Saturday, 20 August 2011

Hidden Genius

It would appear that many mathematics teachers have forgotten (or worse still, never knew) that teaching mathematics does not have to mean transmitting lots of facts at a class full of silent children.
There has been a dumbing down in mathematics education. I see it in the UK, US, Australia, France, New Zealand, Germany and many other North-West cultures, but also in the Gulf Nations where they have fallen victim of allowing themselves to believe that companies from these North-West nations can arrive, unpack their education systems and impose them in a different society (many of the Gulf Nations have been fooled in to thinking the West knows best!)
The dumbing down is a result of a fundamental misunderstanding by policymakers of what mathematics actually is. So, more and more, mathematics is being reduced to calculations and using numbers ("numeracy" as it has been dubbed in several countries).
The main symptom of this dumbing down is that students expect to be spoon fed information and that solutions to mathematical problems should be immediate, obvious and algorithmic. But mathematics is not like that; never has been, and shouldn't be allowed to become. Mathematical problems can take a very long time to solve, or indeed remain unsolved, but along the way, through the head scratching, experimenting, errors, iterations and creative process a heck of a lot of mathematics can be learned. This learning through attempting a problem is age old in mathematics and leads to a much greater understanding of what is learned. There is no need to always tell students how to do something, instead give them a difficult problem and let them play with it.
I believe that there are many hidden geniuses out there (in fact, I believe everyone is a genius – just that we all have different fields of expertise). They are hidden because the education system that they are a part of does not provide opportunities for unlocking the genius.
Here are a few examples of moments that have warmed my heart over the years:

12 year old girl, England, 2008
I asked the child that very same question that the mathematician Guass is famed to have tackled (though whether he actually did or not is debatable to say the least!)
Add together all of the numbers from 1 to 100.
She looked at me with consternation, not best pleased about being asked to do something so apparently pointless. "I'll do 1 to 10" she told me matter-of-factly.
She wrote down the ten numbers in a column addition and then huffed and puffed as she tried to go through adding them mentally. After three attempts of losing count, she suddenly stopped and her eyes sparkled. "It's 55," she said with confidence and pride in her voice.
I beamed and asked her to tell me how she knew that.
"They're elevens, aren't they? Look."
The girl wrote down the numbers 1 to 10 again but this time in two columns:
1 10
2 9
3 8
4 7
5 6
"They always pair up to make 11. 1 and 10 is 11. 2 and 9 is 11." Her eyes were wide with delight. "And there are 5 pairs. So it's five elevens."
And this is what I mean by genius. Genius is about seeing the world differently, it is looking beyond what we have been taught, it is about breaking convention.
Adding the numbers from 1 to 10 together does not take genius. But ignoring all that you have been taught about methodology and seeing a problem in an entirely new light does.
I asked the little girl the original problem again; add together the numbers 1 to 100. She jotted down only three lines of working:
1+100= 101
"I think it's 5050," she said, a little unsure at first of her multiplication of 101 by 50. "Yep. Yep. It's 5050."
Most kids can solve this problem if given enough time and space to think. Most will need prompting to look for a different method, but occasionally you will come across a hidden genius in your class.
But to find them, you need to provide opportunities. How often do maths teachers give this space and time to just think? To create problems? Why has mathematics become so entrenched with a didactic approach? Space to see beyond the convential, to re-write a problem in a new way is incredibly important to truly learning mathematics. As Einstein said:
"The formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill"

