The Joy of Good Manners

When I was in my teens and twenties, I despised manners. Why would you say words to other people without really feeling them?. Why would you go through routines, using fixed words, instead of expressing the spontaneous emotion of the moment?

In this, as in so much else, I was influenced by the degraded Romanticism which pervades our culture, in which emotion is raised above reason, and the individual will must be at the centre of everything.

It didn’t do me any good, of course. I missed out on many cheerful words and many ceremonies which would have enriched my life. I graduated from university three times without once attending a graduation ceremony. I was often crippled by a lack of spontaneous words to utter, and would even avoid my friends at times when I felt uninspired. I remember crossing the road to avoid people I liked well, just because I couldn’t think of anything original or interesting to say to them.

Thank goodness, the burden of originality and spontaneity has been lifted. I’m sure it’s something to do with having been married for almost two decades. I’m not the slightest bit concerned that the words ‘I love you’ are unoriginal or lacking in the spark of divine genius, and I enjoy being married more and more as the years go on, and the words become more and more well-worn.

But lately, I’ve made yet another discovery about just how wrong and how miserable were the Romantically-inclined beliefs of my youth. I’ve started working at Great Yarmouth Charter Academy, where the headmaster, Barry Smith, has been training all of the staff in manners. You might think we, as grown ups, didn’t need such training, but I can tell you that in my own case, it’s done me the world of good, because it has created a community in which there is a simple expectation: every time you walk past someone, you greet them. You never ignore them. You never keep your head down. You look towards them and bid them ‘good morning sir / miss’, or if there are many of them, ‘good morning ladies and gentlemen’.

Whether or not you’re feeling cheerful, you can be cheerful in this simple way, and it makes every day happier and brighter. It also means that pupils know that staff are around and paying attention to them. Staff are not invisible because they are audible. Staff can be heard greeting pupils cheerfully as you go around the school. No one is sulky or withdrawn, because that’s just rude. Teenagers do not retreat into themselves, as I often did when I was that age.

It’s a simple and beautiful thing, and it’s something everyone can do. It doesn’t depend upon the individual, but upon a communal expectation, and it becomes a habit after you’ve been doing it for a few days. Like all of the best things in life, it’s just normal, and it doesn’t gain me the slightest bit of glory. What a glorious relief for everyone!

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Direct Instruction Principles for Guided Writing Practice

stower_titanic_colourizedI’ve been a fan of Expressive Writing for a number of years. It is exquisitely designed, and like all of Engelmann’s Direct Instruction programmes, the principles on which it is based can teach us much about how to teach effectively across the board. It is particularly relevant, though, to how we think about practising writing.

David Didau recently blogged about what can be practised in English lessons. He argued against practising writing essays or analytical paragraphs on literature, favouring instead the teaching of sentence construction, as sentences are the building blocks of good writing. He also argued that it would be a good idea to use plenty of oral practice of good sentences, as this would result in better retention of knowledge.

I agree that we need to practise the components of writing, and we need to use plenty of oral drill, but it doesn’t have to be either/or. In Expressive Writing, pupils go through a carefully designed, incremental sequence of practice exercises, moving from oral drill, to editing sentences, to writing sentences, to writing paragraphs, to writing multiple paragraphs. The ultimate goal of the oral drill and the written exercises is to enable pupils to produce extended narrative writing fluently and accurately. This has to be our goal with analytical writing as well, and we can use similar methods.

Guided writing practice involves a series of steps. Let’s take the example of writing about An Inspector Calls, J B Priestley’s perennially popular piece of socialist propaganda. Our ultimate goal is that pupils can produce extended analytical writing on a given theme or character in the play. They might have to answer a question like this:

‘How does Priestley use the character of Mr Birling to present ideas about capitalism?’

