Beyond the blame game –  the trouble with transfer

It’s a laugh a minute in the Sealy household at dinner as two teachers swap amusing anecdotes about their day while our sons listen on enthralled. Yes, I’m lying. The sons are sticking pins in their eyes in a vain effort to MAKE IT STOP while we drone on to each other about the trials and tribulations of our respective days.  My partner is a maths intervention teacher and trainer who mainly spends his time training other teachers and TA’s how to teach maths to children who are struggling.  The interventions he trains people in are all very effective and have tonnes of evidence to back them up (albeit too expensive to staff for most of us in these cash-strapped times when having a class teacher and the lights on at the same time is considered a luxury). Among his top ten moans[1] is the situation when class teachers fail to recognise that ex-intervention students are now actually quite good at maths, instead seating them in the 7th circle of hell that is ‘orange table’, where there might as well be a sign saying ‘despair all who enter here’ and where the cognitive challenge is low.  When the intervention teacher tries to argue their case, the class teacher, who does not consider their colleague to be a ‘real’ teacher, argues that ‘she might be able to do place value (or whatever) with you, but she can’t do it in the class room where it really matters.’  The unspoken assumption being that intervention teachers – who are not real teachers anyway – don’t really know what they are doing and are easily tricked into thinking that a child has got something because they’ve played a nice game with their not-real teacher who doesn’t understand about important things like Sats and tests and being at the expected level and obviously couldn’t hack it in the classroom. Indeed, a quite senior teacher, worried for her value added, once said to him that he ‘artificially inflated’ pupils learning by teaching them stuff.   To which he countered that all teaching ‘artificially’ inflates learning – that’s what we’re paid to do! We are employed to use artifice to achieve learning.

It occurred to me recently that cognitive science provides an explanation as to why this conflict happens; an explanation that blames neither teacher and also explains equally well why every September, class teachers shake their heads in disbelief at the assessment information provided by their colleague,  the former teacher, a disbelief that is amplified on the transfer from primary to secondary school.

Transferring learning is, quite simply, a bitch.  There are three cognitive hurdles to overcome on the journey from the pupil’s first encounter with an idea to them being able to understand whatever it is in a flexible and adaptable way. First, they need to be presented with the idea in an understandable way that make them think hard[2] about what they are learning. If they think hard about it, it is more likely to make that all important journey from their short term memory to their long term memory. Sometimes teachers try and make ideas memorable by making them exciting in some way. This can backfire if the ‘exciting’ medium becomes more memorable than the actual message the teacher wants to get across. I recall one child who was finding learning to count really tricky, so to engage him we used gold paper plates and toy dinosaurs. He was totally absorbed, but not on the maths, unfortunately – and did much better with plain paper plates and cubes.  But hurdle one is not where the intervention vs class teacher fault line lays.

The second hurdle lies in overcoming the ‘I’ve taught it therefore they know it’ fallacy, particularly common among less experienced teachers.  But even if our panoply of afl strategies tell us that a particular child has grasped a particular concept, it is highly likely that by the next day they will have forgotten most of what we taught them. That is just how our brains work. But that does not mean we labour in vain; the forgetting is an important part of remembering.  The forgotten memory is not really forgotten, it’s floating about somewhere in our long term memory, ready to be reactivated. All it takes is for us to re-teach the information and on second encounter, the material is learned much faster. By the next week it is all mostly forgotten again but with a third presentation, the material is learned very quickly indeed.  And so on.  Each time we forget something, we relearn it more quickly and retain it for longer.

This means that teachers need to build into our lessons routine opportunities to revisit material we taught the day before, the week before, the month before, the term before and the year before.  This is known in the trade as ‘spaced repetition.’  Each time we do so, we enhance the storage strength of memories. Ignorance of this phenomenon accounts for part of the professional friction between colleagues. It wasn’t wishful thinking on behalf of the ‘sending’ teacher.  The pupil genuinely did really know how to partition 2-digit numbers, for example, but has now forgotten. That’s an inevitable part of how our brains work and not some other professional’s ‘fault’.  When faced with a conflict between what it is reported that a student can do and what they appear actually able to do, the most charitable and scientifically probable explanation is that they have forgotten how to do something that they once could do well; with a bit of input it will all come back fairly quickly. If we remind ourselves on this each September and expect to have to cover a lot of ‘old’ ground, that will be better for our students, for our blood pressure and for professional relationships.

However, hurdle number three has, to my mind, the best explanatory power for this aggravating situation.  To understand this, I will have to explain the difference between episodic and semantic memory.  Episodic memory remembers…episodes…events….experiences. It is autobiographical, composed of memories of times, places and emotions and derived from information from our 5 senses.  Semantic memory is memory of facts, concepts, meanings and knowledge, cut free from the spatial/temporal context in which it was acquired.  Generally, especially where teaching is concerned, memories start off as episodic and then with lots of repetition, particularly in different contexts with different sensory cues, the memory becomes semantic and can be recalled in any context. This is the destination we want all learning to arrive at.

So when we learn something new, we remember it episodically at first.   We’ve all had those lessons when we remind our class about the previous lesson and they can recall, in minute detail, that Billy farted, but not what an adverb is.  Or they’ll remember that you spilled your coffee or that Samira was late or even that ‘we used highlighter pens.’  But anything actually important…gone!  Of course, when you recap on yesterday’s lesson, it will all come flooding back.  See hurdle two.  However, the problem for transferring this knowledge beyond working with this teacher in this classroom is that with episodic memories, environmental and emotional cues are all important.  Take these cues away and the memory is hard to recall. We don’t want a situation, for many reasons, where our children can only recall what an adverb is if prompted by the environmental cue provided from Billy’s posterior.  We are a proud profession, we aim a little bit higher than that. We want what we teach to be transferable to any context.  Until that has occurred, how can we say learning has successfully happened?

So, back to our maths intervention teacher. The pupil has learnt a whole heap of maths and made many months of progress in a short space of time.  However, although their teacher has got them to think hard about this material and got them to apply their new knowledge in many different situations, and although the teacher has also used the principles of spaced repetition and revisited previously taught material many times, there is still the very real possibility that the memory of some of this material is still mainly episodic, still mainly dependent on familiar environmental cues for recall.  It is not that the child is emotionally dependent on the familiar adult to boost their confidence – thought that can also happen – but that the academic memory is bundled with the sound and sight (and possibly, the coffee breath of) their intervention teacher and the room in which the intervention happened.  Without these, the memory is inaccessible.

This problem is only exaggerated when the transfer is from one year group to another – with the added difficulty that the student is unlikely to have been doing much hard thinking about either denominators or adverbs over the six weeks summer holiday. It is even more of a barrier when students are transferring to a completely different school, such as at secondary transfer, with all the other attendant changes that brings.

To counter this, when teaching material, we need to try and play about with the environmental conditions to lessen the impact of context cues. So when an intervention teacher asks to come and work in class alongside a pupil as part of their weaning off intervention, that is not some namby pamby special snow flake treatment by a teacher who clearly is too attached to their pupils, but a strategy rooted in cognitive science to help the pupil access episodic memories with most of the familiar context cues removed. Class teachers can try and break the dependence on context cues with material they teach by, at the very least, getting pupils to sit in different seats with different pupils from time to time.[3]  Year 6 teachers, now faced with the post sats quandary of what to teach now, would do well to teach nothing much new and instead ensure over learning of what pupils already know but within as many different  physical contexts as possible  – maths in the playground, or hall or even just by swapping classrooms for the odd lesson.  If pupils are used to sitting next to the same group of pupils in every lesson, now is the time to mix things up, to lessen the dependence on emotional cues (again, episodic) gained from the sense of familiarity of sitting with the same people day in, day out[4].

Transfer can also be facilitated by applying learning in different parts of the curriculum, using maths in DT for example, or in art lessons or maths through drama and also by applying the learning in open ended problem solving.  Indeed, the very sort of ‘progressive’ teaching strategies that card carrying traditionalists usually eschew, are fine for transfer, once the learning is securely understood, but probably still remembered episodically. It’s the use of these methods for the initial teaching of ideas that’s a bad idea – explicit teaching does that job so much better. Whizzy bangy stuff early on – or even in the middle – of a sequence of learning, runs the very real danger of getting children to think hard about the whizz bangs and not the content – so the whizz bangery will be what gets remembered in the episodic memory. See hurdle one. But that’s a whole other blog post.

Accepting the inevitability of the difficulties of transferring learning from one context to another can help us plan better for that and be less frustrated by it both in preparing to say goodbye to pupils in July and when saying hello to students in September.   It’s not that learning slumps as such in September, it’s that it is being reawakened and then transferred from episodic to semantic memory. Once memories have made this journey, they are so much stronger and more flexible, so worth the frustration.  So this September, when your new pupils don’t seem to be able to remember anything their assessment information would indicate they should know, take a deep breath, remember the three hurdles and that is just how learning and memory works. It probably isn’t their former teacher’s fault at all.  Maybe you just don’t smell right.

[1] Just in case a colleague of my partner is reading, he insists I make it abundantly clear this has not happened for a long while where he teaches. It does happen to some of the people he trains (in other schools) though – it is an occupational hazard of being an intervention teacher.

[2] Memory being the residue of thought, as Daniel Willingham explains in this book you really should read.

[3] I am relying heavily on chapter 6 of ‘What every teacher needs to know about psychology’ by David Didau and Nick Rose for all of this. This is also a very good book for teachers to read. If you read both this and the Willingham one above, you would be well set up.