11 year old boy, England, 2007
The class teacher had posed the problem "How far can I get for £50?" The students had access to local bus timetables, maps and the infinite world of the internet.
This is an age old question in maths teaching. The kids enjoy it. The open-ended nature of the task allows them to experiment and play.
At the end of the lesson, the teacher asked for final destinations from the children. Eager hands shot up and a variety of exciting and interesting locations were happily announced.
At the back of the room, near to where I was sitting (I was observing), a small, pale, ginger haired boy sat with his faced pressed to his book still working. He had opted to work alone in the lesson (students were allowed to form teams) and had remained entirely silent throughout.
The teacher gently asked the boy to sit up and take part. "How far did you get?" he asked the shy lad. The rest of the class turned and stared. The boy gulped.
At the start of the lesson the teacher had promised a prize bounty of chocolate for the student or team that managed to get the furthest away. The routes given so far had been diverse and included bus and train fares, walking for days with the £50 used to buy food and drink, and a whole host of suggestions about hitch-hiking, which led to a great discussion about safety.
The red haired boy put down his pencil, gulped again, and then announced "Sydney. Austrailia."
The class erupted with laughter. The boy sat resolute. The teacher calmed the class and asked the boy to explain.
"I found a really nice bike in the free-ads," he started and the class burst in to laughter again. One child barked "you can't get to Australia on a bike!" Red head ignored the comment and ploughed on regardless.
"Then there was this advert in the paper," he held it up for effect, "looking for a paper boy in town. But you have to be 12. So I kept the bike until December – that's my birthday. Then I got the paper round job."
The class now were silent, the teacher grinning from ear to ear knowing what was coming.
"On the internet, Sir, you can book a flight all the way in to next year. And it's well cheap if you do. You can get an Australia flight with... er..." the boy consulted his notes, "Emirites," he said a little uncertain of the pronunciation, "and it's only £425."
The other children hung on every word.
"So. I did this paper round until June and saved up all my money. I got paid £18 per week. So I needed to work for 24 weeks and that gave me £432. I used £3.70 to get the bus to the Airport and then I even had £3.20 left to get something to eat."
The little red head won the chocolate as well as one heck of a round of applause from his fellow students.
The mathematics that the boy did was not complicated. It did not require any great mathematical skills. But I see this as a moment of genius because the boy ignored the conventional. He dared to think differently.
This is the sort of genius that we are all born with. Watch a young infant at play with some inanimate object and you will soon realise that they see more than you do. They will think of hundreds of different uses for a cardboard box, but to you it is just a cardboard box.
Somewhere along the line, this inventiveness, this genius leaves most of us. Perhaps part of the reason that we lose the ability to see a hundred possibilities, a unique approach, a different perspective in every day problems is that we all experience an education system that does not value genius. An education system that spoon feeds and gives no time to breath and create.

15 year old boy, Qatar, 2011
I sat with a boy as his class were being shown (for the nth time) how to find the area of fairly simple compound shapes, made up only of rectangles. He doodled in his book and made a show of being mindnumbingly bored by the whole experience.
"Do you have some graph paper?" I asked him, seemingly heading off on a tangent.
"Sure." He flipped open his level-arch file and unclipped a leaf of pristine paper.
"Draw a set of axes. First quadrant only." I told him with no further explanation.
He stared at the paper for a moment in thought, then produced a pencil and ruler from his case and neatly drew out the two lines required to form the x- and y-axis.
I took the paper from him and randomly drew a squiggle across the page going from left to right. He looked at me bemused.
"I want you to tell me exactly what the area under that curvey line is." I said.
Now this is a fairly standard investigation that I have done with hundreds of kids. They will start by counting the squares and realise that that is frustrating, then they will split the space in to blocks that they can calculate – imagine rectangles all over the place. Some will just estimate, some will be painstakingly accurate. Some will use square centimeters, some will invent their own units of measure.
The boy was no different. He faffed about with the problem for a while and became annoyed. "There has got to be a better way of doing this!" he laughed. After a few moments of experimenting further, he struck upon the notion of dividing the whole thing up in to vertical strips. "You can pretend each one is a trapezium," he said, justifying his approach, "and then find their areas"
He had made each vertical strip the same width. I asked him why he had chosen to do that and he explained that it was just because he was lazy, "that way they all have the same dimension, so you can do all the calculations at once."
After a few more minutes, he said to me in a conversational tone "It gets more accurate the smaller you make the strips, doesn't it?" I raised an eyebrow inquisitively. "Yes. Yes. I'm sure that's what it is. So if you could make them really small,"
"Really?" I interrupted.
"Yes. Infinitesimally?" I nodded. "Yes. If they were infinitesimally small then it would be very accurate."
"Just very?" I asked.
"No. No. It would be exact."
I have used this task countless times, and groups of children time and again will come to a similar conclusion. But it was the boy's ability to see through the structure, to imagine the abstract that makes him a genius in my eyes. Newton and Leibniz both came to the same conclusion. And this conclusion leads to the formation of The Calculus. Not bad for a 15 minute discussion on a hot May afternoon.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Britain is not Broken