In a lesson where our goal was for pupils to write a paragraph on this topic, we would teach specific examples of how Birling shows a complacent attitude. We’d teach (or revise) the definition of ‘complacent’ of course – ‘smugly satisfied with your own achievements’. We’d have the class chant that definition, and ask multiple pupils to repeat it using cold-calling. We’d chant key quotations, such as ‘the Titanic […] unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable’. We’d model how to analyse such quotations orally, having the whole class and individual pupils repeat sentences such as ‘Using this image, Priestley depicts capitalism as doomed to destruction’.

All of this oral drill would be done briskly, and no pupil would be able to hide, because they would all be expected to join in when the whole class chanted a particular word, phrase or sentence, and they would know that they could be cold-called at any time. Only after having been through this fast-paced, interactive whole class teaching would we ask any pupil to put pen to paper. And when they did put pen to paper, they would start by copying an opening sentence, to ensure that they began as we intended them to go on. The opening sentence could be something like this:

‘Priestley makes abundantly clear to the audience that Birling’s confidence is misplaced, particularly through Birling’s reference to the Titanic as being ‘unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable’.’

This sort of closely guided writing practice, preceded by fast-paced oral drill, means that writing is focused, and pupils are continually building knowledge and vocabulary as well as the ability to write analytically. It can be extended to essay length as time goes on, but always under the guidance of the teacher.

If we want our pupils to write well, they need to practise writing, but it doesn’t have to be mechanical Point-Evidence-Explanation; it doesn’t have to be a confusing and futile exercise in building a mythical generic skill of analysis; it doesn’t have to be a pretend mini-GCSE to generate junk data. It can be satisfying, interesting and effective, if we apply the principles of Direct Instruction.

Footnote:

British English:
verb – practise
noun/adjective – practice

American English:
verb and noun/adjective – practice

[Engraving by Willy Stöwer: Der Untergang der Titanic]

Combining GCSE Preparation with Real Education

Robert_Louis_Stevenson_by_Henry_Walter_Barnett_bw

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)

GCSEs are fiddly. There’s no way around it. They contain multiple question types which demand slightly different things of pupils, and they are marked according to rigid criteria, often by examiners who lack the deep subject knowledge to make nuanced judgements. This means that knowledgeable and able pupils can lose marks unless they have been trained to serve up ‘what the examiner wants’.

Therefore, although it is not the same thing as education, schools cannot avoid doing test practice. And because it must be done, we need to think about ways of making this test practice as educational as possible. We need to make the test practice as coherent as possible, and pay as much attention as possible to building cultural capital that is retained in long-term memory, even while we are addressing the dreary and anti-educational issue of ‘what the examiner wants you to do in paper 1 question 3’.

If we can crack this issue, we can make GCSE preparation more than just a joyless, soul-destroying exercise in ticking the exam board’s boxes.

Let’s take a look at GCSE English language. However much I deplore the very existence of this non-subject, it’s part of our current educational reality, and so it must be addressed. How might we prepare our pupils, for example, for GCSE English language paper 1 section A? In this part of the exam, candidates are required to read an extract from 20th or 21st century fiction and answer a series of question types which move from fundamental understanding of content to critical evaluation of literary techniques.

The exam boards provide anthologies of extracts for practising these question types, but I would advise English teachers not to use these, because they are not created with any coherent knowledge goal in mind. If we want to make the best use of the time spent doing test practice for GCSE English language, we need to come up with our own anthologies so that we will not simply be reading any old thing in order to ‘practise comprehension’.

Let’s look at some specific examples. If you are studying The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for English literature, you could gather together an anthology of extracts from gothic fiction, such Frankenstein, Dracula and Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories. If you are studying An Inspector Calls, you could gather together an anthology of extracts from other twentieth century socialist writers, such as John Steinbeck and George Orwell. Or you could gather together some Edwardian fiction, such as E M Forster, to give a better understanding of the time at which the play is set.

The same principle can be applied to GCSE English language paper 2 section A. The two linked non-fiction texts you use could be related to the literature you are studying. I recently pulled together a resource pack for Inspiration Trust English teachers focused on The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, using a piece of 21st century journalism looking at the history of the novel’s reception, along with a contemporary review of the novel from the 19th century. These two non-fiction texts contain a wealth of knowledge and vocabulary which has intrinsic value. They are actually worth studying for their own sake.

