Making Sustained, Not Rapid Progress

Army BagThe things which are immediately appealing and convenient in the short term are rarely the things which endure.

I do a lot of travelling every day, so my rucksack is a particularly vital piece of equipment. I’ve noticed over the years that although they may be made out of fantastically tough material, modern rucksacks tend to wear out fairly quickly with heavy use, because the zips break.

Zips are wonderfully convenient. In a second, you can seal up a bag or a pocket. Even a very young child can learn to use them with very little practice. They are one of the great inventions of modern engineering.

But they break. So I scratched my head over where I could find a durable, zipless bag. At first I looked at retro bags with string ties at the top, which are enjoying something of a renaissance. But they didn’t look tough enough.

Finally I found the solution: army surplus. I now travel with a Cold War era army bag. It has no zips. Apart from the rope tie at the top, it has metal fasteners that are bombproof.

At first it was difficult to make the transition. I missed the speed and convenience of zips. But with repeated practice every day, it soon became second nature. My army bag and I are now fully integrated, and ready for a lifetime of travelling. No more broken zips.

Once we shun convenient quick fixes and grapple with something durable, we reap long term benefits. So chuck out The Hunger Games and get reading classics with your year nine classes. It will be a struggle at first, but it will be well worth it in the long term.

(Image from Wikimedia).


Engelmann’s Direct Instruction: I’m a Convert

Conversion Caravaggio

The Conversion of St Paul by Caravaggio (1571-1610)

Writing is not a natural activity, and most pupils don’t just ‘pick it up’. A few will, because they are gifted, have articulate parents, read a lot and just generally belong to the top two percent of academic achievers. I am one of those few. Because I am good at writing, but received very little explicit instruction, it has been easy for me to believe that others will also achieve mastery in the same way.

Here we see a clear illustration of why many very clever and articulate people are taken in by progressive ideas. In fact, one might almost argue that they make the most sense to those who have learned most easily, with little apparent effort, all through their school and university career. For those who have slogged hard and had few advantages, the nonsense of naturalistic methods is much more immediately apparent.

In March, I began reading books like Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths and E D Hirsch’s The Schools We Need, and I renounced naturalistic educational ideas once and for all. It was a logical next step that in September I began using Siegfried Engelmann’s Expressive Writing 2 at key stage three (ages 11-14).

When using Engelmann’s scripted lessons, with their call and response whole-class approach and their minute attention to detail, I feel like I am really learning to teach at last. I’ve never seen anyone teach like this in the flesh, only through Youtube and Teach Like a Champion videos. It’s vigorous, pacy, efficient and totally focused. It’s wonderful. Someone has finally provided me with a script, and I can perform it with all my heart. It is not constraining; it’s liberating.

It’s not only the delivery of the lessons which is a revelation. The intricate sequencing of material, with spacing and interleaving, and huge amounts of repetition to build mastery, is also a fascinating lesson in what really works. And there is no doubt that these methods do work: that has been amply proven, as Joe Kirby points out here.

I could not design a teaching sequence as good as this. I do not have the expertise or the resources. I am not good at judging how much repetition is needed. In fact, teachers generally vastly underestimate how much repetition is required, because they are teaching a subject which they have mastered, and probably one which they found quite easy at school. Some of the best teachers I have come across have been those who struggled more at school, because they have a better notion of just how hard it is for the average person to master skills and knowledge thoroughly.

But I have to try to design these kinds of teaching sequences, and apply these methods, elsewhere in the English curriculum, because there is no Direct Instruction material available for them. It’s a huge task to come up with a properly sequenced, incremental programme that truly builds mastery, and it’s not a task that we classroom teachers should be expected to do alone.

So I slog away, but I look forward to the coming of the direct instruction millennium, when truly effective teaching resources are available across the curriculum.