Human beings are good, wonderful actually. There is an inbuilt programming that makes them be good and kind and respectful to one another. Stand back and watch any group of people in any given location and circumstance and it will be only moments that you will have to wait to see someone smiling and laughing. Complete strangers will go out of their way to accommodate the needs of others, workmates will form supportive groups, one hundred thousand concert goers will somehow manage to arrange themselves in a field without impinging on their fellow revelers. Human beings are lovely.
For reasons that stretch my imagination there is a movement in Britain that wish to promote the notion that the above is not true. It permeates the media and some irritating parts of politics. You will see news headlines designed to shock, telling us that Britain is broken. This is utter nonsense.
David Cameron has just spoken about the violence that has sprung up across England over the last few nights, and in a strong and passionate speech he made some excellent points. Unfortunately, the spin doctors have insisted on the use of the broken Britain rhetoric. And in questioning, he alluded to better discipline in schools as being a part of the solution.
Let's take a school. Let's say there are 1000 students aged 11 to 18. They need to conduct themselves in such a way that this micro-community can operate successfully. Squeezing down tight corridors in between lessons, gathering in large groups for assembly, waiting for long moments in lines to enter rooms. These are all opportunities for the students to act in this Broken Britain manner. Do they? No. They are patient, understanding, helpful, courteous and thoughtful. They conduct themselves with the same automatic, inbuilt system that the rest of us do. They are inherently good people.
So where does this myth come from and why is the movement so prevalent? I am absolutely aware that some reading this will be thinking I have completely lost the plot. That the school that you work in does not reflect this at all. There is chaos and unacceptable behaviour. So have I just managed to be incredibly lucky and only worked in fantasy schools? Absolutely not. Let's take our school again with the 1000 happy, smiley children. Sounds perfect, doesn't it? The thing is I am deliberately missing out one important fact. It isn't quite all of the 1000. In each school of 1000, there can be as few as five or six children who tip the balance of behaviour. To non-teachers, this might sound ridiculous, but as a teacher I have heard so many times about the one child in a year group who makes the difference and, if only the school could remove them from the mix, the year group would settle down. The dynamics of a group of human beings can be extraordinarily swayed by the influence of one.
Look at the streets on London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol over the last few nights. Combined their populations are in the many millions. And how many people are thieving and damaging property: a few hundred.
There are people in our society, a tiny fraction of a percentage, for whom the inbuilt programming is not operating. Unfortunately we can't just switch them off and switch them back on again like a computer. It is entirely wrong to think that these people are from a certain part of town, or that they are from socially deprived families or have divorced parents or any other of the numerous, ill informed beliefs held by some. The movement would like you to think they do, but it simply isn't true.
The influencing factor is parenting.
It is those early years of development and the norms that are laid down by parents then that make the difference in this tiny proportion of individuals. I'm not saying that these are the only people who will be naughty, of course that isn't the case. Plenty of good kids will do bad things or get mixed up in something terrible. But inside them, they retain the inbuilt instinct to be a good person and can be brought to see the wrong in what they have done.
For this small number of school students, the broken if you absolutely must, there is no recognition that the world could be any other way, that they could have the choice to become a good person.
Schools deploy countless strategies for addressing poor behaviour and teachers personalise their approach to dealing with situations to best suit their needs. As I have said above, almost entirely all human beings have the instinct to be good. So these strategies work and the school micro-society prevails. The problem with strategies though, is that they are designed around previous experience and the predictability of the response to the strategy. But when faced with an outlier, an event so beyond the conventional wisdom of the statistical model, strategies fall apart.
These exceptional children are outliers. The strategies do not work. This is why their influence can be so strong and devastating. So what should be done? Firstly, it is important to state that the education system should not be held responsible for the upbringing of the nation's children. It is not for teachers to fix these broken children, although we try our best to do so because we care greatly about each child that we work with. Outliers, in all circumstances, require unique solutions. Perhaps even draconian ones. For me, my overriding principles tell me that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. All across the country, these exceptional children are stealing away the education and life chances of other children. This cannot be right. This situation is reflected elsewhere in society and it is the reason that we are seeing the damage being caused by the scum on the streets.
These are the same few who are terrorising estates up and down the land, the same few who are striking fear in to other people's lives. This cannot be right. When looking at this problem some years back, the government resolved to create a unique solution – in that case, the response was the creation of the Anti-social Behaviour Order (ASBO). The situation is again reflected in the adult world, with the same miniscule number of thugs committing repeat offences and the most serious crimes. New York, famously, was the first to promote its zero tolerance policy as a unique solution to the problem. These people are the outliers and have been allowed to become a dominance in some circumstances. Because their behaviours are so outrageous, so beyond the norm, it is easy to write news articles that will draw in a readership and enhance profits for the media. It is not quite such a hot off the press topic to announce that the overwhelming majority of people are good, decent and law abiding. That almost everyone is simply getting on with their lives without hurting anyone else, with causing a fuss, with shouting from the roof tops "Look at me! Look at me!" So the media becomes populated with the scare stories, they gain momentum and without much provocation we end up with the ridiculous situation that we have now that people's perception of the number of crimes being committed and their fear of being a victim of crime far outweighs the actual amount of criminal behaviour.
What we are seeing on the streets has nothing to do with government cuts, it has nothing to do with poverty, it has nothing to do with youth services or schools. I grew up in what is now referred to as poverty. But my parents instilled in me a sense of purpose, a sense of self-respect. An understanding that I have responsibility. Those around me who were unemployed (many long term) did not use that as an excuse to steal from others or destroy peoples' livelihoods.
Many years now of a nanny state approach has removed the stigma of being a bad parent. Has numbed some people in to thinking that the State is responsibility for raising their children. Has propogated the notion that everyone has rights but no responsibilities.
And teachers in schools are fighting against this day after day.
For me, learning and growing as a person is far too important to be allowed to suffer because of the exceptions. I would remove these children from the system entirely and make specialist provision for them. There will be an outcry at that remark from the intellectual-left, but it has been shown time and again that exceptional situations call for exceptional responses. And I am absolutely open to being told that I am wrong, to being told that there is a better solution. But only from those who are actually proposing a solution that will work in practice and not from the wishy-washy types who, knowing it should offend their sensitivities, will simply say that removing the children is wrong on principal without ever having to face the real pain of working in a system where these children are beyond the capabilities of the strategies. These types would allow the rest to suffer because of this group of outliers and that is not the type of society that I would want to live in. These types would allow the violence on the streets to continue because their PC attitudes would not condone strong policing.
We should not, must not, allow the tiniest proportion of outlier children and adults to influence and dominate our schools and society. They are not the majority. They are not in control. Look at those on the streets tidying and sweeping, caring for each other, condemning the scumbags.
Britain is not broken. Young and old, blue collar and white collar, male and female, black and white, rich and poor, people are good.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Detentions Are Pointless