If you’re going to use rich, satisfying and challenging texts for the purposes of GCSE test practice, then you will need to teach these texts explicitly. You’ll need to leave behind the idea that each lesson can be a mini-mock, and explain key ideas and words to pupils before they attempt the questions. They’ll still be getting familiar with ‘what the examiner wants’, but they’ll actually be learning something into the bargain, instead of muddling their way through and retaining nothing in long-term memory due to cognitive overload.

Once you start thinking about it, there are so many possibilities for using test practice as an opportunity for building rich knowledge and vocabulary and enhancing pupils’ study of literature. So take the leap and abandon the exam board anthologies, which are based on the false notion that it doesn’t matter what material you use for practising the generic skill of comprehension. Comprehension is primarily based on knowledge and vocabulary, and we must not waste our time delivering lessons that are not focused on building retention of these in long-term memory.

Primary Literature: Telling Stories

Tikos_Boy_Reading_1843

Boy Reading (1843) by Albert Tikos (1815-1845)

I’m currently working with primary teachers across the Inspiration Trust to develop a content-focused approach to literature. I spoke to the whole primary staff about this project back in October – you can read my talk here. In this post, I’ll be looking at why a content-focused approach is more accessible, more equitable, more effective, and more joyful.

But firstly, what do I mean by content-focused literature teaching? Very briefly, I mean teaching that has as its goal the retention in long term memory of the content of literature: its plots, characters and themes. This goal is distinct from the goal of practising decoding to fluency, which is of course a necessary part of primary education (and sometimes of secondary too). It is also distinct from the goal of practising generalised ‘comprehension skills’ such as inference and prediction. I’ll argue later that a focus on content actually enables better inference and prediction anyway.

Content-focused primary literature teaching is accessible

A strong focus on the plots, characters and themes of literature is more accessible because fundamentally, it is about knowing the story well. Everything flows from this. Stories are the most memorable and interesting thing, for everybody. As Daniel Willingham has pointed out (in Why Don’t Students Like School), the human brain seems to be set up specially for the retention of stories. They sink in and they stay in the mind more easily than anything else.

When the teacher is focused on the story as they teach literature, she is using the most powerful and the most accessible tool for transferring knowledge to their pupils, whatever their ability level. When the teacher reads the story out loud to the class and explains it to them, she opens up new worlds to pupils of all abilities and backgrounds.

Content-focused primary literature teaching is equitable

This follows naturally from accessibility. A teacher-led lesson focused on literary content allows the whole class to share in the story. The whole class is building cultural capital. The whole class is building shared meanings that will stand them in good stead as they mature and encounter more sophisticated texts. No one is left behind.

This is always the paradox: when we insist upon differentiation, we embed disadvantage and make our education system less equitable. When we insist that everyone in the class listens and learns the same material, we reduce the gap between the haves and the have nots.

Content-focused primary literature teaching is effective

When the focus is squarely on the content of literature, children’s knowledge and vocabulary will grow, and this is the primary means by which comprehension can be improved. While there is some benefit in general strategies for improving comprehension, they are, as Willingham points out here, easily learned and do not require much practice. The vast majority of our ability to comprehend is based upon what we have stored firmly in our long term memories. So focusing on this in our primary curriculum is the best way to ensure success in the short and the long term. It will lead to better SATs results, but more importantly, it will lay firm foundations for a lifetime of better understanding and ever increasing knowledge.

Our brains, tuned as they are to stories, naturally infer and predict, and their ability to do this accurately is primarily based on how much knowledge is stored in long term memory. The conclusion is obvious. If we want our pupils to be able to infer and predict effectively, we must give them more knowledge.

