in the moment. They might be planning to become a fireman or an astronaut, but they won’t relate their literacy or maths sessions to this goal. It is still too distant. The hit on motivation for a weak student, who is struggling with the task at hand, is instant and instantly evident, and teacher support can have an instant effect.

The hit on motivation for an able student who is not being stretched is very slow and very gradual. It is the dimming of a light as their battery is run down and not being recharged. And sometimes, as a teacher, you don’t even notice when the battery is flat. Because the visible effect will be that the able student will just slot into what the class is doing and be more easy to manage. It is so easy to let your gaze slide off this and heave a secret sigh of relief.

Ofsted is not going to put the school into special measures for this and social services are not going to come calling. They might not even notice.

My son is loving school and comes home full of stories and excitement every day. Also, he is not moving plates or furniture around with excess brainpower just yet. He is happy where he is. And I don’t think he is going to end up on drugs or in the gutter if he is not challenged, his love of learning is not encouraged or he is not allowed to keep learning at his own speed. But he might also never cure diseases or invent time travel.

What I’m saying is: the future needs the bright kids to be fully charged, not held back because it is easier.

There are of course many, many questions to be asked about this. Is moving children up actually the solution, or should the battery recharging just happen outside of school, at home? Is it more important to stay with your peers? And do we even want time travel?

What do you think?

Reinventing education: The Sandpit School

Clean Slate now has a blog all of its own! No more education posts will appear on Secrets of the Sandpit. Please click here to read and comment on this post and catch up on my latest thoughts on reinventing education.

Welcome to part 3 of Clean Slate, my initiative to scrap school completely and start again from scratch. The debate is gaining momentum, so I have decided to write a bit more frequently.

Clean SlateCatch up

For those of you who missed the first two instalment (tsk, skiving, were you?), here is a brief recap of the conclusions I have come to so far:

In Let’s start at the very beginning we established that motivation is the key factor in learning, and that people (not just children) are motivated to learn by (1) what interests them; (2) what is necessary to achieve their goals and (3) what they need to know to survive. This led me to conclude that the curriculum in the New School should be determined by children’s interests and that we need to let go of our obsession with prescribing what children should learn, and when, and in what order.

In How to structure a school, I suggest that it is ‘interests’ that should also be the guiding principle for school structure. The first phase of education should focus on widening children’s horizons and helping them explore and learn about as wide a variety of topics as possible, in order to establish what they are interested in. The second phase should maintain this, but increasingly shift towards narrowing focus and specialising, guided by the child’s ambitions for the future.

In part 3 today, I will look at what a school building might look like, and what lessons would be like, if the guiding principle was exploration and widening horizons.

The Sandpit

Yep. You didn’t think I’d reinvent school without involving a sandpit, did you?

IMG_8250sReally, the concept I am borrowing for my school-design is more properly called sandbox, and it is a style of computer game design. A sandbox game, rather than leading the player along a story line he can’t deviate from, allows the user to explore the world of the game in any way and order he likes, creating his own story. A very good example of a sandbox game is called Neverwinter Nights: the game has a linear story that you can pursue if you wish. However, you are equally free to completely ignore it and explore the world by yourself, meeting characters, going on quests, meeting other players and going on missions with them. Best of all, this game has a toolkit which allows you to build your own lands and quests for other users: you can do more than just play in the sandbox, you can adapt it and create new parts of it yourself.

How would this concept translate to a school?

The way I am imagining the new school is as a complex with inside and outside areas dedicated to particular topics. These could be traditional ‘school subjects’, but the lines delineating these could equally be re-drawn. The school day would be split up into a number of sessions (I’m thinking four), and children could choose which area to visit for each session with some guidance from a teacher. More about the school day and choosing sessions next week.

Quests in the Sandpit

Let me sketch for you how I imagine a session in The Sandpit School might look.

There could be an outside area (a bit of woodland, a cultivated wilderness or garden, whatever is most suitable and feasible in the school’s location) which is dedicated to exploring nature. It is safe and enclosed, the children can’t get out by themselves and they are supervised. There is a hut where you can find folders and books with pictures and information about the local wildlife, to which children can add their own fact sheets and photographs. The hut also has digital cameras, binoculars, camouflage clothing, fishing nets, jars for collecting specimens, notebooks, pencils, some laptops and a printer and dictaphones. There will be three or four adults in this area, two teachers and two teaching assistants, for instance.