I had just started work at a new school. The first week had been really tiring and filled with the usual chaos of trying to get to know everyone and everything. So when the bell finally tolled 3:15pm on Friday afternoon, I plodded off to my office to take stock and relax for a while. I was sitting at my desk, idly checking emails and finishing off some odds and ends when a rap of knuckles across my office door brought me back from an enjoyable daze. I opened the door and was greeted by fifteen or so grumpy looking teenagers.

"Yes?" I enquired of the boy at the front of the queue.

He looked at me, puzzled by the question.

"What do you want?" I asked him slowly.

He looked at me still, "er..." he started in the customary manner for a 15 year old boy beginning a sentence, "it's Friday detention, Sir," he told me matter-of-factly.

The next few moments was like getting blood from a stone, but I finally managed to weed out of him that each Friday afternoon, the naughtiest of the naughty, those who had committed some indiscretion so horrendous that their classroom teacher or the Head of Department could not deal with it, were sent en masse to a specially extended two hour detention with the Senior Management. What a wonderful way to end my week, I thought. The students led me to the library where their detention always took place (it would appear that for many of this motley crew this was a weekly routine), and sat themselves at desks looking at me eagerly.

"Now what?" I asked them exhaustedly.

"You need to give us the questions, Sir," the nominated representative told me.