[4] Not that I would recommend this in the first place, but if that is how you do things, shake them up for the last few weeks of term in the interest of better transfer

Beyond the blame game –  the trouble with transfer

Ofsted says…assessment and the foundation subjects

Whether Sean Harford is winning the war on excessive marking  remains to be seen, but I fear another edu-myth is in the making. A few days ago, a teacher I know remarked that the head of their outstanding school had returned from a heads’ briefing looking pale and anxious.  The briefing had included the warning that Ofsted were now looking for schools to assess all the  foundation subjects and woe betide any school that didn’t. For most head teachers, when you say ‘assessment’ of a subject, they see some sort of excel spreadsheet, full of colour coded figures, of the type we are used to having for maths, reading and writing. The amount of work it takes to test children, mark the tests, get the test data into a spreadsheet and then analyse that data is enormous. It can easily take me a whole weekend to analyse data in these three subjects in sufficient detail to be able to put it into a report for the standards and curriculum committee.  Said head teacher was blanching at the prospect at having to go through a similar process  for 10 other subjects. If that really was what Ofsted wanted, there really would be very little time to do anything else.

However, I knew that Sean Harford had specifically said otherwise. Here is a quote from a recent Ofsted report, brought to our attention thanks to @simonkidwell

ofsted foundation subs quote

The word ‘tracking’ in particular gives the impression of a spreadsheet with numbers, especially when the’ high standards’ of tracking English and maths are praised.  It looks like Ofsted – or at least this particular inspector and those who QA’ed him/her – really do want red, orange and green boxes with numbers in them. But rest assured, Sean says no.

seanharford tracking 1Seanharford 2 tracking fsseanharford 3

I suggest we all cut out and keep these tweets to wave at Ofsted inspectors as required. As long as assessment is to the same ‘standard’ as  used in English and maths, that’s cool.

Still worried?  What on earth does ‘to the same standard’ mean?  The Ofsted report links these assessments with school leaders and governors (which suggests we are talking about summative assessment; reporting data to show standard are bearing up and good progress is being made)  but also teachers (which points to formative assessment, or responsive teaching, as Dylan Wiliam now wishes he’d called it).  So, presumably our assessment of foundation subjects need to enable responsive teaching and enable others – governors or external visitors aka Ofsted – to hold us accountable for progress and standards for all areas of the curriculum. But not necessarily with numbers.

How then might this be possible without further burdening a workforce already acknowledged as staggering under a crushing workload?  As excessive marking leaves by the front door, are new accountability pressures to assess foundation subjects sneaking in by the back door?

I say ‘new’ because, honestly, I don’t know any school that currently does this. I tell a lie; I know one school where as a hoop jumping exercise they had a simple spreadsheet that RAG’ed children at the end of term in history, geography, RE and science.  They didn’t actually look at the children’s work in these subjects; they made the (probably fairly realistic) assumption that attainment in the humanities would match that in writing and attainment in science would match that in maths; so a simple cut-and-paste operation. Job done!  With the added bonus that whatever data analysis you did for writing was automatically already done for geography.  I would hope that were Sean Harford to read this, he would be screaming ‘NO! NO! NO!’  It’s a completely meaningless task, done with no other reason than to placate the accountability monster by giving them a delicious spreadsheet to chomp on.

If we are going to assess the foundation subjects properly, then we had better do it in a way that – here’s a wild suggestion – leads to children learning more effectively.  This means that  formative assessment – or responsive teaching as we all need to start calling it – must be the driver of any new policy.   But here’s the rub. If we discover that a group of students in year 4 have a dodgy understanding of place value, we will do something about it.  We might spend more time teaching that topic to the whole class, we might change our teaching to use more concrete apparatus,  we might get a TA to run an intervention group towards the end of the day or at lunch or after school, we might send work home to practice or find an app they can use at home. We have termly pupil progress meetings just to discuss such matters.   Imagine we had the same across the curriculum.   Imagine a  discussion bemoaning the fact that little Jimmy might know the 5 Pillars of Islam very well, but was hopeless with the 4 Noble Truths.   What would be do about it?  Say we discovered that a group of children had poor technique in shading with charcoal, would we suggest they came out of maths early three times a week to work with a TA on that?  Would we have after school booster lessons to improve children’s ability to put the events of the Roman occupation of Britain in chronological order.  Would we get children to work with their teaching on mapwork during assembly? Or send woodwork home for extra practise?  Probably not.  Responsive teaching is going to look very different in foundation subjects.  Unlike maths, where concepts  such as place value come up again and again, in history, for example, once the topic on the Ancient Greeks has finished, it’s unlikely to be revisited. If children do not know by the end of the topic the main differences between the Athenians and the Spartans – well that ship has sailed. Now they never will. (Well not on our watch anyway).

Responsive teaching (formerly known as afl)

We introduced knowledge organisers  (KO’s) this year.  By clearly identifying the key knowledge that we expect children to know by the end of a unit, this gives us a way in to assessing whether of not they have done so.  We teach most of our foundation subjects – including the ‘big 4’ of science, history, geography and RE in three week blocks. (Yes, I do know that science and RE are  officially ‘core’ subjects – I’m referring to their de facto status.)  Children  take home a multiple choice quiz  (mcq) each week to go through with their parents for homework with all the answers available on their KO.  Then at the end of the third and final week,  they do a third quiz in school.  This quiz assesses how much of the key knowledge they now know.  This mark (out of 10) is currently only recorded in their exercise book, but it would be very easy -and quick – to put it into a spreadsheet if that is the security blanket we feel we need. I confess that I am feeling that need.  Call me weak. For what is is worth, almost all children score 9 or 10 out of 10 after three weeks of study. But this is summative assessment, not responsive teaching; the unit is finishing as we test them.  If they  do score badly, we have no time left to do anything about it.

Other primary schools who have been experimenting with  KO’s have started each lesson with a very short mcq recapping the key knowledge from the previous lessons as a ‘do now’ activity.  We haven’t been doing this quite as formally, although most lessons start with an oral  recap of key vocabulary, so teachers have some idea if their teaching is resulting in actual learning.  But the ‘do now’ brief mcq is something we need to start doing, not least because we need to teach responsively; i.e. to use feedback from the children to adjust our teaching.  If  very few of the children remember what we learnt about yesterday or last week, we need to respond to that by revisiting that material rather than pressing on to the next idea. We would do this in maths (at least I hope we all would!) so why not in geography or RE?  If revisiting means we don’t cover all the material we were meant to, then so be it. It’s surely better that children actually remember some of the curriculum than cover all of it.

Some schools are also ending each unit with a piece of writing – a non chronological report – summing up what they have learnt over the course of the topic.   While part of me is drawn to that idea, again, if it occurs at the end of the unit as a summative assessment, then our ability to do anything about misconceptions or gaps is limited. Maybe a better idea is to have children write a paragraph (or couple of sentences in ks1) summing up what they have learn so far every three or so lessons, which eventually contribute to a non chronological report.  Older children could then write the introduction and conclusion at the end of the unit.  This approach would have the advantage that we could give students useful feedback on their written work by using a visualiser to share  answers, helping children identify where their answers could be made more complete (or correct.)  This would be an assessment of learning  within the foundation subjects to be proud of.

Summative assessment

But do children still remember what they learnt  months – or even years – later?  We are going to do a scary experiment in July. We are going to do a super quiz, assessing knowledge from all the ‘big 4’ topics they have done this year.  We will reissue them with back catalogue of KO’s to take home to revise, whizz through previous KO’s in story time,  re-run a couple of previous mcq’s in the run up – presenting the super quiz as a fun challenge with prizes for the year group with the best average score in each of the 4 subjects.  My class teachers are predicting very low scores…2 out of 10 being one suggestion.  We shall see. If they are that low, then mmm…. perhaps they just won’t make it onto my transitional object  spreadsheet.   It will be fascinating to see how the children do.  If they really don’t remember that much longer term, then that’s another argument for doing daily  short mcq’s or drills during the unit .  I was talking to Daisy Christodoulou recently and she had the very sensible idea of  helping children embed key grammar and punctuation ideas by doing editing challenges using  short passages  drawn from the  humanities curriculum from the previous year.  By so doing, the knowledge floating semi-forgotten somewhere in the long-term memory is re-remembered, thus strengthening that memory’s retrieval strength.

When I introduced the KO idea, I suggested that during topic blocks for the  subjects we weren’t going to have KO’s for (computing, art, and DT) that they gave out a previous unit’s KO each week, so knowledge was revisited. For good reasons this fell by the wayside, but it is something  to think about for next year.  And that brings me nicely to…

Assessment in the other 6 subjects?

So  history, geography, RE and science are sorted then.  That still leaves French and computing, art, DT, music and PE to assess. I’m not even going to go there with PHSE surely we can just teach that and  leave it at that? At St Matthias, French is taught by a subject specialist and native French speaker. She is off to Norwich in July to learn from Barry Smith  how to teach French the Michalea way.   I’m hoping we can adapt his method for ks2 learners, including the use of KO’s.   Computing, art, DT, PE and music could have their own KO’s reinforcing key vocabulary but I’d rather we focused most of our attention on  the process leading to an end product and used responsive teaching based on in the moment verbal feedback as our primary assessment method. Teachers could   also plan one over-arching end of unit objective against which to assess the end product and decide  if this has been ‘met’, ‘exceeded’ or is, in the assessment vernacular   mot de jour  still ‘developing’.  Personally I  think this is  a bit daft, so maybe I should stick to my guns and say that our assessment policy for  these 5 subjects is purely formative.   The  downside of that approach is that then it is difficult to know if your students are achieving at an acceptable standard and the strengths and weaknesses of your provision How would a purely formative approach enable reporting on progress in DT to governors, for example?  (Remember that allowing  ‘leaders, governors and teachers to track progress’  in foundation subjects ‘ was the key issue in the Ofsted report at the start of this piece.)    Actually, I think  it is just not do-able for primary teachers to track (with or without out numbers) every subject in the national curriculum in a meaningful way that actually  improves learning for anyone and I’d hope that Sean Harford would change his mind on the appropriateness of Ofsted expecting this across the board.   Instead of  making up systems to pretend we are ‘tracking’ attainment in art etc., we should pour our efforts into making sure that the teaching  – usually by non specialists – of these foundation subjects is as good as it possibly can be.  Quality professional development and cross school moderation of  foundation subjects, especially these foundation subjects – now these are things worth pouring time and energy into.

