Bye bye, Primary.

I have some personal news. After 5 years of full time classroom teaching, I’ll be moving out of primary next year. I’ve been lucky enough to teach years 2, 3, 4 and 6 over the last few years, and I know that one day I’ll come back and collect the remaining year groups – but for now, something different calls*.

I feel tremendously lucky to work at Reach Academy Feltham, an all-through school that doesn’t mind doing things a little differently. Although innovation for innovation’s sake is obviously foolish, we don’t mind taking risks where the benefits are likely to lead to excellent student outcomes and more efficient ways of working. It’s the reason, for example, that we embraced Comparative Judgement a few years ago to assess writing across our primary school.

Over the last few years we have had several secondary trained teachers come down to key stage 2 to teach some of our children in years 4 and 5. Next year, I’ll be the first primary trained teacher taking the trek upstairs to teach in year 12. I’ll be delivering an A Level in Religious Studies, and couldn’t be more excited about the opportunity. My undergraduate degree was philosophy, and I did well, but I’m aware that I have a tremendous amount to learn. Luckily, I’ve already received incredible welcome from our Director of Humanities and sixth form team, and am sure that I will be very well supported as I learn the ropes.

My teaching workload will obviously be dramatically reduced, and so I’ll have a lot more time to develop high-quality, knowledge-rich curriculum materials which reduce teachers workload. I think it’s bananas that nationally we’ve arrived at a place where teachers are expected to more or less plan every lesson from scratch. It’s completely unsustainable, and leaves the kids with a raw deal as we spend all our time trying to throw a powerpoint together instead of thinking about how to deliver a precise explanation or facilitate a rich class discussion.

We’re keen to share all of the resources that we develop, and I’ll now have the time to be able to focus on doing that in an easy way. I’ve emailed out our knowledge organisers and odd units to hundreds of teachers and headteachers on request, but the demand is only growing and we need a more systematic and efficient way of sharing what we have. We applied for a recent DfE fund to support us in this work and ensure that it was free for all teachers, but unfortunately this was unsuccessful.

We’re still committed to share everything for free, and so will have to find another way to be able to save other schools the job of having to develop high quality foundation curriculum materials in primary. It’s insane for us all to invent the wheel concurrently, and it’s unfair on schools who don’t have the capacity or expertise to do it themselves. We want to level the playing field in terms of access to curriculum, ensure all children receive content rich lessons, and empower teachers by removing unnecessary workload so that they can focus on their teaching.

Alongside this curriculum development, I’ll also, very excitingly, be doing some work for the Institute for Teaching. Those of you already aware of this wonderful organisation will know that it features literally all of my edu-nerd heroes from whom I’ve learnt so much over the years. I’m going to be fanboy-ing hard whilst there, but will also look forward to thinking deeply about education and how we can support all teachers to become masters of their craft.

To finish, I need to make a request. Over the last few years I’ve curated a wonderful network of primary practitioners, but as I move into A Level and religious studies, I’m not sure who the go-to professionals are? If you teach A Level, or RS, or know someone who does, I’d be very grateful for any advice or guidance you can give me.

In the meantime, we hope to be sharing our curriculum work with you very soon!

 

*I will actually still have one year 6 class. Couldn’t go cold turkey!

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What have you learned this year?

This week I was honoured to contribute to Craig Barton’s education podcast. If you haven’t subscribed to yet, I couldn’t recommend it more. Fun, positive and full of incredibly insights from a range of guests from across education.

Craig asked me to record a message outlining what I’d learnt this year, to feature alongside other teachers answering the same question. It was really hard, as I feel that with every year that passes, I know less and less about education and am more and more confused. I decided to focus on Ratio, which I’ve been lucky enough to receive some training on at my school – Reach Academy Feltham – this year. I’ve found Ratio really difficult to get right and am only on the start of my journey to harness it to make my lessons more effective, but I’ve (I think) had at least one or two successes this year. It might be useful to blog about some of the disasters as well so I’ll try and find time to do that. You can listen to the podcast here, or read a (slightly longer) transcript below.

***

Hello my name’s Jon Brunskill and I’m a primary teacher. I teach year four at Reach Academy Feltham and I also lead on the foundation curriculum there.

What I’ve learnt this year is that getting ‘thinking ratio’ and ‘participation ratio’ right is extremely difficult, but it’s probably the most important thing that you can focus on as a teacher.

First what do I mean by each of these. They’re taken from Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion, which is an endlessly fruitful source of teaching wisdom, and they tap in to a cognitive principle laid out by Daniel Willingham in his book why don’t students like school: that memory is the residue of thought.