"What questions?" I was beginning to get bored of the whole malarkey.

"You need to give us maths questions, Sir. We always do maths questions."

My jaw dropped.
Not on my bloody watch. No siree.

It transpired that each week, as a punishment, the detention students were made to work through duller than dull mathematics text books. I was absolutely flabbergasted. Bad enough that the students were taking part in the whole pointless exercise of attending a two hour detention every week, bad enough that I had no warning about the onslaught of end of week kids, bad enough that the teachers who had set the detentions in the first place were not able to think of a more creative way of dealing with the problem. But to set mathematics as a punishment: that was taking the biscuit. As a mathematics teachers myself, I know that one of the key missions of the job is to battle against the constant droning of parents, the media, other teachers and society as a whole that mathematics is somehow a preserve of the geeks and the odd. What tosh! So here I found myself in a new school that clearly thought it appropriate to also associate mathematics with punishment. The damage that this would undoubtedly be doing to the subject within the school would have been significant.
Detentions are pointless. They achieve nothing at all. Where they might possibly have some positive impact is when they are used as an opportunity to address the underlying problem. Perhaps the teacher involved will talk to the student about the related incident, or perhaps the student will undertake some task of redemption – litter picking for dropping litter? Maybe the session will simply be a prep hour, with the student catching up on missed homework. I can almost see the point in some of these cases, but overwhelmingly detentions are simply pointless. I state this as a teacher and as a student.
When I was a teenager, each and every Tuesday for years at secondary school, I would have to attend a lunchtime detention. Religiously set by my Religious Studies teacher each and every Thursday afternoon for reasons I failed then and fail now to comprehend. I was no angel at school, far from it, but I was also no bad apple either. For whatever the reason, RS was always chaos and I seemed to have a face that asked for a detention. So there I would sit for 35 minutes during Tuesday lunch, copying out page after page from the Bible. I must admit that having done this for years I do now have a very good knowledge of the scripture and can hold my own in any ecumenical argument, but I am also pretty sure that these weekly detentions played at least some part in the fact that I am nowadays a fully paid up member of the Atheist Club. The sheer fact that the detentions continued week in, week out tells you a lot about their effectiveness. As a teenager, I was fairly reasonable and open to discussion and always thought it would have made infinitely more sense for the teacher to just have a conversation with me about whatever it was that was getting on his wick. Yes, detentions are pointless.
The week following my date with the Friday afternoon detention mob, I announced at staff briefing that the Friday detention would no longer be available as a sanction and asked for an open discussion as to the benefits and pitfalls of the current system and for solutions that would lead to a better system that addressed the underlying causes of poor behaviour.
Teaching can be an exhausting job and there are many people who leave the profession early because they feel demoralised and downtrodden. When surveyed, the teaching profession invariably quotes as the main reason for leaving teaching: the poor behaviour of students. It really is a horrid feeling deep in the pit of your stomach when a class full of students is openly defiant, rude and aggressive. The experience is belittling and humiliating in a way that is unmatched in any other workplace. So it is crucial that teachers find a way to ensure good behaviour in the classroom.
I have been blessed in my career to work with great kids and to have brilliant relationships with them that allowed for a feeling of mutual respect, fun and an understanding that learning is really important. On the whole, I believe that good behaviour is a byproduct of excellent teaching. As one student once said when asked why he had been messing about in a colleague's lesson, "but what if the lesson isn't worth behaving for?"
I often state that kids are kids are kids. No matter where you are, no matter what the economic circumstances, no matter what the culture. Kids are kids are kids. If the lesson is excellent, they will go on the journey with you. Kids are inherently interested in knowing new things.
But, I also know that sometimes all of the spiel, the best teaching, the greatest effort, the most interesting topic, vast amounts of passion and planning and thought can count for nothing at all. Sometimes you will just come across those rare children who are truly broken and hell bent on breaking every opportunity around them. So if detentions and sanctions are pointless, what do you do? When the students simply will not behave, when there is violence, intimidation and a sheer lack of understanding of right and wrong. What do you do?
As a young school manager, I arrived at a new school that I already knew to be in challenging circumstances – indeed that is why I chose the school. My second lesson of the day was with a middle set Year 11 class. The kids arrived and started to sit down. David was a scrawny, ugly boy who smelled unwashed and neglected. He entered the room, asked me "Who the fuck are you?" and then leaped up on to one of the tables. The desks were arranged in a U shape. He marched across the table tops, kicking bags and books of fellow students as he went and all the time staring at me. At the end of the U, he jumped down and walked straight at me until his face was against mine. "So where do I sit?" he demanded.