Discovering nature

Discovering nature

When children go to this area for a session, they can either choose to explore a topic of their own choosing in small groups, or they can join in a ‘teaching expedition’, led by one of the teachers. Topics could include bird watching, mini beasts, growing vegetables or flowers in a garden area, bees, animal tracks, life cycle of a frog, photosynthesis, ecosystems or the water cycle, to name but a few. Choosing the small group option would be like going on a quest that interests you with a group of similarly inclined players. The teaching expedition would be like following the story line the game designers have prepared for you. The small groups who go exploring together would have children of various ages in them, and the older children would be encouraged to take some responsibility for the younger ones and help them on the quest. The teacher who is not on the expedition and the teaching assistants/parent volunteers would roam around the area, keeping an eye on the independent groups of children to keep them safe, help them if they get stuck and be available to answer questions.

Your turn now! In the comments, maybe you’d like to imagine other areas and sessions. What would the History room be like? The English room? Could there be a little train running around the whole complex, or would there be system of little indoor/outdoor roads that children could travel along with bikes/toy cars/tricycles, to practise road safety? Give me your ideas! And as always, please feel free to violently disagree with the whole idea.

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Reinventing Education: Let’s start at the very beginning

Clean Slate now has a blog all of its own! No more education posts will appear on Secrets of the Sandpit. Please click here to read and comment on this post and catch up on my latest thoughts on reinventing education.

A Clean Slate

As regular readers may remember, I have been getting on my soapbox about education and how it needs to be completely reimagined. Having devoted two posts to what I feel is wrong, I am now ready to start putting it right. Every month I will write a post building up a picture of what teaching and learning could look like if we dared to start with a clean slate – which will also be the name of my project: Clean Slate.

If you have thoughts and ideas, if you would like to contribute by writing a guest post or linking up something relevant from your own blog, please let me know. At the bottom of any Clean Slate post will be an index/bibliography of other posts that help build the New Education. 

So, let’s start at the very beginning, as Julie Andrews tells us it is a very good place to start. I think any discussion about school and education needs to start with:

Motivation

Why do we learn? Disregarding the fact that we are usually coerced by external forces (parents, government): why do we decide to learn about something? I have narrowed it down to three possible motivating factors:

1. It is necessary for survival

2. It is necessary to achieve our goals

3. We are interested

Learning about construction

Learning about construction

We can see these three motivations at work in our children all the time. There has been some discussion in the field of language acquisition about the reason behind the language learning window (the age at which you will learn a language fluently) being so early on in life, and the assumption is that it is necessary to learn to communicate for survival. I am sure this is true: when you are too short to reach the fridge, how will you get your supplies unless you can ask “Milk, Mummy?” The second motivator I can see at work in my daughter as I type. Her goal: reaching Daddy’s shoes. How will she get there? She must learn to crawl.

It is the third factor, interest, that I find the most beautiful to see. It flows from our individuality. I have loved seeing my son grow up and develop preferences, learning to choose: I like this but I don’t like that. The things he likes, he has an insatiable hunger for. He wants to find, practice, rehearse, explore and celebrate them. His favourite is still numbers. He spots them on the signs over supermarket aisles and calls them out, spurring me on to find the next number in the series. A walk down a long street is interesting because he finds that each house has a number: there’s 21 and there’s 23. But Mummy, where is 22? This prompts a discussion on house numbers, the postal system and odd and even numbers. He searches for and spots numbers and letters in every day life, encountering numeracy and literacy in their natural habitat.

Child-led vs adult-led curriculum

When I was teaching, the question we were always asking ourselves was: how can we get the students interested in what we want to teach them? To start the new education, we need to turns this around. How can we teach what children are interested in learning? Children are intrinsically motivated: we need to learn not to squash this, but to help them with our experience and knowledge to learn what they want and need to know.

Now I can hear you shouting: But Judith, there are things they have to know! They will not be able to function in society if they can’t read or write or do basic maths! Maybe your son loves numbers and letters at 2 years old, bully for you, but my son’s main interest is bashing things with a large stick!

First of all: chill out.

Second of all: remember that there are three motivating factors. Maybe maths and English don’t immediately feature in every child’s interests (though it may be there if you look more closely), but it will become clear to them that they are necessary for survival (to quote Michael Macintyre: “Now, if you can’t remember four numbers, you can’t buy food.”) and for achieving their short and long term goals.