 

Ofsted says…assessment and the foundation subjects

No marking, no grading, no planning…

school logo

KS2 maternity cover Sept 2017- July 2018

Salary:  MPS/UPS fixed term contract

Want a great year, teaching in a great school in a great location?

You will have to work hard here, but only on things that make a difference: we don’t do meaningless paperwork; we don’t grade lessons or monitor your planning.  Instead of marking we give feedback in lessons.  We are always trying to find smarter ways to do our work. We only recruit people who are passionate about making a difference to children’s lives; people who challenge themselves to keep on improving. This means our working relationships can be relatively relaxed and informal. People love working here; we are warm, welcoming, positive, supportive and forward looking.

You will be joining a 1 form entry Church of England school with an inclusive and multi-cultural ethos based in the vibrant Shoreditch area of Tower Hamlets. Our community includes pupils and staff from a range of different faiths as well as people with no faith – all are welcome. We work together to foster children who are compassionate, respectful, happy, tolerant, curious and collaborative as well as academically successful.

We are looking for a teacher who:

  • Has a proven record of success as a class teacher and expertise in empowering children to make rapid progress.
  • Demonstrates optimism about children and expect the highest possible standards
  • Nurtures pupils’ emotional wellbeing

We offer you:

  • Sensible and successful systems, based on research, with a commitment to reduce workload whenever possible
  • A positive, warm and welcoming working environment
  • Experienced, intelligent, lively colleagues
  • Family-friendly working practices
  • A fantastic location with great transport links

Closing date for applications: Friday 19th May
Interviews: week commencing Monday 22nd May

Visits to the school are strongly recommended and can be arranged via on 020 7739 8058 or by emailing Maureen Marlborough at admin@st-matthias.towerhamlets.sch.uk  This is also the address if you want an application pack.  We reserve the right to close the selection process early.

St Matthias School is committed to safeguarding all children. Successful candidates will require a DBS clearance and suitable references before commencing employment. We welcome applications from all section of the community, regardless of gender, race, religion, disability, sexual orientation or age.

 

www.stmatthiasschool.org.uk

St Matthias School

Bacon Street

London

E2 6DY

020 7739 8058

No marking, no grading, no planning…

Infernal Inference

I’ve always found it much harder to teach how to infer meaning than how to decode. With decoding there’s a clear routemap. With some children, it takes a bit longer to travel that route, but if you stick to the path, in the end you will get there.[1]  But with inference…some children just get it and some really, really don’t.  And when they don’t, it’s really hard to move them on. You show them some text, you point out what you can infer from what you’ve read, they nod (on a good day) but when you ask them to have a go, they are just as clueless. It doesn’t seem to stick. Why is this?

Daniel Willingham, the cognitive scientist explains why. It seems that inference as a skill doesn’t really exist.  No wonder it’s so hard to teach! It’s a bit of a shame then that in the KS reading SATS paper between 16%-50% of the marks are allowed to come from ‘explaining and justifying inferences with evidence from the text.’   In 2016, 36% of the total marks came from questions that involved inference (18 marks out of 50).  I’m not alone in finding inference an area where children struggle.  Nationally, if we just consider the marks available for inference, the average score was just under 9 marks, or 49%.  So this year, alongside vocabulary, across the nation, improving the ability to infer has become the thing we are all working on.

What does Willingham actually mean then, and how might it help us?  In a previous blogpost I quoted Daniel Willingham on this in some detail. The quotes really stayed with me and I’ve been reflecting on them ever since,  and reading more of his writing, so although this post is covering similar ground, I hope it is still useful. Or interesting. Both would be great! So to recap, Willingham explains that inference is more of a trick than a skill. With a trick, once you know it, you won’t get any better by practising it over and over again. Skills on the other hand, improve with practice.

Willingham says that when we teach inference what we are really doing is teaching children to connect ideas, filling in the missing bits the author has left out.  That’s more or less it all there is to it as a technique; connect one idea, one sentence possibly, with another, by filling in the bits the author has left out. Authors always leave bits out; they don’t explain every last detail in the same way that when we speak, we make certain assumptions about the person listening, assuming they already know stuff and so can join the dots. The difficulty with this when it comes to reading rather than talking, is that when we talk to someone, we monitor if they are understanding us. We will look at the person we are speaking to from time to time to check for signs that they understand.   The person listening will give us some useful feedback, maybe nodding or saying ‘mhm’ or ‘uh-huh’; what linguists call giving ‘acceptance signals’ to show they get it.  If we have assumed too much and the listener doesn’t understand, they will send us a signal by saying something like ‘huh?’ or by looking baffled. This is our cue to provide more detail.  The thing about books is that they just don’t care if we ‘get’ what they are saying or not. They don’t monitor our acceptance signals, even though we might nod along as we read a recipe or set of instructions and they certainly don’t rephrase what they are saying if we exclaim ‘huh?’

Trick number one: notice if you understand what you are reading

So then, the first thing we need to teach children about inference is their own crucial role in checking they are understanding what the text is saying as they read.  The book isn’t going to stop and repeat itself or explain in more detail if they don’t understand.  Successful readers expect to understand what they read and know what to do when they spot themselves not understanding. We need to explicitly teach children to check that what they are reading makes sense to them; to nod along as they read in the same way we nod along when someone is talking to us. If something doesn’t make sense they should say ‘huh?’ to themselves and stop and reread the last sentence or two more slowly, to see if that helps. If someone was speaking, we’d ask them to repeat what they had said. Unfortunately, a book can’t rephrase was is written, but if we reread, we might find the bit that is tricky and then be able to make more sense of it.

This ‘expecting a text to make sense’ business seems obvious, but have you ever come across kids for whom being asked to read seems to be like pure torture, who stare grimly at the page when forced, avoiding engaging with the actual words, seeking any and every opportunity to be distracted?  Children who hate reading, even if they appear perfectly able to decode. It may well be that they don’t really get that it is meant to be an enjoyable experience.  I suspect that when children make the transition from reading out loud to an adult to being expected to read ‘for pleasure’ in their heads, a certain percentage just don’t realise that successful reading requires two things. Not only do you have to read the actual words but you also have to check that these strings of words make sense to you. And if they don’t, the reader has a responsibility to stop, go back and reread to try and fathom out what the writer is trying to say. Sometimes this will mean going back two or three sentences, maybe more than once.  Sometimes we might need to reread a whole paragraph again.  If children have never seen this modelled by a teacher, then how would they know that this is what they should also be doing?  Teachers need to use ‘thinking out loud’ to show how they check for meaning as they read. They need to model stumbling over phrasing or meaning and then stopping and rereading, to clarify the sense.  Children need to understand that this is a normal part of being a reader – something expert readers do all the time.

Trick number two: fill in the gaps by connecting ideas

The second thing we need to teach children about inference is that because writers leave bits out, they expect readers to join the dots and connect ideas for themselves. It would be beyond tedious if writers explained everything in minute detail.  We are so used to this as expert readers that we don’t even notice the gaps; that the sentences are connected is obvious to us.   Willingham illustrates this with this trio of sentences.  Bill came to my house yesterday. He dropped a cup of coffee. My rug is a mess.  The first connection the reader needs to make is one of coherence inference; the reader needs to connect ‘he’ with Bill.   Then there is elaborative inference; the reader is expected to draw on their life experience and general knowledge to connect the three sentences together.   In this case, the reader is expected to make the connection that the cup of coffee that Bill dropped is the cause of the mess on the rug even thought this is not stated. It is also assumed that the reader knows that coffee is dark liquid likely to stain a rug and that such stains are not usually desirable. The reader will need to access their long term memory and retrieve information about coffee, rugs, stains and mess; not just what these things are, though that too is important, but how they inter-relate. The writer is assuming the reader can make the following connections: dropping a cup of coffee would cause this dark brown liquid to escape onto the floor. Sometimes floors are covered with rugs. If the coffee fell onto the rug, its colour would remain – stain the rug – even after the rug had been cleaned. People usually clean up after spillages so when the person says that the rug is a mess, they are most likely referring to the stain as being ‘the mess’ rather than the cup and coffee themselves as it is probable that they have already tidied up the mess caused by the cup and liquid. This is because Bill came yesterday. That means the writer is writing about something that happened a day ago. People do not usually leave a mess like that for a whole day, they usually clean it up straight away. This is so obvious to us we don’t even notice we are making these connections and are baffled when children fail to make them.

Teachers need to help children understand how to do this by ‘thinking out loud’ as they read aloud to pupils, by asking themselves questions to show how they are monitoring their own understanding and seeking to make connections between different elements of the text, thus making explicit the thought processes involved in making inferences.

Global inference

The situation can be even more complicated with good stories.  Sometimes the writer will deliberately leave loads of information out.  In fact, it’s the leaving out of key bits of information that makes them so good. For example, let’s look at the beginning of the book The Imaginary by A.F Harrold and add in the extra information the writer assumes the reader already knows.

 Amanda was dead.

 Being dead is a bad thing. When you are dead you don’t exist anymore and people who like you are usually very sad about that. Most people don’t want to be dead and don’t want their friends or family to be dead either. Most people don’t even like it if strangers are dead. Amanda is a girl’s name so the dead person is female.  I have used the past continuous (was dead)  so that you realise the death has occurred quite recently. I’ve written this as a short, stark sentence to help you appreciate the shock value of this sentence to the other characters, who you haven’t met yet. I’m hoping it will shock you too.  I deliberately haven’t told you if this sentence is the narrator explaining or a character thinking. You will have to read more to find that out.

The words were like a hole in his chest, like a well he was falling down.