The lesson got progressively worse from that point in. David was not even the most outrageously behaved. By the end of the hour I felt destroyed. I felt that all of my years in teaching were worth nothing. All of the effort, all of the great lessons, all of the wonderful relationships counted for nil.
Later that evening I sat in my office at school feeling small and alone. I had tears in my eyes as I played out the humiliation time and time again in my head.
So what do you do?
Slowly I calmed down. I said out loud to myself "You either let this beat you, or you sort it." With that, I opened up the class file and, starting at the very beginning of the register I proceeded to call each and every parent of each and every student in the class.
With each phonecall, I would give an accurate, objective and unflinching account of the student's behaviour in the lesson that day. For many of the students this meant that their parents heard of how courteous, polite, friendly and welcoming of their new teacher they had been, how much effort they had tried to put in to learning, and from me a heartfelt apology that I had not been able to give them the type of lesson that they deserved. With this apology came a stern assurance that this would not happen again, an honest conversation outlining the difficulties I had had with some of the students and a description of the action that I would now take to ensure that their child was free to learn in a safe and engaging environment.
For other parents, the discussion was a no-holds-barred threat. Simply put, I told them that it was not the job of the State to raise their children. That the responsibility for their son or daughter's behaviour lay firmly with them. I gave detailed accounts of any disruption caused, any foul language used, any moments of rudeness, any lack of work.
With every parent the conversation ended with a promise that I would call them again following every maths lesson (three times per week). For those students whose behaviour fell below expectations, I would insist that the parent dealt with it urgently. For some, this would mean that I would call them during the lesson on their mobile phone (something I did on three or four occasions to great effect).
I expected, and got, a barrage of foul language and threats from some parents. But with each of these sentences that they spouted, I simply repeated "This is exactly why your child behaves badly. You are the influence. You are taking away their ability to learn. You will stop them being successful. You need to change." You can imagine how this went down!
Wednesday afternoon came round and I was to face the class again. The mood was very different. Most of the students that had been guilty of just getting involved with the spirit of bad behaviour in the last lesson could see that things were not going to be like that and they behaved fairly well. One or two of the students that I had praised, said thank you. But the hardcore of disruptive students were angry. Very angry. The lesson was once again a farce, but nowhere near as bad.
That evening, I sat in my office and made the calls again. Most students were praised. For the hardcore I was completely unrelenting in my insistence that the parent should ensure their child's standard of behaviour met my expectations. For many, the response had now turned to one of not knowing what to do. Parents would tell me how their child was out of control and that there was nothing that they could do to help. I could tell that for some, they really were at wits end. But I insisted further. I told them to enlist the help of their spouse, and other family, I told them to keep encouraging their child to do their best and to remove privileges when they did not. I know that this is incredibly difficult for some, but I was determined that they saw and understood that as a parent they had to play an active not passive role in their child's education. For my part, I deployed every technique and trick that I could muster in the classroom to improve their behaviour.
The phonecalls continued. It was exhausting.
I vividly remember sitting in my office just before the October half term, five weeks since I had first met the group, and preparing to start the phonecalls for that evening with my notebook open wide. There were no students to reprimand. That evening was a delight. Every single student was praised.
These calls were not easy, and the time that it consumed was a very big burden. But, with three conversations per week with each parent, I had built a really strong and, in all cases by October, positive relationship with the parents and students. Come November, Parents' Evening arrived and we met face to face feeling like we already knew each other. So many of the students (all bar two) thanked me for the help I was giving them and for all the praise that they were receiving from me. Many parents told me that their children talked a lot about my lessons and were enjoying them thoroughly.
The class, as it turned out, became one of the most rewarding to teach of my career. I am proud of what I did and happy that the amount of work paid dividends in the long run. There were times in those first few weeks when I thought that I should just throw in the towel. This was especially true when the Headteacher told me that I should not be talking to parents so sternly and that I could not tell them that they were responsible for the behaviour of their child at school. I cannot begin to tell you how sad that made, and makes, me feel.