In this chapter Willingham talks about how a teacher told him about a lesson she gave about the underground railroad in nineteenth century America. The teacher had all children bake a rustic sort of biscuit that the slaves escaping the southern states took with them on their journey. She asked Willingham to evaluate how effective the lesson had been, to which he replied that if she wanted her students to learn about making biscuits, weighing out flour, preheating the oven, then it was probably very successful. This is what they were mostly thinking about. But of course making biscuits isn’t what she wanted the students to be learning about, she wanted them to learn about the underground railroad. And they’d spent an hour learning how to make a biscuit.

So, I’ve been thinking really hard this year about planning not what students will be doing, but what they will be thinking about. I want my students to be thinking much harder than me during lessons, and thinking about what I want them to remember about the unit in the long term. This is thinking ratio.

Alongside that, I also want as many as my students as possible thinking about whatever it is that I want them to be thinking about. This is participation ratio and it’s easier said than done, and lots of our pedagogical techniques seem to me to promote a drop in participation ratio. For example, asking a question to the class and then selecting a child who puts their hand up gives you a participation ratio of one.

It gets even more difficult because it’s seemed to me that as you increase the participation ratio it’s very likely you decrease the thinking ratio, and vice versa. For example it’s easy to get all the children writing an answer to something that they are already really familiar with, but this lowers the thinking ratio. And the more you ask children to think hard about something new, the fewer are likely to participate because thinking is really hard and people don’t like doing it if they can help it.

Let me give you an example of how I’ve tried to apply this in a lesson. Recently we’ve been studying Ernest Shackleton in our history lessons in year four and in one of the lessons I decided that I wanted my pupils to think about what a good leader Shackleton was. This was because they were going to go on and write a biography of Shackleton, but also because I wanted the unit to have an underlying theme about leadership: decisiveness, positivity, fostering teamwork, selflessness – all the attributes that make a worthy leader.

Previously I would have approached this by thinking about a cool activity that the children could do. I would have started by thinking, Shackleton was a great leader, maybe the children could write down what they think makes a great leader. The could write their own Shackleton speeches and perform them and we’ll record them for YouTube. I call these whizz-bangy lessons and you often see them on the internet. Lots of outlandish and super creative activities that the children love completing but in which they don’t really learn anything that they didn’t already know.

I think these sorts of lessons actually widen the attainment gap because if you focus on fun activities instead of key knowledge, then you are relying on them learning that knowledge somewhere else, which at primary level is likely to be at home from their parents. So parents who are lucky enough to have the time and/or the education or other resources to teach children about Shackleton would pull further away from those children who aren’t as lucky. I want to level the playing field by giving equal access to the powerful knowledge that makes you an accomplished student of whatever it is you’re learning. Assume that the children in front of you are getting no additional help at home, because for some children that will be true and that is who you should be spending most of your time thinking about.

A few years ago I would have gone for the whizz-bangy lesson (I still feel guilty when I don’t do these lessons). I would have probably got the children to write their own inspirational leadership speeches or ‘hot-seat’ (another common primary technique) Shackleton.

But this wouldn’t give them the crucial knowledge of why he actually was considered a great leader. To do that I needed to consult some primary sources, and so I found some letters and diary entries from the men that were on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. These quotes were full of specific praise for Shackleton. They tell of when he dived into the freezing Southern Ocean to rescue one of his men in the dark of the night, of how he gave his last biscuit to another of his men for breakfast. All sorts of gems that help you build a picture of Shackleton and his leadership qualities

Now I could just tell them all about that, but then I’d be doing most of the hard thinking. They’d be doing a lot of listening and some of them would have been listening hard but some of them may well have checked out.

So instead I gave all of the children the quotes, printed out, and asked them in pairs to select what was in their opinion the greatest act of leadership Shackleton undertook and why. They spent a few minutes reading together and discussing and debating in their pairs. I can now ask anyone in the class their thoughts, 100% participation, because everyone has had the time to think and discuss the key information that I want them thinking about. Also, after I’ve asked the first child, another is almost certainly going to disagree, so I can let them make a rebuttal.

Finally every child had to write down what made Shackleton a great leader, focussing in on the number one thing that I wanted children to think about, and all were ready to do so.

This is an example where I think I got it right, but I get this wrong ALL THE TIME. I think it’s going to take years to properly master this skill but I’m going to look forward to trying to improve even more next year.

 

 

I’m bringing knowledge back.

This article was first featured in the wonderful Teach Primary. If you yourself ‘teach primary’ then I couldn’t recommend it more. It has thinky pieces like this one, but also planning and book reviews and things. It’s great.