 By ‘The words’ I mean the previous phrase ‘Amanda was dead’.  The person indicated by the use of the male pronoun ‘he’ is very upset by these words. I have given you two word-pictures to help you understand just how upset he is. When I wrote ‘like a hole is his chest’ I didn’t mean there actually was a real hole in his chest, I was using figurative language to show that it felt really bad emotionally, in the same way that a hole in the chest would feel really bad physically. In a similar way, there is no actual well and ‘he’ is not actually falling. Again, this is a word picture to try and describe the emotional turmoil the male is undergoing as a result of hearing about the female Amanda’s death. Although strangers usually feel a bit sad when hearing about someone’s death, the figurative language shows that the sadness is very strong. Therefore, there must have been a strong emotional attachment of some sort between Amanda and ‘he’. Finding out about this attachment and why she is dead is going to be explained to you in the rest of this story. You can also expect to find out how ‘he’ gets over his strong feelings. This is a children’s story. Probably it will end happily. Don’t worry that you do not yet know who ‘he’ is; I will explain that to you at some point. Not telling you is a way of making you want to read on, to find out that information.

Writers – thank God – leave stuff out and expect us to fill in the gaps. Children need to understand this. So when they don’t understand, they know they need ask themselves what is it that the writer is assuming that I know that I don’t.  Or maybe the writer is just playing with me…

The joy of inference

If children are going to learn to love stories, they need to understand that the author sometimes deliberately leaves out information and it is the trying to work out what has been left out that creates the frisson, the excitement that makes reading stories pleasurable.  Why is Amanda dead? Who is this male protagonist? What will he do next? Will he ever recover? From the first two lines, the deliberate ambiguity makes us want to resolve our ignorance and read on.  So readers need to appreciate that sometimes the author is teasing us, dropping hints and clues but never quite enough information because it’s the not-knowing that makes reading fun.  That’s why some books are described as real page turners.  Readers have different tolerances for this not-knowing. A whodunit is all about the journey from not knowing to knowing, some poetry can remain elusively ambiguous even after several readings.  Some readers like this; others really don’t. The satisfying closure of an unambiguous – if unexpected ending – is what for many readers makes a great read.

Global inference is the kind of inference needed to make connections and predictions across whole texts. For this to happen, children need to learn about text conventions. For example, to return to The Imaginary, the fact that the author does not tell us immediately about why Amanda is dead or what her connection to ‘he’ is  is  confusing, but it is a deliberately planned confusion, to make us want to read more to resolve the tension of not knowing.  As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog, the six signposts in Notice and Note are great ways of teaching children to look out for subtle hints from the author about the way a story is going to go. When Willingham talks about inference, he is not really talking about this kind of global, whole text inference.  This involves learning about how authors craft character, use conflict to drive plot and flesh out themes and use foreshadowing to hint at later developments. These do need to be taught and deserve quality curriculum time devoted to them. These are not what his research was looking at. Indeed, his point is, if we spend too much time teaching about basic inference, we won’t have time to do the important stuff. Such as…

Developing Vocabulary

It is hard to make connections if you don’t know what some of the words mean, so teachers need to develop children’s vocabularies.    I’ve written before about ways of doing this so I won’t repeat that here, beyond mentioning that if you haven’t yet read Isabel Beck’s Bringing Words to Life then you are missing a trick. To state the obvious, children need to encounter lots of unfamiliar words in meaningful contexts, especially the kinds of words that occur more frequently in books than in the spoken word.  Children need to be read to a lot and to read to themselves a lot and to enjoy reading so much that they want to do more and more of it.

The inference problem is really a knowledge problem

Willingham wants teachers to know about the research on inference.   This says that while teaching children how to infer is quite important, there is little benefit to be had in teaching this for more than a few lessons because the techniques of monitoring ones understanding and then trying to make connections are easily learnt within a few hours of instruction. No additional benefit is gained by spending any more time on mastering these techniques beyond this.  To which most teachers I know would respond ‘easily learnt my ****!’   as inference does not seem to come easily.  But the meta-analysis is clear; once you know to monitor your understanding and to make connections and have spent a few hours working on that, further practice does not make you any better and is time wasted.  That’s because once you know these tricks, what will get in the way of understanding texts is gaps in your life experience, general knowledge and vocabulary. You will realise you don’t understand something and try and make the necessary connections, but still fail because you don’t have the knowledge to know how the things you are trying to connect actually relate.  Now the very same teachers nod in agreement; it’s not that children don’t know they should try and make connections; they just don’t know what the connection is on this occasion. Or the next. Or the one after that.

I’ve used this example before; it’s from an old reading sats paper.

The old bear roared in frustration and waved at the empty air with his huge paws, then reared up on his hind legs .’

The children I was teaching didn’t know the meaning of the words ‘frustration; ‘paw, ‘reared up’ or ‘hind’.    They found the term ‘empty air’ confusing.  They were meant to be inferring why the bear ‘reared up.’  We didn’t get very far.  It was not the most successful lesson I’ve ever taught.  All the teaching in the world about monitoring your understanding and trying to connect ideas won’t help when so many words are unknown.  So instead of spending too much time on teaching children how to infer – Willingham says about 10 hours is enough – acquiring a broad vocabulary and a rich base of background knowledge will yield more substantial and longer-term benefits.’  As children need to be fluent decoders before teaching the tricks of inference is really pertinent, Willingham concedes that since children develop at different rates, a little bit of inference and other reading comprehension teaching in the fourth, fifth and sixth grade (years 5, 6 and 7 in the UK system) is a sensible use of time, but beyond that, it is time wasted.

It is interesting that the recent Education Endowment Foundation Guidance Report on improving literacy at key stage 2 hardly mentions developing this ‘rich base of background’ knowledge at all, beyond including Scarborough’s Reading Rope, where background knowledge is the first strand mentioned (not because it is top priority, I think the layout of the strands within the ‘language comprehension aspect is fairly arbitrary and it is just chance that background knowledge was placed on top).

rope of reading

The report says that the Reading Rope model can be used as a diagnostic tool to identify areas to focus on. What Willingham is cautioning us against is over-diagnosing problems with inference at the expense of the real culprits; lack of background knowledge and under-developed vocabulary.  In the report’s section on teaching comprehension strategies, it suggests it is useful to ‘activate prior knowledge.’  But the crucial point missed here is that for many of our pupils who struggle to understand texts, they don’t have this ‘prior knowledge’ to activate in the first place! In fact, the same section recommends ‘extensive practice’ of exactly the sort of specific strategies that Willingham warns should only be used for short periods of time, as further practice once the strategy is learnt is fruitless.

This is very scary for primary headteachers and ks2 teachers who are held accountable via a reading comprehension text, for it is saying that what we are mainly being tested on is our students’ vocabulary and background knowledge.   But since we never know in advance which knowledge and vocabulary our pupils will be tested on – white giraffes, warthogs and dodos last year, who knows what in a week’s time[2] – how can we make sure they know enough to do well?

This is where we need to take deep breaths and be brave. We are here to teach children to be good readers for the rest of their lives, not to teach children to appear to be good readers one Monday in May.  Sure, we’d be foolish not to spend a fair bit of time in the immediate run up to the tests practising test technique.[3] But we can’t let the stupidity that is the reading comprehension test warp the whole of the way we teach reading in ks2.

If having rich background knowledge is key to becoming a successful reader, then accumulating that knowledge needs to start as early as possible.  We need more non-fiction reading aloud to children in the early years and key stage1, alongside fabulous stories. The emphasis on spoken language in the early years is crucial, but we must remember to give them interesting, memorable stuff to talk about; not just great stories.  The ‘understanding the world’ strand should be the driving force underpinning the early years’ curriculum.  Practitioners should know what vocabulary and general knowledge children will have acquired as a result of their topic on ‘pirates’, for example.  Particularly in a context where children are disadvantaged and may have limited life experienced, we need to expand children’s horizons in all year groups, taking them on trips, bringing visitors into school and fully appreciating just how urgently our children need to acquire the kind of general knowledge middle class children are routinely exposed to at home. We need to understand that the humanities and science lessons are the main places where children will gain this knowledge and make sure our curriculum and pedagogy ensure that knowledge is imparted and retained.  Those children should have known what a paw was and what hind leg means. Cutting back on foundation subjects to improve reading is a false economy.

We should  also devote prime curriculum time to reading amazing books to children, expanding their vocabularies and doing all we can to get them to want to read for themselves. We need great libraries, teachers who are knowledgeable about children’s literature and who can help every child find the book that they will fall in love with; time in the curriculum for both reading to children and for children to read to themselves. And we need lots and lots of books.

 

 

[1] In 99.9% of the time. I’ll concede that for maybe 0.1% of children you eventually need to try another approach. Stressing eventually here.

[2] I’m writing this the week before the 2017 key stage 2 reading sats test. Indeed, this time in a week, the completed tests will be safely in their grey plastic bag, awaiting collection. *gulp*

[3] I saw a hilarious lesson last week where the teacher told them that the reason instructions to ‘tick ONE box’  were written in bold was because the markers were fed up with children sometimes ticking two, so the bold was the marker shouting at us to make us remember.

Infernal Inference

Handy guide to these budget strapped times.

There’s a lot of whinging about the financial situation. Come on people!  We need to embrace the austerity agenda. It’s the perfect opportunity to root out waste; cut the fat. Our grandmothers and great grandmothers knew how to ‘make do and mend’, so stop snivelling and start cutting. Look what I’ve saved!

Early intervention

Before: provide additional speech and language therapy as part of our early intervention offer.

Cost £14,5000[1] for a speech and language therapist one day a week.

Now: the nursery teaching assistant will run a group once a week.  This will leave the teacher with the rest of the class, so this can only run if a couple of children are off sick. Otherwise our ratios are wrong.   But our attendance isn’t exactly our strong point, so that should be fine.  If a child wets themselves or falls over and needs first aid – the TA’s a resourceful person, I’m sure she’ll be able to weave that into the speech and language group somehow. After all, using real life situations is good practice isn’t it.

