Should children make posters?

Twitter strikes again. It is very difficult to be subtle on Twitter and that may be why blogs are so useful. An idea gets discussed in 140 character bites and it creates more questions than answers.

I want to start by stating that it is not an appropriate argument to say that if an activity or process or whatever that a child undertakes in a classroom is done well, that activity is a valid learning activity. ‘Done well’ means learning has happened and it must, therefore, be an activity that has value.

It is also not, IMO, valid to suggest that a particular activity *can* develop <insert whatever you think the activity develops> particular knowledge and skills that justifies the use of that technique.

There are always opportunity  costs to whatever children engage with in a class. We need to be able to be very clear about the learning that is likely to result from a particular activity that we are spending children’s time on. Is it really worth them doing activity A rather than activity B?

Should children be spending time making posters? Only you can make that decision but I’ll give you a couple of invalid reasons for choosing a particular activity over another.

Don’t justify the use of an activity by stating that children will find it fun. Don’t say it *might* lead to them learning something. We need to be saying it is *likely* to lead to the learning and to the learning we want. Don’t choose activities that cause children to think more about the specific activity than the learning we want to happen.

Should they be making a poster in history. Perhaps. But more likely perhaps not.

How can we see learning?

Sorry to disappoint you but we can’t see learning. Which is a real shame because it would make the job of the teacher much easier if e could know that the words we have just used; the diagrams we have just shown and the modelling we have just demonstrated have lead to changes in our children’s brains. But we can’t.

There is another problem, several other problems actually. The problem is one of time. We need to say what time scale we are checking. How long is the information, just ‘learned’ retained for and for how long is it reliably accessible for.

i want to define a version of learning which makes the assumption that the thing being learned is not just held in short term memory but has moved into long term memory. Once it is in long term memory then I would say it is learned. (But that is not the whole story!)  I’d say that 5 minutes would be enough time. 50724. My wife, coincidently, jas just asked me to remember the electricity meter reading. She will ask me what it was in a couple of minutes when she has to put it into the electricity company’s web site. I am also typing so the number will be lost from my short term memory rapidly as I cannot type and refresh my short term memory. So I typed it into this blog. She typed in the number she had remembered and then asked me to repeat it. I just read it back to her. There is no way i have learned that number. I have not transferred it to long term memory.

So one way of checking learning is to see if the thing being learned is can be recalled after, say, 5 minutes. Of course we still do not know it has been learned as we cannot see learning inside the brain. We would be asking for some sort of performance from the child to see if the learning was there, in the brain’s long term memory.

If it was I would say that learning had happened.

And if a performance, say a test or use of the learned material in some way, indicates the learning is accurate away we go.

The issues are now how well the material is stored and how securely the learned material can be retrieved. The retrieval strength. Will we be able to recall the material at some time in the future. It is not, I believe, possible to have any idea of this for an individual. But we do know ways in which we can make the retrieval of the material at some later date more likely.

How we learn stuff so that the material is stored securely and how we make retrieval more likely is for a future blog.

But, and that’s a big but, there is more – of course!

How about in, say, 20 minutes? Is the learning still there? We would need to

ResearchEd 2015 – South Hampstead High School (SHHS)

I attended my second ResearchEd conference on Saturday 5 September 2015. I am very glad I did. As an ex London Head now living in very rural North Wales trips down to the smoke are few and far between. My own school was a couple of miles for the ResearchEd venue but for those who know Cricklewood is rather different from Hampstead!

The usual relaxed arrival with tea and biscuits and then the job of making the final decision about which presentations to choose. I tried to copy the choice of a fellow participant but she covered up her choices! The presentations are first come first served and many could be very oversubscribed. I made the assumption that the presentations in the first row would all be captured on video so I could watch them on YouTube. Even so there were at least two presentations that I wanted to see that clashed for each session. Choices made and the mass welcome given by Tom Bennett and <SH> the head of SHHS.