Knowledge has got an image problem in primary schools. The very mention of the word is enough to draw battle lines in staff rooms, with images of Victorian classrooms and dreary rote learning springing to mind. Children’s minds should be set alight, not just filled like an empty bucket, the saying goes. Some more radical opponents to facts contend that knowledge has become obsolete, since children can just look up anything they need to on Google.

I once believed all that too. I believed that learning should be centred around fun, engaging activities and projects, which excite children and allow them to ‘lead their own learning’. But in doing so, I think that I sold a lot of those children short. A lot of them, and especially those who already lacked the sort of cultural capital that wealthy children take for granted, left my lessons without really knowing anything new. In short, I let them down.

We need to make knowledge cool again. So here goes, in my best Justin Timberlake voice: I’m bringing knowledge back. Ooh.

Perhaps I’m being unfair. After all, everyone argues that they ‘do’ knowledge, really. They just contest that coming that a pub quiz model of education is hardly something that we should be aspiring to. And we all know that knowledge languishes at the bottom of Bloom’s learning pyramid, when what we really should be striving for are those ‘higher order’ skills like ‘synthesis’ and ‘evaluation’.

But there’s a problem with Bloom’s pyramid: it was never supposed to be understood that way. Knowledge was always set as a precondition for the other skills. To put it another way, synthesis is really the result of different things that you know dancing around in your brain. The more you know, the more you can play around with ideas and make insights. Facts aren’t some discrete and far-removed foundation for the ultimate aims of education, they’re the rocket fuel.

Don’t just take my word for it, though. Professor Daniel Willingham, who has spent his life applying principles from cognitive psychology to the classroom, is unequivocal about the importance of knowledge:

“Data from the last thirty years lead to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable…the very processes that teachers care about most — critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving — are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is in long-term memory.”

So now, when planning a unit, I don’t start with the activities that children will complete. Instead, I begin by meticulously listing all of the key facts that the children should know by the end of the unit. Lessons begin and end with low stakes quizzes, which research indicates improves long term retention. We’ve all been in the situation where the children can answer key questions one lesson, and look baffled before earnestly insisting they’ve never heard of a “noun” just 24 hours later. Being clear about what you want the children to know allows you to prioritise and repeatedly test, giving all of your pupils the best chance at remembering the linchpins of the topic.

That’s not all knowledge buys you, though. In his book, Curious: The Desire To Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, author Ian Leslie argues that (after IQ) a person’s levels of conscientiousness and curiosity are the most important factors in their success. The type of curiosity Leslie suggests is most important, though, is not the fleeting sense of wonder that we see fizzle in children in primary classrooms.

No, Leslie is more interested in ‘epistemic curiosity’, that effortful, sustained but ultimately more rewarding thirst for knowledge. Epistemic curiosity is cognitively demanding and hard work on the thinker. However, it leads to a much deeper sense of satisfaction than the short dopamine hit we get from thinking, “That’s a cool leaf, I wonder why it’s red,” before becoming distracted by the thought of what will be for lunch. More than this, it is epistemic curiosity that put us at the top of the food chain. As Leslie puts it, initial wonder “makes us want to know what is on the other side of the mountain; epistemic curiosity arms us with the knowledge we need to survive when we get there.”

This all sounds well and good, you may be thinking, but what on earth does it look like in the classroom? It’s an excellent question, and I’m delighted you asked. Here are three quick (and, dare I say, fun) techniques you can roll out tomorrow.

1. Write a ‘knowledge organiser’, listing all of the key facts about your topic on one sheet of A4 paper. This can be sent home so children can learn it, and parents can get an insight into their child’s learning.

2. Start your lesson planning by writing a quiz which you will give to the children at the end. This will ensure you think carefully about what they need to know which is new to them.

3. Play some ‘knowledge games’. These short games push children to recall everything they know about a topic. A great example is the popular radio game ‘Just A Minute’, in which children have to talk for one minute on, say, Romans in Britain, without hesitation, repetition or deviation.

4. Start the lesson with an ‘ink waster’ in which children have 30 seconds to write down everything they know about a given topic.

5. Create a big ‘knowledge map’ on the wall and end every lesson by asking the children for one single fact that they think should be added to it, watching it grow as the unit rumbled on.

Give it a try. You never know, by filling up the bucket, you may well end up setting it on fire.

A book of poems.

Learning a poem off by heart is remarkably easy, possible for everyone to achieve, and yet so seldom done. The benefits, other than the sheer pleasure of having a little bank of some wonderful poetry in your head, are legion, for they are many.