Interventions in phonics, maths and writing

Before: provide TA led maths interventions with 3x 1 hour sessions for small groups in year 2 and yrs 4,5 and 6

Cost: £2,000

Now: provide children with 15 minutes maths catch up from the teacher during assembly twice a week. The idea that assemblies are the whole school coming together as a community is rather old fashioned and a little bit hippy dippy, ‘let’s hug a tree’, in my view.  The vicar will be fine holding the fort and I’ll even timetable a couple of TA’s on hand to eyeball the restless. And to mop up any vomit or other human spillages. Children eh! Dreadful tendency to leak at inconvenient times.

Before: Provide additional 4 staff to run daily phonics groups in addition to core staff for an hour each day. Provide high quality training and coaching for all staff delivering the programme.  Provide TA led additional daily phonics sessions for children in year 1 who are not on track to pass their phonics check.

Cost £15,000

Now: I hear mixed methods aren’t all that bad. (Just don’t tell @oldandrewuk[2])

Before: teacher led writing intervention for ks2 pupils 1 hour, once a week

Cost: £5,000

Now: buy some fancy pencils. Children make much faster progress when they have fancy pencils. I might even splash out on some gel pens if I can save a bit by turning down the heating a few more degrees. Children don’t feel the cold anyway do they. If I hear any complaints from staff, I’ll tell them to wear another jumper.

Pastoral and family support

Before: employ school based social worker for half a day a week. Cost £6,900

Now: pass the cost of early intervention onto social care; it’s their responsibility anyway. I know they moan that we’re clogging up their system, by calling their duty line and expecting help to be brought in, instead of providing it in house where apparently it is it is perceived as ‘less threatening’ and is therefore more effective. But these needy families need to man up. Especially the ones with single mothers.

Before: Employ a home: school liaison officer for 3 days a week to provide pastoral and family support and work with families where attendance is poor. Cost £18,000

Now: see previous answer re social care.  Try shouting at parents whose kids have bad attendance. I’m sure that will work. For really challenging families, offer them a transfer form. I hear St Bingo’s have plenty of spaces. Then there is always permanent exclusion. Under used, in my book.

Building cultural capital

Before: free breakfast club for disadvantaged children

Cost: £8,000

Now: hasn’t anyone heard of the obesity crisis? Seriously, the last thing kids need these days is free food.

Before: after school clubs for disadvantaged pupils, providing additional learning opportunities to those who have narrow life experiences

Cost: £10,000

Now: should we really be trying to make up for parental deficiencies?  I mean, I’m sure if we stop trying to be surrogate parents, that will be just the helpful nudge some parents need to take up the reins of their responsibilities.

Provide extracurricular enhancement through trips and residential experiences

Before: ensure all children build their cultural capital through visits to museums, galleries, theatres, concerts and have the opportunity to attend a residential trip

Cost: £6,000

Now: Actual visits are very stressful and time consuming. You can see most things anyway via Google and YouTube.  As for the residential trip – do a sleepover at school. I’m sure the staff will be really excited at the prospect of sleeping on the floor of the hall, along with their class after a stimulating day at the chalk face. So character building! Our children find the countryside a bit scary anyway – they feel so much safer here in the inner city. And who says we don’t care for the whole child!

So there you have it. I saved nearly £80,000 with a little bit of pruning.  Easy when you know how.

[1]  Just in case you hadn’t realised, this is a parody. All of the costings are made up, so please don’t put comments saying ‘well that’s expensive for a TA, or whatever.’ It’s bad enough having to do the sums to set a budget without doing more sums for a work of fiction.  And if you happen to work at St Matthias, this is not my actual plan.

[2] I did mention that this is a parody, didn’t I.

Handy guide to these budget strapped times.

Test to the Teach

making-good-progressWhen Daisy Christodoulou told us not to teach to the test, I assumed she was mainly concerned with teachers spending too much lesson time making sure children understood the intricacies of the mark scheme at the expense of the intricacies of the subject. Personally, I’ve never spent that much time on the intricacies of any mark scheme. I’ve been far too busy making sure children grasp the rudimentary basics of how tests work to have time spare for anything intricate.   For example, how important it is to actually read the question.  I spend whole lessons stressing ‘if the question says underline two words that mean the same as …., that means you underline TWO words. Not one word, not three words, not two phrases. TWO WORDS.    Or if the questions says ‘tick the best answer’ then,  and yes, I know this is tricky, the marker is looking to see if you can select the BEST answer from a selection which will have been deliberately chosen to include a couple that are half right. BUT NOT THE BEST. (I need to lie down in a darkened room just thinking about it).

But this is not Christodoulou’s primary concern.

Christodoulou’s primary concern is that the way we test warps how we teach. While she is well aware that the English education system’s mania for holding us accountable distorts past and present assessment systems into uselessness, her over-riding concern is one of teaching methodology.  She contrasts the direct teaching of generic skills (such as using inference for example) with a methodology that believes such skills are better taught indirectly through teaching a range of more basic constituent things first, and getting those solid.  This approach, she argues, creates the fertile soil in which  inferring (or problem solving or  communicating or critical thinking or whatever) can thrive. It is a sort of ‘look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves’ or (to vary the metaphor) a ‘rising tide raises all boats’ methodology. Let me try to explain…

I did not come easily to driving. Even steering – surely the easiest part of the business – came to me slowly, after much deliberate practice in ‘not hitting anything.’ If my instructor had been in the business of sharing learning objectives she would surely have told me that ‘today we are learning to not hit anything.’

Luckily for the other inhabitants of Hackney, she scaffolded my learning by only letting me behind the wheel once we were safely on the deserted network of roads down by the old peanut factory. The car was also dual control, so she pretty much covered the whole gears and clutch business whilst I concentrated hard on not hitting anything.  Occasionally she would lean across and yank the steering wheel too.  However, thanks to her formative feedback (screams, yanks, the occasional extempore prayer), I eventually mastered both gears and not-hitting-anything.  Only at that point did we actually go on any big roads or ‘ to play with the traffic’ as she put it.  My instructor did not believe that the best way to get me to improve my driving was by driving. Daisy Christodoulou would approve.

Actually there was this book we were meant to complete at the end of each lesson. Michelle (my instructor) mostly ignored this, but occasionally she would write something – maybe the British School of Motoring does book looks –  such as ‘improve clutch control,’ knowing full well the futility of this –  if I  actually knew how to control a clutch I bloody well would. She assessed that what I needed was lots and lots of safe practice of clutch control with nothing else to focus on. So most lessons (early on anyway) were spent well away from other traffic, trying to change gears without stalling, jumping or screeching, with in-the-moment verbal feedback guiding me. And slowly I got better. If Michelle had had to account for my progress towards passing my driving test, she would have been in trouble. Whole areas  of the curriculum such as overtaking, turning right at a junction and keeping the correct distance between vehicles were not even attempted until after many months of lessons had taken place. Since we did not do (until right near the very end) mock versions of the driving test, she was not able to show her managers a nice linear graph showing what percentage of the test I had, and had not yet mastered.  I would not have been ‘on track’. Did Michelle adapt my learning to fit in with these assessments?  Of course not!  She stuck with clutch control until I’d really got it and left ‘real driving’ to the future- even though this made it look like I was (literally) going nowhere, fast.  Instead Michelle just kept on making sure I mastered all the basics and gradually added in other elements as she thought I was ready for them.  In the end, with the exception of parallel parking, I could do everything just about well enough. I passed on my third occasion.

I hope this extended metaphor helps explain Christodoulou’s critique of teaching and assessment practices in England today. Christodoulou’s book ‘Making Good Progress?’ explores why it is that the assessment revolution failed to transform English education. After all, the approach was rooted in solid research and was embraced by both government and the profession. What could possibly go wrong?

One thing that went wrong, explains Christodoulou, is that instead of  teachers ‘using evidence of student learning to adapt…teaching…to meet student needs’[1], teachers adapted their teaching to meet the needs of their (summative) assessments. Instead of assessment for learning we got learning for assessment.

Obviously assessments don’t actually have needs themselves. But the consumers of assessment – and I use the word advisedly –  do.  There exist among us voracious and insatiable accountability monsters, who need feeding at regular intervals with copious bucketfuls of freshly churned data.  Imagine the British School of Motoring held pupil progress meetings with their instructors. Michelle might have felt vulnerable that her pupil was stuck at such an early stage and have looked at the driving curriculum and seen if there were some quick wins she could get ticked off before the next data drop.  Preferably anything that doesn’t require you to drive smoothly in a straight line…signalling for example.

But this wasn’t even the main thing that went wrong. Or rather, something was already wrong, that no amount of AfL could put right. We were trying to teach skills like inference directly, when, in fact, these, so Christodoulou argues, are best learnt more indirectly by learning other things first. Instead of learning to read books by reading books, one should start with  technical details like phonics. Instead of starting with maths problem solving, one should learn some basic number facts. Christodoulou describes how what is deliberately practised – the technical detail –  may look very different from the final skill in its full glory. Phonics practice isn’t the same as reading a book.  Learning dates off by heart is not the same as writing a history essay.  Yet the former is necessary, if not sufficient basis for the latter. To use my driving metaphor, practising an emergency stop on a deserted road at 10mph when you know it’s coming is very, very different from actually having to screech to a stop from 40mph on a rainy day in real life, when a child runs out across the road. Yet the former helped you negotiate the latter.

The driving test has two main parts; technical control of the vehicle and behaviour in traffic (a.k.a. playing with the traffic). It is abundantly clear that to play with the traffic safely, the learner must have mastered a certain amount of technical control of the vehicle first. Imagine Michelle had adopted the generic  driving skill approach and assumed  these technical matters could be picked up en route, in the course of generally driving about,  and assumed that I could negotiate left and right turns at the same time as maintaining control of the vehicle. When I repeatedly stall, because the concentration it take to both brake and steer distracts me from concentrating on changing gears to match this slower speed, Michelle tells me that I did not change down quickly enough, which I find incredibly frustrating because I know I’ve got a gears problems, and it is my gears problem I need help with. But what I don’t get with the generic skill approach is time to practice changing gears up and down as a discrete skill. That would be frowned on as being ‘decontextualised’. I might protest that I’d feel a lot safer doing a bit of decontextualized practice right now – but drill and practice  is frowned upon – isn’t real driving after all – and in the actual test I am going to have to change gears and steer and brake all at the same time (and not hit anything) so better get used to it now.