Somewhere along the line something corrosive and horrid has happened to society. There are far too many people who now feel that the State should take care of all of those duties of family and parenting. It is not for the education system to raise children. We play our part, and we play it with dedication and compassion. But if this is not backed with good parenting, then we are at a loss.

Are you ashamed when your child misbehaves at school? You jolly well should be. Children reflect their parenting and parents must take responsibility. I know that it is not considered fashionable at the moment to think that people should ever have to feel shame, but I think that this is utter nonsense. There should be a stigma surrounding bad parenting, there should be a stigma about sending your child to school dirty or ill equipped. Society should not treat these things as though they are the fault of some external cause.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Why are we Failing SATs?

The statistics from the Key Stage 2 National Curriculum Tests have been released today, and as per usual are making up part of the main course in the days media meal. Bless the media machine, it so much wants to say that one third of children fail to reach the expected standard at age 11, but the minor (and it is very minor) irritation of the results being a rise on last year means that they are not going on an all out attack. The rise is not particularly significant, nor indeed are the tests themselves – what does a Level 4 mean anyway? For most it means months of coaching, parrot fashion learning, pushy parenting, unnecessary and unfruitful stress. But the arguments around whether the "SATs" (as everyone calls them, although there haven't been SATs in England for many years), is well documented and debated.
What strikes me this morning, listening to Nick Gibb, Schools Minister, is yet again schools are being used as the punch bag. So when ill informed, trying to get a soundbite, journalists state that 33% of children are "failing", Nick's immediate response is to talk about schools and standards of teaching and learning, blah-de-blah-de-blah.
At not one point does he mention that, actually, if your kids can't read, write and do simple arithmetic at age 11, then blaming the school is a red herring, take a long honest look at your own parenting.
It is not the job of the state to raise the nation's children.
Take a look at the type of questions we are talking about on the KS2 SAT papers page.
Now, if a child can't do this sort of work, is that the fault of their teacher? Hell no it is not. Frankly it is bad parenting tantamount to child abuse (I use this term deliberately because children falling below these levels at this age are far more likely to die younger – I think that justifies the term).
The parents of these children should be bloody ashamed. And no politician wants to say it. They should be really bloody ashamed.
It was not school that taught the rest of us to read and write. It was good parenting. It was hours spent singing, talking, telling stories, listening, caring, being interested, encouraging, monitoring, being enthusiastic and taking responsibility. It was the understanding that, from day one, education and learning were as much to do with the familty (if not a lot more) than to do with the building that we went to from age 4.
It is the first 2 or 3 years that really count – this is where the development of the brain is at its most important. Parents who didn't bother with the bedtime stories, the counting things in traffic, the talking about prices in a supermarket or role playing shop keeper at home, the sounding out of words on signs or in comics, the hours and hours and hours of play... if you didn't bother, you should be bloody ashamed. Your children are damaged for life. And it is not the fault of teachers, it is not the responsibility of the state. It is your role.
And some of the bleading heart brigade will whine on about it being difficult because the parents are themselves illiterate. Well so what! Learn together. It is not an excuse.

I am not saying that schools are perfect and that there aren't improvements that we can make, but I am saying that it is unacceptable for the government to simply ignore a crucial part of the story.
So, Nick Gibb, Michael Gove, David Cameron: a challenge. Stop pussy-footing around, stop taking the easy option, and actually stand up for what matters. Good parenting. Then schools will not let you down.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Helping Homework Work