Then off to session 1 to see presentation 1 which was by Laura McInerney. This was, for me, the best. It prompted the most thought as it was an area I had not considered in such detail before. Nor did i realise that the research evidence around how groups and teams operate would be applicable to groups being taught in school. Of course, once someone points it out it is very obvious!

Laura explained that the power structure in a classroom could be formally classified and that structure would affect how well a group, including the while class as a group, would work. She contrasted the research on how an individual learns and how that could be affected by the nature and dynamic of the group. She said she had based her presentation around a chapter in a book called Group Dynamics. On Amazon it costs £85.99! Even so I am very tempted to buy it.

Session 2: I had decided to attend 2 sessions where I thought I might disagree with the speaker. I was not wrong for this session. It was about the speaker’s contention that we were asking the wrong question when we asked if the use of technology in the classroom improve attainment.

The first statement made was that there was indeed no evidence that the use of tech, computer tech etc, improved attainment. That statement ought to ring alarm bells for all but the most ardent supporter of the use of devices such as iPads, tablets, mobile phones as aids for students in the classroom. But great that we started with some honesty. There are lots of reports, costly, that show a correlation but none that show causation. There is I am told a strong correlation between the appointment of a new Pope and the rise of illegitimate births in South America. Makes you think…

I waited to see what the right question was or what other evidence we should be seeking but, for me, that answer did not come in any satisfactory manner. Let me restate my position which is that we should not be spending the vast sums we have spent unless there is some evidence that tech in the classroom has some positive effect. I am convinced that tech used by teachers to plan, research, present etc has been a real boon and that will improve with time.

What we got was a quite entertaining diatribe on how we needed to rethink how we used IT in the classroom. How would we reuse it? No real idea. I do not think we were given any suggestions. We were presented with an almost evangelical belief that IT/Tech would be great for 21st Century learners. No rationale but a very strong belief. One could almost call it inspirational but in the same way as some well know YouTube presented educationalist inspire. Words but little evidence.

Session 3: This was a presentation on how the school, SHSS, was introducing Carol Dweck’s Mindset ideas to students, staff and some other stakeholders. As a process it looked fine. Not a rushed implementation and the school had a little anecdotal evidence of its positive impact on some of the students and on the staff. Be interested to see how this progresses.

Session 4:

I was able to stay in the same room for this. A plus. This was about how the brain copes with reading and was presented by <Prof K  >. It was presented clearly and straightforward statements were made. It made a great deal of sense. I do think phonics is the way to go to teach children decoding and then reading. Prof K said that academics were in no doubt that phonics worked. She said the evidence was as strong as it ever gets in science, and that is pretty strong. She then explained the link between letters & sounds and sounds & meaning. This diagram is critical.


Letters/sounds link is systematic                   Letters/meaning is not systematic

Sounds                                                  Meaning

Children come to school with a vocabulary so for that vocabulary sounds and meaning are well linked. The sound made by the word ‘tractor’ is close;ly associated with the thing we would all call a tractor.

Phonics allows the link to be made between letters and sounds. We MUST teach this, in the majority of children, so that they can sound out a combination of letters and associate this with the sound they recognise as a word they know. This is very complex and it is a tribute to our brains that we can manage this. It is made possible because there is a systematic link between letters and sounds, for about 85% of words in English. For other words the majority are only not systematic for one letter.

The link we want to make, which we would call reading is between letters and meaning. The letters  t r a c t o r will, in a reader, immediately trigger the meaning of the word. This happens, not well understood, by repeatedly running the letters – sound – meaning loop until the required linkage is made. We can see in fMRI imaging the areas of the brain lighting up when these links are fired.

This may well be old hat to most of you but not to me, and a number of people in the room.

Her plea was for secondary schools to continue the work on literacy mainly by working on the recognition of morphemes. COST, COSTly, COSTing etc so that words can be understood by reference to their family. Perhaps this is the clue for secondary school literacy coordinators.