Christodoulou argues that the direct teaching of generic skills  leads to the kind of assessment practice that puts the cart, if not before the horse, then parallel with it. Under this approach, if you want the final fruit of a course of study to be an essay on the causes of the First World War, the route map to this end point will punctuated with ‘mini-me’ variations of this final goal; shorter versions of the essay perhaps. These shorter versions are then used by the teacher formatively, to give the learner feedback about the relative strengths and weaknesses of these preliminary attempts. All the learner then has to do, in theory, is marshal all this feedback together, address any shortcomings whilst retaining, and possibly augmenting, any strengths. However, this often leaves the learner none the wiser about precisely how to address their shortcomings.  Advice to ‘be more systematic’ is only useful if you understand what being systematic means in practice, and if you already know that, you probably would have done so in the first place.[2]

It is the assessment of progress through  interim assessments that strongly resemble the final exam that Christodoulou means by teaching to the test.  Not because students shouldn’t know what  format an exam is going to take and have a bit of practice on it towards the very end of  a course of study.  That’s not teaching to the test. Teaching to the test is working backwards from the final exam and then writing a curriculum punctuated by  slightly reduced versions of that exam – and then teaching each set of lessons with the next test in mind.   The teaching is shaped by the approaching test.  This is learning for assessment.  By contrast Christodoulou argues that we should just concentrate on teaching the  curriculum and that there may be a whole range of other activities to assess how this learning is going that may look nothing like the final learning outcome. These, she contends, are much better suited to helping the learner actually improve their performance. For example, the teacher might teach the students what the key events were in the build up to the first World War, and then, by way of assessment, ask students to put these in correct chronological order on a time line.  Feedback from this sort of assessment is very clear –if events are in the wrong order, the student needs to learn them in the correct order.  The teacher teaches some  small component that will form part of the final whole, and tests that discrete part. Testing to the teach, in other words, as opposed to teaching to the test.

There are obvious similarities with musicians learning scales and sports players doing specific drills – getting the fine details off pat before trying to orchestrate everything together.  David Beckham apparently used to practice free kicks from all sorts of positions outside the penalty area, until he was able to hit the top corner of the goal with his eyes shut.  This meant that in the fury and flurry of a real, live game, he was able to hit the target with satisfying frequency.  In the same way, Christodoulou advocates spending more time teaching and assessing progress in acquiring decontextualized technical skills and less time on the contextualised ‘doing everything at once’, ‘playing with the traffic’ kind of tasks that closely resemble the final exam.  Only when we do this, she argues, will assessment for learning be able to bear fruit. When the learning steps are small enough and comprehensible enough for the pupil to act on them, then and only then will afl be a lever for accelerating pupil progress.

Putting my primary practitioner hat on, applying this approach in some areas (for example reading) chimes with what we already do,  but in others (I’m thinking writing here) the approach seems verging on the heretical.  Maths deserves a whole blog to itself, so I’m going to leave that for now – whilst agreeing whole-heartedly that thorough knowledge of times tables and number bonds  (not just to ten but within ten and within  twenty   – so including  3+5 and 8+5 for example) are  absolutely  crucial. Indeed I’d go so far as to say number bonds are even more important than times table knowledge, but harder to learn and rarely properly tested. hit-the-button I’ve mentioned hit the button in a previous blog. We have now created a simple spreadsheet that logs each child’s score from year 2 to year 6  in the various categories for number bonds. Children start with make 10 and stay on this until they score 25 or more (which means 25 correct in 1 minute which I reckon equates to automatic recall.  Then then proceed through the categories in turn – with missing numbers and make 100 with lower target scores of 15.  Finally they skip the two decimals categories and go to the times table section – which has division facts as well as multiplication facts. Yes!  When they’ve got those off pat, then they can return to do the decimals and the other categories. We’ve shared this, and the spreadsheet –  with parents and some children are practising at home each night. With each game only taking one minute, it’s not hard to insist that your child plays say three rounds of this first, before relaxing.  In class, the teachers test a group each day in class, using their set of 6 ipads.  However since kindle fire’s were on sale for £34.99 recently, we’ve just bought 10 of them (the same as the cost of 1 i pad). We’ll use them for lots of other things too, of course – anything where all you really need is access to an internet browser.

When we talk about mastery, people often talk about it like it’s this elusive higher plan that the clever kids might just attain in a state of mathematical or linguistic nirvana when really what it means is that every single child in your class – unless they have some really serious learning difficulty – has automatic recall of these basic number facts and (then later) their times tables.  And can use full stops and capital letters correctly the first time they write something. And can spell every word on the year 3 and 4 word list (and year 1 & 2 as well of course).  And read fluently – at least 140 words a minute, by the time they leave year 6. And have books they love to read – having read at least a million words for pleasure in the last year (We use accelerated reader to measure this – about half of year 6 are word millionaires already this year and a quarter have read over 2 million words.) How about primary schools holding themselves accountable to their secondary schools for delivering cohorts of children who have mastered all of these (with allowances for children who have not been long at the school or who have special needs)  a bit like John Lewis is ‘Never Knowingly Undersold’, we  should aim (among other things) to ensure at the very least, all our children who possibly could, have got these basics securely under their belt.

(My teacher husband and I now pause to have an argument about what should make it to the final list.   Shouldn’t something about place value be included? Why just facts?  Shouldn’t there be something about being able to use number bonds to do something?  I’m talking about a minimum guarantee here – not specifying everything that should be in the primary curriculum. He obviously needs to read the book himself.)

Reading

My extended use of the metaphor of learning to drive to explain Christodoulou’s approach has one very obvious flaw. We usually teach classes of 30 children whereas driving lessons are normally conducted 1:1. It is all very well advocating spending as much time on the basics as is necessary before proceeding onto having to orchestrate several different skills all at the same time, but imagine the frustration the more able driver would have felt stuck in a class with me and my poor clutch control.  They would want to be out there on the open roads, driving, not stuck behind me and my kangaroo petrol.  Children arrive at our schools at various starting points. Some children pick up the sound-grapheme correspondences almost overnight; for others it takes years. I lent our phonics cards to a colleague to show here three-year-old over the weekend; by Monday he knew them all. Whereas another pupil, now in year 5, scored under 10 in both his ks1 phonic checks.  I tried him again on it recently and he has finally passed.  He is now just finishing turquoise books. In other words, he has just graduated from year 1 level reading, 4 years later.  This despite daily 1:1 practice with a very skilled adult, reading from a decodable series he adores (Project X Code), as well as recently starting on the most decontextualized reading programme ever (Toe by Toe – which again he loves) and playing SWAP. He is making steady progress – which fills him with pride – but even if his secondary school carries on with the programme[3], at this rate he won’t really be a fluent reader until year 10. I keep on hoping a snowball effect will occur and the rate of progress will dramatically increase.

Outliers aside, there is a range of ability (or prior attainment if you prefer) in every class and for something as technical as phonics, this is most easily catered for by having children in small groups, depending on their present level. We use ReadWriteInc in  the early years and ks1.  Children are assessed individually by the reading leader  for their technical ability to decode, segment and blend every half term and groups adjusted accordingly.  So that part of our reading instruction is pretty Christodoulou-compliant, as I would have thought it is in most infant classes.  But what about the juniors, or late year 2 – once the technical side is pretty sorted and teachers turn to teaching reading comprehension.  Surely, if ever  a test was created solely  for the purposes of being able to measure something, it was the reading comprehension test, with the whole of ks2 reading curriculum one massive, time wasting exercise in teaching to the test?

I am well aware of the research critiquing the idea that there are some generic comprehension skills that can be taught in a way that can be learnt from specific texts and then applied across many texts, as Daniel Willingham explores here.  Christodoulou quotes Willingham several times in her book and her critique of generic skills is obvioulsy influenced by his work. As Willingham explains, when we teach reading comprehension strategies we are  actually teaching vocabulary, noticing understanding, and connecting ideas. (My emphasis).  In order to connect ideas (which is what inference is), the reader needs to know enough about those ideas, to work out what hasn’t been said as well as what has been. Without specific knowledge, all the generic strategies in the world won’t help. As Willingham explains

Inferences matter because writers omit a good deal of what they mean. For example, take a simple sentence pair like this: “I can’t convince my boys that their beds aren’t trampolines. The building manager is pressuring us to move to the ground floor.” To understand this brief text the reader must infer that the jumping would be noisy for the downstairs neighbors, that the neighbors have complained about it, that the building manager is motivated to satisfy the neighbors, and that no one would hear the noise were the family living on the ground floor. So linking the first and second sentence is essential to meaning, but the writer has omitted the connective tissue on the assumption that the reader has the relevant knowledge about bed‐jumping and building managers. Absent that knowledge the reader might puzzle out the connection, but if that happens it will take time and mental effort.’

So what the non-comprehending reader needs is  very specific  knowledge (about what it’s like to live in a flat), not some generic skill.  It could be argued then that schools therefore should spend more time teaching specific knowledge and less time elusive and non existant generic reading skills. However, Willingham concedes that the research shows that even so, teaching reading comprehension strategies does work. How can this be, he wonders? He likens the teaching of these skills as similar to giving someone vague instructions for assembling Ikea flat pack furniture.

 ‘Put stuff together. Every so often, stop, look at it, and evaluate how it is going. It may also help to think back on other pieces of furniture you’ve built before.