We think that poetry is really important at Reach, and once a week our children spend time in their ‘poetry partners’ practising some of the best poems from history. They focus on the oracy of poems, the meaning of the words, the message being delivered, the rhythm, the literary devices, the expression necessary to connect with the poem, and on and on.

I’ve collected together a booklet of my favourite poems here. Some are shorter, some longer; some easier, some harder. I’ve probably missed some absolute greats, so please do comment if I’ve omitted your favourite. We are always looking to update.

You can download the booklet here: Poetry challenge

Once. But. So.

Once I spent a weekend with my brother (a theatre director), to catch up and relax after a long week at work. But because we both enjoy our jobs so much, conversation soon turned to work and my brother shared a game he likes to play. So now I am sharing it in turn with my teaching colleagues, hoping that you have some success with it in your classroom.

The preceding paragraph is my off the cuff attempt at a ‘once, but, so’ story which, as the above suggests, was explained to me by my brother who occasionally works with young people to share the magic of theatre. The idea is simple: all stories can by reduced to this three stage structure.

Alex Quigley spoke eloquently about micro-writing in his recent presentation at ResearchEd, and since then I’ve been keen to make better use of these short, sharp sessions.

Here are three thoughts of how I plan to try and get my children micro writing more frequently. I think that they could be used as starters, whole lessons or even impromptu games. I’d love to know if you can think of any better applications.

1. MICRO-STORIES.

Begin by showing ‘once, but, so’ on the board, and explain that children have to tell a story in three sentences, opening each sentence with these respective words. This will help to embed the structure that all narratives follow: introduce characters and settings; said character(s) encounters a problem; the problem is resolved. You could add challenge by listing features you’d like to see (first person/third person, speech, adverbs, noun phrases etc).

2. DEVELOPING THE CONTENT.

These stories need not remain micro-narratives, however. A lesson could be used to develop each sentence into a paragraph, or a page. The focus of (Once) could be descriptive writing and characterisation. Sentence two (But) could focus on balancing dialogue and action. Finally, you could focus on inner monologues with sentence three (So), which explores the impact of the events on the main character. Perhaps challenge could be added by asking children to swap with their partner and develop their three sentence story. I’m sure they’d be delighted to see where their initial ideas were taken by a peer, and this could help with collaboration and igniting those initial sparks of imagination.

3. NONSENSE STORIES.

Have the children write their three initial sentences on three different strips of paper. Then take in all of the Onces, all the Buts and all the Sos. Create a nonsense story by picking from each pile at random.

E.g. Once there was a lonely frog named Terrence. But the flamingos had made a deal with the alien overlords. So, everyone had ice-cream sandwiches.

My brother assures me that children love hearing their sentence appear, and that it encourages imaginative and well developed sentences. I’m really looking forward to using this in my literacy lessons. I’d be interested in how it goes for you if you choose to use it.

Knowing your subject.

I’m a year four teacher who studied philosophy for my undergraduate degree. Since then I gained a PGCE, and then a Masters in Education. I firmly believe that all children deserve to be taught a knowledge-rich curriculum with clearly defined content. Over the last few years I’ve worked hard to make this a reality in my school and have shared more widely how our profession might make it happen.

Teaching Apprenticeships have been in the news since the Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening, announced this new route into teaching. Many commentators on education, including people who I really respect, have expressed serious misgivings about the proposal. In fact it’s stronger than this, most have dismissed the idea in principle, stating that teaching should remain a profession in which an undergraduate degree must remain a prerequisite for teacher training (BEds notwithstanding, which of course also allow teachers to train without already having a degree).

The principal complaint seems to be that being an excellent teacher involves deep subject knowledge, and that this is only possible by immersing yourself in your subject via an undergraduate degree. I would strongly agree with the former part of this complaint, but reject the latter proposition.

Why? Let me walk you through my day:

08.30-09.40 Reading

We’ll be continuing to read a simplified version of Romeo and Juliet, focussing on Mercutio’s death. I never studied Shakespeare at university. In fact, I didn’t even take English at A level, and so the last time I actively studied a Shakespeare play was in Year 11, when we read Hamlet.

09.40-10.35 Writing

We’re studying Macbeth and will be writing a newspaper article reporting King Duncan’s murder. See above.

11.00-12.00 Maths

We’re adding and subtracting four-digit numbers with regrouping. I did no maths at university. I did take it for AS level, but gave up before the course finished. I wouldn’t recognise an academic essay on maths if it crossed the road and punched me in the face.

