Usually at education conferences, I find that there are two sorts of sessions.
The first kind is the really practical sort of session; you leave with some new skills and/or knowledge which you can put in place in your classroom to help make you a better, or more efficient, teacher.
The second kind (and these are usually the sort that attract me) are the paradigm-busters. These sessions take a thing that we believe, grab it by the scruff of its neck and give it a Jack Bauer level of interrogation.
I’ve long been a fan of David Didau’s website because I found his writing does the latter. I was most pleasantly surprised, however, after attending his session at Teach First’s Impact Conference, that what Didau teaches also does LOADS of the former. I attended two different sessions run by Didau, the first on literacy and the second on grading lessons and Ofsted. This post is about the first session.
We were treated to a tour de force of Didau’s accumulated wisdom on how we can best help children to use English in a manner that will ensure them the opportunity to be academically successful. Didau’s slogan, “making the implicit, explicit” challenged audience members to examine exactly what they do when they engage in the written word.
This reminded me of Maslow’s model of competence, which begins with unconscious incompetence, followed by conscious incompetence (the uncomfortable stage that I found myself in for most of my first year of teaching), then conscious competence, before we finally get to a stage of unconscious competence.
The model has since been expanded to include a fifth stage, which usually refers to a sort of reflective awareness of the unconscious competence, or a seemingly paradoxical ‘conscious competence of unconscious competence’. Lorgene A Mata calls this stage “enlightened competence”. If you will excuse the long quotation, he explains it thus:
In other words, he comprehends fully and accurately the what, when, how and why of his own skill and possibly those of others on the same skill he has. In addition to this, he is able to transcend and reflect on the physical skill itself and be able to improve on how it is acquired and learned at even greater efficiency with lower energy investment. Having fully understood all necessary steps and components of the skill to be learned and the manner how they are dynamically integrated to produce the desired level of overall competence, he is thereby able to teach the skill to others in a manner that is effective and expedient. (Mata, 2004. Emphasis added.)
As teachers, we are lucky enough to sit in the fourth stage when it comes to literacy. Didau’s session, however, was aimed at moving us all into the fifth stage, so that we were able to explicitly teach our children the specific mechanisms, tricks, steps and components of engaging with and producing high quality, academic texts. In short, revealing to our students the secrets of our literacy (the Secret of Literacy…geddit?)
A stark illustration of the implicit work that we do was provided when Didau flashed a piece of writing on the screen. It was only around 50 words long.
“Where is it from?” He asked after a few seconds.
Audience: “A newspaper”
“Correct…How did you know?”
This caused us to reflect. We started to move into that fifth cycle. The initial response of “Well, you know, you just sort of know. It’s that style,” wasn’t satisfactory. That isn’t going to help students. We started to discuss all of the clues. The age in brackets. The phrase ‘mum in a million’ (Didau correctly observed that there exists only two classification of mums in the Sun’s ontology: ‘mum-in-a-million’ or ‘evil-mum’). These are the tricks we use without thinking, those that give us the illusion of effortlessness. What we need to do is smash that illusion by explaining exactly what we do so instinctively.
We were then tested on our skimming and scanning skills. The audience of new teachers were, unsurprisingly, remarkably good at extracting specific information from large pieces of text very quickly. The question that was being posed was “How did you do that?” Certainly we didn’t read he whole text. So what did we do?
As a primary school teacher, it is my job to teach my children these skills in a more explicit fashion than perhaps is expected of secondary school teachers. A good trick for skimming texts, I offered, is to read the first and final sentences. If the text is well written, these should summarise what the whole text is about.
Many, many children, however, are clearly making it to secondary school without these tricks, and this is another factor that leads to the ‘Matthew Effect’, the tendency of the word-rich becoming word-richer and word-poor becoming word-poorer (Didau explains further here).
Mature writing’s critical dependence on mature speech was presented with the following axiom: If you can’t say it, you can’t write it.*
A wonderful strategy provided by Didau to address this was to give children ‘talking frames’. Often, teachers (and especially English teachers) give children writing frames (or perhaps lists of connectives) to try and help develop maturity of writing. However, if children have not first used this language in conversation, it is unlikely that they will implement them easily/appropriately during writing. Furthermore, children can become dependent on these frames, and they are a scaffold that is difficult to remove.
So the solution is to turn the ‘writing frames’ into ‘talking frames’. Something like “Although the author says…there may be a hidden meaning:…” give children a chance to structure their responses to questions in class. This ingrains and normalises academic language which then bleeds into the children’s writing.
Since reading this post I have used talking frames in my classroom (I teach year 3) and they have proved to be incredibly successful. The children love using them, because the difference in quality of answer is so spectacular. They can hear themselves sounding clever, mature, like high school kids. Now, a student always begins speaking with some sort of variation on “I thought that you made a good point, but I’m afraid I disagree because…” or “I think that Godwin is correct, and I’d like to develop his answer…”
I have the luxury of teaching my children all day every day, and so can demand these standards of talk in whatever we are doing. However, Didau’s contention in his session at the conference was that “All teachers in English are teachers of English”.
I was sat next to a science teacher, who admitted part way through the session that a) she had never thought that she was really responsible for the children’s writing skills, and b) she had never thought that demanding higher levels of literacy would have an impact on their science.
By about halfway through the session, though, she had changed her mind. What was delightful, however, is that she did so with a huge sense of optimism.
Two Concluding Thoughts
Although this session was nominally concerning literacy, teachers of all subjects (and phases) found it incredibly useful. This can be attributed, I think, to the fact that we were forced to reflect on our unconscious competence, and as such were given a sort of meta-tool to add to our teaching arsenal.
Secondly, the session made me think a lot about the primary/secondary divide. As mentioned earlier, a lot of what Didau was pleading for teachers to do was what I considered to be the bread and butter of primary school teachers. Indeed, the APP Assessment Focuses 2 and 3 for reading state that students should “Understand, describe, select or retrieve information, events or ideas from texts and use quotation and reference to text,” and “deduce, infer or interpret information, events or ideas from texts”, respectively.
Since most primary schools have some form of daily ‘guided reading’ session, we are able to work on these skills with children regularly and really dig in to what they mean. It struck me, however, that whilst the AFs describe what the children should do, they do not explain how. Didau’s techniques remind of the importance of the latter.
And finally, it is far easier to nail this in primary, I think. It may seem to some to be premature to demand such academic language of children at this stage, but it seems to me that if it is fixed at an early level, we can combat the Matthew Effect most effectively. We are afforded, too, a real enthusiasm from the students to do so. I was lucky enough to have a chat with Didau after the session, who asked me about how my kids have found using talking frames. He told me that he’d had a bit of a battle getting his students to use them. “Oh, no. My kids absolutely love it.” I replied.
Let’s not squander that enthusiasm.
*Certain speech disabilities, and so on, notwithstanding.