It's a funny old thing, the homework malarkey. There is no reliable evidence to suggest that doing homework has any impact on students' understanding of mathematics or the standards that they achieve, yet still all over the country it is seen as a given that students must do homework. And in mathematics this often looks like students wading through question after question after meaningless question.
Some research supports the notion that a culture of homework helps to improve independent learning skills – but even this is on shaky ground and with varying definitions about what these skills actually are.
The approach that you choose to take with setting homework can at least improve the chances of it having an impact. For instance, it is known that a more effective use of homework time is preparation for a future lesson (why else do you think so many long-established schools maintain prep time). So perhaps a better activity is to tell the students what you will be learning next lesson, outline the kind of question that they might need to be able to do, talk about the skills that they might need, and ask them to come to the lesson with the five main points that they have been able to find out about the topic. Not only is this a better use of time and builds stronger independent learning skills, but it also means that the next lesson can begin in a much more formative manner – instead of you telling them how to do something, you can use the collective knowledge of the group to come up with the necessary information, skills, techniques or what have you.
There is strong evidence to suggest that in many cases homework actually leads to a lowering of standards – for many students the negative emotions towards learning that the homework experience builds flows over in to lessons so that they are turned off or have poorer relationships with the classroom teacher. This may be, for example, because at home there is no place to do homework, or they are a child carer, or the family set-up means homework leads to arguments and fights, or that (particularly in middle-middle class families) the pressure put on the child and the strict evening routine is extremely stressful (kids doing 3 hours homework per night instead of having a childhood!). The prep approach helps to alleviate some of these problems, because the students are not doing lists of questions that a parent feels the need to monitor (and when they can't do maths themselves, this can be particularly problematic), but instead the homework is investigational and conversational.
Oh, and what if they don't do the prep? Well, frankly, so what? Of course you should encourage them to be a part of it, but sometimes the lives that children lead are so chaotic and in some cases abusive, that they really do have bigger things to worry about. There is no need for confrontation in the classroom over homework. It is pointless, and regresses performance. However, because the lessons now have a different feel, where homework is something that allows you to participate in building the knowledge, you will notice that as time moves on, students become more interested and keen to undertake the prep because they want to be able to take part with their peers.
So that's one approach.
Of course, many teachers (maths in particular) want to have opportunities for consolidation and mastery. I'm not saying that there is no place for undertaking homework tasks that are looking back at work already covered. But perhaps an alternative approach might be helpful here too.
For instance, I would suggest that a more powerful and effective approach would be to abandon the notion of wading through questions and instead attempt just one question. This could be an already existing exam question (therefore no prep on your part) or a question that you have written. The question should cover a lot of learning and include the need to extract information from word problems.
So the students complete this (It could go on your VLE), and then you can talk it through during the next lesson (not necessarily at the start). But then, the next homework is for the students to mark the question. You give them the worked solution, highlighting the points where marks would be awarded. They then have to go through the question and mark it based on what the examiner is looking for. This means that they are already getting inside the heads of the examiners – they know what working out counts and what is being looked for. This is of course nice prep for exams, but more importantly it is about communicating mathematically and understanding the processes.
In the following lesson, for five minutes, put the kids in groups of 4 and let them moderate each other's marking. It might surprise you just how good kids are at doing this once they have a little practice and how seriously they take their duty as moderator.
Now there aren't really any good computer packages that do this yet – the infinite possibilities that a student might write in their explanation have as yet escaped the programming world for a solution, which is why it sticks to ticking formulaic and repetitive questions and maybe printing the worked solution alongside. But you do have these remarkable super-computers in your classroom: the children. They can reason, debate, collaborate and invent. Not only do they make a great marking machine, but by placing them in this "teacher" role, they live up to the character and engage in higher order thinking as they have to give justifications for their moderations to their peers.
This is all just one suggestion, but with the approach above, maybe it could work like:
Week 1: Prep
Week 2: Prep
Week 3: Exam Question
Week 4: Prep
Week 5: Prep
Week 6: Half Term Review
This would mean in terms of teacher work load, creating one question in Week 3 and a review exercise in Week 6. Marking only the review exercise. I think that is about right.
This would not contravene most school homework policies, since with this approach you are setting "homework" each and every lesson.
Far too much teacher time is wasted on things that have no impact on learning, and one of the major culprits is the marking of homeworks. I realise that this might worry some teachers. Often the response I hear is "but what about when Ofsted check my books and they aren't marked?" Well how about explaining the professional decisions that you have taken, the reasoning behind it and the improvements it is bringing about. And if you come up against someone that is adamant that every equation, every graph, every calculation should have a tick of cross next to it, ask them simply to explain in what way that improves mathematical understanding and what good it does the child, their family and you as a teacher.
Just a thought.