This is exactly the process we go through during shared reading. On top of our daily phonics lessons we have two short lessons a week of shared reading where the class teacher models being a reader using the eric approach. In other words, we have daily technical lessons,  and twice a week  we also have a bit of ‘playing with the traffic’ or more accurately, listening to the teacher playing with the traffic and talking about what they are doing as they do it.  In our shared reading lessons, by thinking out loud about texts, the teacher makes it very explicit that texts are meant to be understood and enjoyed and not just for barking at and that  therefore we should check as we go along that we are understanding what we are reading (or looking at). If  we don’t understand something, we should stop and ask ourselves questions.   It is where the teacher articulates that missing ‘connective tissue’,  or ‘previous experience of building furniture’  to use Willingham’s Ikea metaphor, sharing new vocabulary and knowledge of the how the world works, knowledge that many of our inner city children do not have.  (Although actually for this specific instance many of them would know about noisy neighbours, bouncing on beds and the perils of so doing whilst living in flats.)

eric

For example, this picture (used in ‘eric’ link above) gives the the teacher the opportunity to share their knowledge that that sometimes the sea can get rough and that this means the waves get bigger and the wind blows strongly. Sometimes it might blow so hard that it could even blow your hat right off your head. As the waves rise and fall, the ship moves up and down and tilts first one way, and then the other. (Pictures are sometimes used for this  rather than texts so working memory is relieved from the burden of decoding).

When teaching children knowledge is extolled as the next panacea, it’s not that I don’t agree, it’s just that I reckon people really underestimate quite how basic some of the knowledge we need to impart for our younger children. I know of primary schools proudly adopting a ‘knowledge curriculum’ and teaching  two hours of history a week, with two years given over to learning about the Ancient Greeks.  I just don’t see how this will help children understand texts about noisy neighbours, or about what the sea is like (although you could do that in the course of learning about Ancient Greece if you realised children didn’t know), or, for that matter, what it is like to mill around in bewilderment.  The only kind of assessment that will help here is the teacher’s ‘ear to the ground’ minute by minute assessment – realising that -oh, some of them haven’t ever seen the sea, or been on a boat. They don’t know about waves or how windy it can be or how you rock up and down.   This is the kind of knowledge that primary teachers in disadvantaged areas need to talk about all the time.  And why we need to go on lots of trips too. But it is not something a test will pick up nor something you can measure progress gains in.  The only way to increase vocabulary is one specific word at a time. It is also why we should never worry about whether something is ‘relevant’ to the children or not. If it is too relevant, then they already know about it – the more irrelevant the better.

I don’t  entirely agree with the argument that since we can’t teach generic reading skills we should instead teach lots more geography and history since this will give  children the necessary knowledge they need to understand what they read.   We need to read and talk, talk talk about stories and their settings -not just what a mountain is but how it feels to climb a mountain or live on a mountain, how that affects your daily life, how you interact with your neighbours.  We need to read more non fiction aloud, starting in the early years.  We need to talk about emotions and body language and what the author is telling us by showing us.  A quick google will show up writers body language ‘cheat sheets’. We need to reverse engineer these and explain that if the author has their character fidgetting with darting eyes, that probably means they are feeling nervous. Some drama probably wouldn’t go amiss either.  Willingham’s trio of  teaching vocabulary, noticing understanding, and connecting ideas is a really helpful way of primary teachers thinking about what they are doing when they teach reading comprehension. What we need to assess and feedback to children is how willing they to admit they don’t understand something, to ask what a word means, to realise they must be missing some connection.  None of this is straightforwardly testable. That doesn’t mean it isn’t important.

Writing

Whereas most primary schools, to a greater or lesser degree, teach reading by at first teaching phonics, the teaching of writing is much more likely to be taught though students writing than it is through teaching a series of sub skills.  It is the idea that we ensure technical prowess before  we spend too much time on creative writing that most challenges the way we currently do things.

Of course we teach children to punctuate their sentences with capital letters and full stops right at the start of their writing development. However, patently, this instruction has limited effectiveness for many children.  They might remember when they are at the initial stages and when they only write one sentence anyway – so not so hard to remember the final full stop in that case. Where it all goes wrong is once they start writing more than one sentence, further complicated when they start writing sentences with more than one clause. I’ve often thought we underestimate how conceptually difficult it is to understand what a sentence actually is.  Learning to use speech punctuation is far easier than learning what is, and what is not, a sentence. Many times we send children back to put in their full stops, actually, they don’t really get where fulls tops really go.  On my third session doing 1:1 tuition with a year 5 boy, he finally plucked up the courage to tell me that he know he should but he just didn’t get how you knew where sentences ended.  So I abandoned what I’d planned and instead we  learnt about sentences. I told him that sentences had a person or a thing doing something, and then after those two crucial bits we might get some extra information about where or why or with whom or whatever that  belongs with the person/thing, so needs to be in the same sentence.   We analysed various sentences, underlining the person/thing in one colour, the doing something word in another colour and finally the extra information (which could be adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, the object of the sentence – the predicate minus the verb basically) in another. This was some time ago before the renaissance of grammar teaching, so it never occurred to me to use the terms ‘subject’ ‘noun’ ‘verb’ etc but I would do now. It was all done of the hoof, but after three lessons he had got it, and even better, could apply it in his own writing.

What Christodoulou is advocating is that instead of waiting until things have got so bad they need 1:1 tuition to put it right, we systematically teach sentence punctuation (and other  common problems such as verb subject agreement), giving greater priority to this than to creative writing. In other words, stop playing with the traffic before you’ve mastered sufficient technical skills to do so properly.  This goes against normal primary practice, but I can see the sense in this. If ‘practice makes permanent’ as cognitive psychology tells us (see chapter 7 of What Every teacher Needs to Know About Psychology by Didau and Rose for more on this), then the last thing we want is for children to practice again and again doing something incorrectly. But this is precisely what our current practice does. Because most of the writing we ask children to do is creative writing, children who can’t punctuate their sentences get daily practice in doing it wrong. The same goes for letter formation and spelling of high frequency common exception words. Maybe instead we need to spend far more time in the infants and into year 3 if necessary on doing drills where we punctuate text without the added burden of composing as we go. Maybe this way, working memories would not become so overburdened with thinking about what to say that the necessary technicalities went out the window. After that, we could rewrite this correctly punctuated text in correctly formed handwriting.  Some children have genuine handwriting or spelling problems and I wouldn’t want to condemn dyslexic and dyspraxic children to permanent technical practice. However if we did more technical practice in the infants  – which would mean less time for writing composition – we might spot who had a genuine problem earlier and then put in place specific programmes to help them and/or aids to get round the problem another way. After all,  not all drivers use manual transmission, some drive automatics.

Christodoulou mentions her experience of using the ‘Expressive Writing’ direct instruction programme, which I duly ordered. I have to say it evoked a visceral dislike in me; nasty cheap paper, crude line drawings,  totally decontextualised, it’s everything my primary soul eschews (and  it’s expensive to boot). However, the basic methodology is sound enough – and Christodoulou only mentions it because it is the ones she is familiar with. It is not like she’s giving it her imprimatur or anything.  I’m loathed to give my teachers more work, but  I don’t think it would be too hard to invent some exercises that are grounded in the context of something else children are learning; some sentences about Florence Nightingale or the Fire of London for example, or a punctuation-free excerpt from a well-loved story.  Even if we only did a bit more of this and a bit less of writing compositions where we expect children to orchestrate many skills all at once, we should soon see gains also in children’s creative writing. Certainly, we should insist of mastery in these core writing skills by year 3, and  where children still can’t punctuate a sentence, be totally ruthless in focusing on that until the problem is solved. And I don’t just mean that they can edit in their full stops after the fact, I mean they put them (or almost all of them in ) as they write. it needs to become an automatic process. Once it is automatic is it easy.   Otherwise we are not doing them any favours in the long term as we are just making their error more and more permanent and harder and harder to undo.

Certainly pupil progress meetings would be different. Instead of discussing percentages and averages,  the conversation would be very firmly about the teacher sharing the gaps in knowledge they had detected, the plans they had put in place to bridge those gaps, and progress to date in so doing, maybe courtesy of the ‘hit the button’ spreadsheet, some spelling tests, end of unit maths tests, records of increasing reading fluency. Already last July our end of year reports for parents shared with them which number facts, times tables and spellings (from the year word lists) their child did not yet know…with the strong suggestion that the child work on these over the summer!   We are introducing ‘check it’ mini assessments so that we can check that we we taught three weeks ago is still retained. It’s easy, we just test to the teach.

[1] Christodoulou quoting D. Wiliams, p 19 Making Good Progress?

[2] Christodoulou quoting D. Wiliams, p 20 Making Good Progress?

[3] I say this because our local secondary school told me they didn’t believe in withdrawing children from class for interventions. Not even reading interventions. Surely he could miss MFL and learn to read in English first? As a minimum.  Why not English lessons? I know he is ‘entitled’ to learn about Macbeth but at the expense of learning to read? Is Macbeth really that important? Maybe he will go to a different secondary school or they’ll change their policy.

Test to the Teach

Curating knowledge/organising knowledge

Jon Brunskill has started off an interesting exchange on twitter after posting two blogs about knowledge organisers in primary schools including one about the Apollo 11 Mission to the Moon. Some commentators don’t like the idea much on the grounds that it is a disembodied list of facts and therefore dull and uninteresting. To which Jon (and I) reply that of course it would be were that the only thing  that was presented in the lesson. However, bringing knowledge to life in a lively way is the job of the teacher; a job made much easier by having spent time deciding which knowledge to include and which to discard. Among the myriad of concepts, definitions, dates, events, descriptions , quotations, hypotheses, opinions and arguments that we could potentially include, what exactly is it that is  so crucial to the topic that it warrants inclusion on the KO?   What knowledge should we curate? ( Those of us of a left-wing bent could decide to call our knowledge organisers knowledge curators to make it  clear that despite having gone all ‘knowledgey’ and seemingly in the same camp as Lord Nash, Civitas and Michael Gove, our socialist credentials remain intact and we acknowledge that the selection of knowledge is a political act.  We could do, but people would laugh at us. Even more.)