Content-focused primary literature teaching is joyful

If we want to inoculate our pupils against literature, the best way to do this is to turn every story into a vehicle for practising comprehension strategies or doing SATs test preparation. But when we forget all that dry, dull and empty formalism, we find that there is a wealth of fascinating stories that every pupil can enjoy. Content-focused primary literature teaching becomes a journey of discovery which includes everybody in the class, even the teacher. And you get better SATs results into the bargain.

Top Ten Posts from 2017

2017 was a rather quieter year on the blog. I moved to work for the Inspiration Trust in September, and much of my writing energies have been focused on producing resources for Inspiration teachers to use. It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to start to put into practice the ideas I’ve been arguing for so vigorously over the last few years.

Next year, I’m hoping to write more posts about the work I’m doing for Inspiration. They will be more reflective, and less polemical. But I’ve no doubt there’ll still be a few broadsides in good old-fashioned style.

These are the ten posts which received the most hits in 2017. All but one of them (‘What Is a Traditional Teacher?’) were written during 2017.

  1. Direct Instruction Transforms Behaviour.
  2. The Importance of School Culture.
  3. Learning from Eton.
  4. What Is a Traditional Teacher?
  5. How Not to Prepare for Reading Tests.
  6. Should Young Children Learn Through Play?
  7. Whole Class Instruction Enables Targeted Support.
  8. The Michaela Inspection Result Is Good News for Everyone.
  9. Knowing How Bad It Is.
  10. How Much More Evidence Do You Need?

How Not to Prepare for Reading Tests

Can you prepare for an ‘unseen’ reading test – a test in which you will have to read something you’ve never encountered before, and answer questions on it? To answer this question, we need to consider what is required to succeed in such a test.

Reading consists of two key aspects: your ability to decode – to turn the squiggles on the paper into the sound of language – and your knowledge and vocabulary. Clearly, decoding is crucial, otherwise a reading test will be the equivalent of being asked to read ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Beyond that, you need knowledge and vocabulary. Your ability to understand a text depends upon your knowledge of the domain with which the text deals. Most of the readers of this blog probably consider themselves to be good readers, who would perform well in a reading test, but they would struggle to make sense of the following passage:

‘We demonstrate a bandpass amplifier which can be constructed from common electronic components and has the surprising property that the group delay is negative in most spectral regions. A pulse propagating through a chain of such amplifiers is advanced by several milliseconds: the output waveform precedes the input waveform. Although striking, this behavior is not in conflict with causality, as demonstrated by experiments with pulses which start or end abruptly.’

(From https://www.physics.ohio-state.edu/~wilkins/writing/Handouts/abstracts_ajp.html)

I’m willing to bet that only those with a relatively advanced knowledge of physics will be able to derive much meaning from the above. A famous experiment along these lines is mentioned in Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School, in which a passage about baseball is given to pupils who have previously been tested on their knowledge of this specialised subject. The supposedly ‘poor readers’ with good knowledge of baseball understood the passage better, and did better on the test.

By far the most important component, therefore, of performance in reading tests is knowledge of the domain contained in the text to be read. This presents teachers with a problem, because they do not know which domain of knowledge will be important. The text could refer to anything, although test designers do try to avoid topics which are particularly obscure. In the absence of specific knowledge to be mastered, how can schools prepare pupils for reading tests most effectively?

The answer must be to teach as much knowledge and vocabulary as possible, and this is the responsibility of every teacher in the school. Every single lesson is preparing pupils for doing well in reading tests, if that lesson is building their knowledge and vocabulary. English teachers cannot take either the blame or the credit for the grades of pupils in their English Language GCSEs; most of the preparation has been done by others.

Given that building knowledge and vocabulary must be the priority, English departments must be realistic about what their role can be. The key knowledge which they can provide is knowledge of literature, but this is only one piece of the puzzle. Unless other departments (and primary schools) are providing a curriculum rich in knowledge, through proper teaching of a broad range of subject disciplines, many pupils will never perform very well in reading tests. Those who do particularly well without a knowledge rich curriculum succeed because of the knowledge and vocabulary they have acquired outside school.