Writing numbers on the pavement with chalk: unprompted, untaught

Writing numbers on the pavement with chalk: unprompted, untaught

If you wait, they will get to a point where they want to know. We must let go of the idea that children have to learn certain things at a certain time, in a set order. We also need to trust our children. As I said before: they have been designed for learning. They want to learn. Their in-built motivation will eventually lead them to the things they need to know.

A set curriculum, that prescribes what needs to be learned in what order, squashes motivation. If we are anxiously trying to cram in our own targets for our children, diverting them away from what they are naturally exploring at the time, we will be harming the possibility of them becoming interested in the things we so desperately want them to learn. Perhaps initially, the National Curriculum was drawn up sensibly, by studying what children need to know to survive and achieve their goals, observing at what ages they learn which skills, observing the stages that they go through before they are secure in certain skills, and recording these. Recording is fine, it helps us see what is usually the case. But you cannot use this to prescribe how every child must learn. If anything, the observation that children tend to go through certain stages to get to certain points, and observing that they tend to have certain interests at certain ages, should give us the confidence to trust children, to take a step back and let them discover what they want to learn about at each stage.

We should be brave enough to let go of this fixation on controlling the order in which skills are learned, and on everyone needing to learn the same thing at the same time.

What is our role as teachers and parents?

I am saying we need to trust our children. However, I am not saying that we have no part to play. We are older. We have experienced and learned more than our children. We are a tremendous resource in our children’s learning – and they know this. Why else would they be driving you to distraction asking you questions all day long? “Why does that man have no hair? Can you eat a shoe? Why are the sun and the moon in the sky at the same time? What is colour?”

So again, children are designed to learn. They are intrinsically motivated. They naturally explore and experiment. And they naturally consult experts. This, again, is something we need to harness in the new education. We need to build on this and not undermine their natural reliance and trust by saying: “Stop asking silly questions and do this worksheet, we’re doing long division today.”

Here is what we can do:

1. We can provide varied experiences and environments that allow children to discover what they are interested in.

2. We can and must use our life experience to guide children in what is necessary for survival. Children have no concept of what might be dangerous and this is one thing you don’t want them to learn the hard way. We don’t need to schedule lessons about road safety though – while we take children out into the world to have those varied experiences, there will be roads. This is when they learn about crossing them.

3. We can help children break down their goals to see what it is they need to learn in order to achieve them. And don’t try to sneak maths in if it isn’t there, I saw that! Maths crops up all by itself in practically everything. You don’t need to cheat.

4. We can offer extensions of what the child is doing to expand what they are discovering. If they are pouring water into containers, you might ask which cup has more water in it. If they are playing with a tape measure, you could offer your foot for measuring, and then suggest measuring the child’s foot. However, if they insist that no, it is a snake, the correct response is: “Well hello Mr Snake.”

5. We can encourage their interests, whatever they are. Even if it is bashing things with sticks, as long as they are not breaking precious things or people, they can learn from it: how thick a stick needs to be before it won’t break when bashed against a tree, what else a stick can be used for (digging, prodding, pole vaulting), collecting more of them to build a hut or a fire, using one each for sword fighting and playing knights etc.

5. We can answer their questions seriously. Yes, it is cute when children ask crazy questions, and it is fun for us to give them a funny answer, but they really do want to know why. This is the start of an interest. We need to foster and encourage interests. If you respond to questions about the human body, about flowers and about the rain in all seriousness, you have the start of a biology lesson.

Let’s recap

There are many more questions to answer, of course. I am sure you want to tell me that we need to do more teaching than I have just outlined. You will want to ask me about how this works in a formal education setting. How you can teach a million different subjects at once without having one teacher to each student and a classroom the size of the world. You’ll want to say this is all well and good for three year olds but that this method is too slow for a sixteen year old to learn what he needs to know for his GCSEs.

Again: chill out. We’ll get there. This is only part one.

To sum up, this is as far as we have got with reimagining education today:

Children are intrinsically motivated to learn what they need to survive, to achieve their goals and to satisfy their curiosity.

Children recognise adults as valuable resources in their learning.

You can trust children to become interested in the things they need to know at some point.

It is not necessary for all children to learn the same skills at the same time or in the same order.

Join in the discussion! Leave me comments, and let me know if you want to contribute by writing something or linking up.

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Many thanks to Helen Braid for creating this awesome logo!

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Time to Learn