Session 5: Was about mindsets.There is a small pattern here! This was meant to have been given by 2 psychologists but one could not make it. I think this might have affected the presentation. Psychologist number 2 was less convinced by mindset aka Carol Dweck, that number 1 (missing) was. So I am not sure we got as balanced a view as possible. The cautions seemed to be around the issue of a too simplistic way of presenting mindsets. The suggestion was that some school were giving out mindset information in one assembly and that was it. Perhaps a visit to session 3 might have reassured a little! The other feature that affects mindset is the emotional response of children to learning and the learning environment.

It is clear that mindset work, growth and fixed, is not a simple, solves-all solution. But there is mileage in the approach.

Session 6: This was a fast paced and somewhat dense run through some aspects of cognitive science. The presenter favours the Unified Learning Model. Essentially this is working memory, knowledge and motivation. This model is fully explained in a book of the same name. This only costs £117 on Amazon!!! Most of the presentation I knew about and agree with. The shock was at the end when this fairly traditional teacher showed a YouTube video of Kieran Egan and how take on a project where a child works to become an expert in their chose subject. A few emails clarified the idea which is needing, in my view, a great deal of further work. Anyone want to try it out for a year? Probably one hour per week.

I was booked for a final session but by now and with a 3+ hour drive home I was ready to go.

A super event which I thoroughly enjoyed. Many thanks to the school for hosting and to the little army of gnomes who helped Helene (sorry, no accents) and Tom (sorry very Scottish accent). And especial thanks to ALL the presenters who gave their time and energy to making the latest ResearchEd such a positive experience.

Relevance – What It means and does not mean, for me.

As always Twitter throws up issues of ‘What do you mean by…?’

In this case it was prompted by reading David Didau’s book. “What if everything you knew about education was wrong?” I do think it is worth reading as David uses a great deal of evidence to explain how we might be getting our thinking about teaching and learning rather wrong.

One issue for me was how he describe relevance. I’ll give you my take which has come from my own thinking about how what we teach children can have relevance and what relevant means. I don’t think it is possible to make the stuff we teach, in general, relevant for the children we teach.

One view of relevance is that it is something to do with relevant for a child’s future life. It has some utility. So we have ICT in schools because the world uses ICT. I know there are other reasons. It is quite clear why children have to learn to read well and one of those reasons is that there is so much more knowledge available in written form that they can access. In this sense reading is an enabling skill.

Think about maths and how one might explain its relevance. This issue was prompted by my wife many, many years ago. She asked me to explain why children needed to learn about equations. For me, as a physicist that was a seemingly silly question. Physics is essentially maths in action. You can’t properly understand physics unless you can deal with equations. But why did she have to learn about equations? Where in ‘real’ life do people use equations? Very little, actually, but I am sure that you can think of some areas of employment where dealing with equations will be critical. But what about all the other areas of employment? When did you last need to solve two simultaneous equations?

It seemed to me that to justify a curriculum on the basis of need for the future employment would just not do. We could use an argument that called on compliance from children. I have to teach this so you have to learn it! We can’t predict what role each child will have in future other than to be sure that in a class of 30 children there could well be 30 different jobs they undertake. you have to learn equations because you might need them is poor.

So my conclusion was that to speak of relevance for the future was disingenuous.

I then changed the word and spoke of work that children could relate to. It could be that they would relate because they say their future, say, in the scientific or mathematical spheres and knowing how to manipulate equations was driven by that view.

It might be that the context of the equations, say where the amount of grass seed needed to cover 3 football pitches would be something potential footballers or grounds staff would find they could relate to.

But to be able to relate to the word did not require that we use any future use as a rationale for the teaching of any particular idea. What we need to do is to make the context, content or way of delivering one that a child could relate to. We might use examples from real life, or form science fiction or anything that works. We might have a people context. The rise of infected individuals with time for a new virus to which some would relate. Or it might be we frame the work as a puzzle. There are a myriad of ways that children can relate and fewer ways that the work could be seen as relevant.