13.00 History

We’re studying medieval monarchs, looking at the major kings and queens from 1066-1603. I did take a history A level, but never studied British monarchs (We focussed on the Second World War and the Russian Revolution). I somehow got through the whole of my school career never learning about any British monarchs, not even the Tudors.

14.00 French

Someone else takes my class for this, thank god.

14.30 Phonics Intervention

I hadn’t even head the word phonics until I was 25.

14.45 Story Time

I don’t remember being asked to read children’s novels out loud (including doing all the voices) at university.

15.15 Home time.

Perhaps it is different for primary. Perhaps the route is less appropriate for secondary teachers. But when I ran a poll on twitter to ask exactly this (which admittedly only had a few hundred responses) the majority felt that an apprenticeship would be inappropriate for either phase, with 10% saying primary only and 7% saying secondary only.

I don’t believe that the route would be more appropriate in primary because I don’t believe that strong subject knowledge is any less relevant. But I also believe that a large part of what makes a great teacher is a bunch of stuff other than subject knowledge, and I broadly believe that this stuff is best learnt in classrooms, watching experts, breaking down what they do and practising each of those parts.

Now some may argue that it was gaining my degree that has led to my attitude towards scholarly pursuit or the esteem that I hold the best that has been ‘thought and said’. But I don’t buy that. I went to university because I already valued learning and had a thirst for knowledge. In fact many folks I met at uni wished to disabuse me of such lofty notions and I was surprised at how little many read, and how uninterested most were when it came to seriously discussing our subject.

What it comes down to, for me, is two central questions.

1. Does gaining an undergraduate degree guarantee subject knowledge in your chosen specialism?

No.

2. Is it possible for somebody to become an excellent teacher without possessing an undergraduate degree before starting their training?

Yes.

Of course, the devil is in the detail and my enthusiasm towards the actual proposal will be proportional to the rigour and coherence of the programme of study set out for the prospective trainees. We don’t know what that will be, yet, and until we do I’ll remain open and receptive to the idea in principle.

All knowledge? What about skills?

This short explainer is taken from my new site primaryknowledgeorganisers.wordpress.com, and briefly sets out why I believe knowledge organisers are such powerful tools during curriculum planning and assessment.

All knowledge? What about the skills?

I have written extensively about Knowledge Organisers over the last year or so, and although the reaction to them has been mostly positive, there have been some criticisms. I address most of these in this FAQ blog post, but it’s worth quickly dealing with the most common here.

It is the criticism that knowledge is pointless without the ability to apply it. What we are really interested in is critical thinking, not mindlessly regurgitating an endless list of facts. So should a knowledge organiser really be what we are putting at the centre of our learning?

It’s a compelling criticism, and in a sense is correct in terms of its aim. Of course we all want children to be critical thinkers, and to be able to ask insightful questions about the topic that they are studying, and debate and reason and probe. But whilst we may all agree on the aim, there is debate about the journey that we must take to get there. Daisy Christodoulou, in Making Good Progress, categorises these different approaches in method as:

  1. Teaching Skills Directly – the generic-skill method
  2. Teaching Skills Indirectly – the deliberate-practice method

Drawing on empirical evidence from psychological experiments, Christodoulou argues convincingly that there is no such thing as a ‘generic skill’, and so trying to directly teach, say ‘critical thinking’ is a lost cause. You may be wonderful at thinking critically about, say, Baroque art, but that will help you not a jot if someone asks you to critically evaluate Presocratic schools of philosophical thought.

In fact, your success in either of these pursuits rests on your underlying knowledge of the respective domain. That is to say, the more that you know about Baroque art, the more critically you can think about it (and vice versa). So really, the skill of ‘critical thinking’ about a particular subject is just short-hand for describing how much you know about that subject.

network

With this in mind, the best chance that we have at ensuring children can achieve all of those aims that we agree are so important, is to fix within them a comprehensive foundation of facts about that subject. This will help develop a web of interconnected facts, or a schema, which will not only ensure that future learning about that subject is easier, but will allow the possessor to reason and evaluate and synthesise information about the topic.

Additionally, this web ensures that falsehoods (so important in these days of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’) are less likely to be accepted, as they contradict the facts already within the web. For example, if you know the following two facts:

  1. Dinosaurs became extinct around 65 million years ago
  2. Homo sapiens emerged around 200,000 years ago

then the assertion “Dinosaurs and humans lived alongside one another” is easily dismissed and unlikely to set in as a misconception.

For these reasons, skills should not feature on a knowledge organiser, even if they are our ultimate aim when delivering a unit of work.