Of course, outside the teaching of literature, there is something which English departments typically spend a large amount of time doing, especially as GCSEs approach: test drill. Many lessons are spent doing exercises that are more or less identical to the reading sections of the English Language examination: pupils are given passages they have never seen before, and required to answer a series of questions modelled on those posed by examination boards. Putting to one side the tedious and dull nature of this sort of exercise, which is likely to convince pupils that English is a very boring subject indeed, let’s ask whether these sorts of lessons are even likely to achieve their intended effect of increased GCSE grades.

I would argue that grade increases will be marginal, because the only likely benefit of this exercise is to build familiarity with the question types which pupils can expect to encounter. Pupils are very unlikely to acquire much new knowledge or vocabulary, because their working memory will be fully occupied by the simultaneous challenge of coping with an unseen text and answering questions on it. When the working memory is fully occupied with complex tasks like this, pupils can be working very hard for long periods of time and retain no new knowledge after the lesson, because their attention is completely taken up with the complexity of the task, and so there is no capacity remaining for transferring knowledge into long term memory.

The main result of spending large amounts of lesson time doing test drill is that pupils are more likely to perform at the level they were already at. In other words, they are more likely to be able to apply effectively the knowledge and vocabulary they already possessed. The lessons themselves are not giving them any new knowledge and vocabulary, and so are not actually increasing their capacity to read with understanding.

English teachers need to ask themselves what they hope to gain from lessons that mimic examinations. Examinations measure performance, but there is no expectation that they will increase performance, because there is no expectation that those taking the examination will acquire any new knowledge. One would hope, on the other hand, that our lessons actually taught our pupils something which they remembered.

Can Schools Make a Difference?

IQ_curve

When studies are made of how much difference schools make, they focus on finding out the main factors which contribute to the variation in academic success, and discover that schools are a relatively small player in this, overall.

But it isn’t only the variation between people that we care about. We care about whether people, generally, are getting a decent education. Even if schools cannot close the attainment gap, they can still move the whole bell curve to the right. Even if, on average, pupils of well educated parents always tend do better than those of less well educated parents, we can still aim to make sure every pupil, whatever their parentage, does not leave school without a solid foundation of knowledge.

Instead of looking at sets of pupils within the same education system, we should compare whole education systems, and consider whether one education system means, on average, that everyone knows more, even though there still remains a large variation, and even though this variation may be largely dependent upon genetic inheritance or social class.

There are education systems in the world in which the vast majority of primary pupils become fluent in basic mathematical operations. There are other education systems where they do not. Does that mean that in the more effective education systems which do build this fluency, everyone becomes a mathematics professor? Of course not; there is still going to be variation in individual outcomes, even in the most effective education system.

France provides an excellent example of how different systems affect outcomes for everyone. Prior to the loi Jospin of 1989, overall outcomes were better, as well as being more equitable, but that does not mean there was no variation. Outcomes were still significantly better for those from more affluent backgrounds. After the loi Jospin, which mandated constructivist approaches to curriculum and pedagogy in primary schools, outcomes worsened for everybody, but they worsened most for those with the least cultural capital. One system was better for everybody, but neither system led to equal outcomes for all. One system was more equitable, but no system can be completely equitable, and neither should it be. We would have to hold some pupils back deliberately if we wanted total equality of outcome.

One of the things which really doesn’t help the cause of education reform is the talk of ‘closing the attainment gap’. Teachers cannot work miracles. Pupils come to school with vastly different processing equipment (fluid intelligence) and prior knowledge (crystallised intelligence), which means that there is no way that outcomes are going to be the same for everybody. The genetic and cultural inheritance of a child outside of school is always going to make a huge difference.

But this does not mean that more effective schooling cannot have a significant impact, on everybody. A more coherent curriculum and more explicit methods of instruction will help everybody make more progress. But it would be odd if that progress were not even more rapid for those with sharper intellects and more prior knowledge than it is for those who are less gifted.

People are not the same. But an effective education system will help everyone to fulfil their potential. What matters is whether everyone is doing better.

[Image from Wikimedia.]