The national curriculum, punctiliously specific in English and maths, relaxes into vague suggestions for the wider curriculum, particularly in history.  I’d rather that than the breathless charge through British history that was in Mr Gove’s draft national curriculum (p165 and following) which appeared to assume curriculum time was infinitely expandable.  However, the lack of explicit direction leaves non specialist primary teachers with the task of choosing what to include and what to leave out within topic headings such as ‘the Roman Empire and its impact on Britain’ followed by 5 non statutory suggestions. Does that mean we should try and pick one of the five? Do all five?  If we did something completely different, would that matter? Given that curriculum time for foundation subjects is all too finite, what should make the final cut?

Other commentators like the concept of knowledge organisers  but want to refine the idea, something that Jon welcomes; ‘the friction from the resistance is ultimately…what will polish the diamond.’  Do let’s have more constructive twitter/blog exchanges like this that help us all reflect and improve what we do. It is particularly useful to have contributions from secondary specialists explaining what areas of knowledge it is most useful for children to have acquired during their primary years.

As St Matthias, we too have been using KO’s since September, so I thought I’d post some of ours in to help discussion along.  I didn’t write these; the class teachers did.  I’m really pleased with how they’ve taken to the idea, but there’s a lot more to this KO business than it seems and they will all need polishing and refining further. I’ve included three, a history focused one from year 2 on the Fire of London, another history focused one from year 3 on Ancient Egypt and a geography focused one that uses the stories of  Ernest Shackleton and Matthew Henson as a context for learning about continents and countries. All three units cross over with literacy, but unlike Jon’s, the KO’s were not written in order that the children could  write a non fiction piece of writing at the end. Instead the children write shorter pieces of writing throughout the unit. However, I like Jon’s idea, so maybe that is something we will develop.

As a result, ours are a bit different from Jon’s.  For example, they contain pictures as well as text. This is deliberate. Partly because a diagram can  sometimes express information more succinctly and lucidly than text can; Jon’s KO would in my opinion be improved by a diagram of the lunar module and command module and a diagram showing the path the mission took, along these lines and partly because images of the major players bring the text to life.  For example, it reminds us that Matthew Henson was African American. Maybe I’m not sufficiently hardcore; the pictures do make the KO’s look more inviting, more primary. Compare for example with the excellent, but stern looking example in Robert Peal’s blog.   But each picture takes up space that could contain more text; so each picture needs to be justifiable beyond being pretty. For example in the Year 2 one below, I think the map and the picture of Pepyes have a stronger claim to space than the other two pictures. However I am happy with the text; it doesn’t seem to me that anything important has been omitted so they can stay.  The geography one on polar explorers obviously needs its maps as learning where things are on the globe forms the key knowledge pupils are meant to learn in this unit.  The year 3 one originally had an annotated a map of the Nile which I replaced with more text; partly because I  was worried about being sued for copyright by Dorling Kindersley and partly because I though thought there was not enough emphasis on historical causation or chronology.

Which brings us to the heart of the matter.  If our KO’s are not to become just lists of  highly specific fun facts – hey canopic jars or pemmican  anyone – then they must have some transferability. Hush my mouth, I’ve said a bad word!  What I mean is that in a history KO we must make sure that at least some of the facts we teach them knit the different topics they will study together by developing chronological understanding, and understanding causality and consequence.  Of course these are not free standing ‘skills’ that make sense without the facts, but especially for us primary non specialists, it would be easy to omit those all important aspects out of ignorance. Which is why on the Ancient Egypt KO below, I made sure it included as facts to be learnt, awareness that Ancient Egypt occurred contemporaneously with the late Stone Age, Bronze and Iron Ages; while we were grubbing about in the mud, a far advanced civilisation was flourishing elsewhere.

Chronology is notoriously badly understood by primary children. I’ve come across year 3 children who think the tallest teacher is the oldest, despite  having youthful tall teachers and short grey haired ones. The idea that ‘the past’ is not just one ‘place’ but many, all related to each other and some occurring simultaneously seems to be very difficult for some children to grasp. Certainly we must use number lines and teach dates and remember that chronological awareness encompasses duration and interval as well as sequence. For this reason, I think that Jon’s KO should have the fact that JFK was president and that this happened when Queen Elizabeth II was queen. Maybe all history KO’s  used in the UK; elsewhere the chronological anchor fact will need to reference whoever is significant in that locale).  For that matter, our polar explorers one should reference Edward VII for Matthew Henson and George V for Shackleton. I don’t think learning dates by themselves is sufficient. The dates need fleshing out with explicit links stressed. Who was on the throne?  What else was going on in the world?

We’ve also tweaked our KO’s so that they include explanations as to why things happened.  Ancient Egypt flourished because the land was fertile and the deserts provided protection from invaders.  The land was fertile because the Nile flooded.  London burned because wood is flammable,  dry wood even more so and the houses close together. Buckets were leather because plastic had not been invented.  Shackleton could not radio for help because long-range radio didn’t exist.  Pemmican was good to eat because in extreme cold you need high energy foods. Causality cannot be taught in a vacuum aside from knowledge; it is a concept that becomes denser the more times children encounter different scenarios needing different…or not so different…explanations.  Having studied the Fire of London (houses close together: fire spread easily), Ancient Egypt (River Nile floods yearly: soil very fertile) and Shackleton (Antarctic too cold for plants: very little lives there) the transferable concept that the physical environment influences the prosperity or otherwise of those who live there gains traction.

I’m looking again at Jon’s KO on the Apollo 11 mission. He explains the term ‘quarantine’ and ‘space race’.  ‘Space race’ will, we hope, be a small step, as it were in our student eventually grasping that explorations of  distant unknown regions are very costly and therefore funded by very rich patrons and function as, among other things, a status symbol. I’m sure there was discussion in class about why there had to be separate lunar and command modules, rather than one module that landed on the moon and then returned to earth. However, given the complexity of that explanation and the age of the pupils (6 going on 7), I can see why Jon hasn’t tried to condense that into a sentence!

As I mentioned above, Jon wrote his KO in order for his class to have some rich facts so that they could then, in literacy, write an information text. It was not written as a history topic per se, even though Neil Armstrong is included in the KS1 history National Curriculum as an example of a significant individual whom one might use to compare with Christopher Columbus. Having learnt about Armstrong in literacy, I would urge Jon to then do that comparison, thus exploiting the obvious points  – and reasons for – the similarities and the differences between the two explorers.

By saying there should be some transferability  of ideas between different topics, I’m not saying that’s the only function of the unit. Knowledge is neither the master not the slave of  transferability, but rather its bedrock. Maybe transferability is the wrong word. We teach what at first seem like isolated islands of ‘knowledge’,then bit by bit we realise these islands are joined in ways we couldn’t at first realise. The more we know, the more we are able to predict, infer, make links. When deciding which knowledge to teach, we make choices based on what specific facts educated children should know, regardless of wider, more general links and what might be more useful. For example, in an earlier blog I contrasted learning about the history of chocolate and the history of the Romans and made the point that learning about the Romans in year 3 helps you understand more about British and European history in general and about how Christianity became a global religion. As I said, knowledge may be power but not all knowledge is equally powerful.

The other ‘transferable’ element within our KO’s is vocabulary. Most of the vocabulary within our KO’s is  necessarily very context-specific. However a few words are more generalizable and are ‘high yield’ words children will encounter and need to understand again and again, across many different domains of knowledge. Looking at the KO’s above  (and Jon’s)  I find the words flammable, eyewitness, expedition, navigate, crop, fertile, trade, afterlife, archaeology, crew, quarantine, module all of which are necessary for understanding many other areas of the curriculum. Again, Jon wrote his for a different reason and maybe did a separate one when the class studied the solar system but I wonder whether ‘expedition’ ‘voyage’  ‘orbit’ , ‘atmosphere’ and  ‘launch and ‘gravity’ ( both briefly mentioned) should explicitly feature in the vocabulary column.

So within our KO’s, alongside the specific dates, names, places and other vocabulary specific to the topic in hand,  we must also  include those high dividend words that will reoccur across the curriculum, rather like Isabel Beck’s tier two words that I wrote about here. (You will see the St Matthias year 2 one also includes the tier one words oven and bakery and might wonder why such basic words are included. A large proportion of our children speak English as an additional language and it is exactly these words that are primarily used in a domestic sphere that they might not ever hear in English unless we explicitly tell them – for example I remember a very eloquent year 6 child referring to a cup and plate, because she had never heard the word saucer because the world of the kitchen was a world where she only spoke Bengali.)

The more I write, the more complicated it seems.  I started out just wanting key facts, then facts including dates and quotations, then some chronological anchor facts (if its history), possibly a diagram or two, definitely a map if it is geography, some explicit causality and now tier two type vocabulary. Am I asking it to bear too much? Have a departed from the basic concept?  I look at Robert Peal’s KS3 KO (link above) and his is just a long list of facts (including some specific vocabulary eg fealty) in question and answer form, and then a brief key dates summary at the bottom. I presume that because the pupils learn all this knowledge and have it at their finger tips, he can then spend more lesson time talking about causes, making links across time periods and describing similarities and differences. Maybe this side of things needs to be more explicit in primary KO’s because a) the children are younger and know and understand less and have less well developed vocabularies  and b) the teachers are generalists who might otherwise forget to talk about these aspects.  Quality text bools are in short supply and even if they existed we couldn’t afford them.

Here are three knowledge organisers from years 2,3 and 4. I welcome comments.

fire of London ko.PNGgeog-ko-uk-europe

 

ko-geog-shackleton-vocab

shackleton-henson-stories

yr3-ancient-egypt-facts

ancient-egypt-key-words

Curating knowledge/organising knowledge