My six year old found my clarinet under my bed yesterday and decided in that moment he wanted to ‘learn’ to play it. I put it together for him and explained how to make his lips firm and how to blow. After a little while, he was getting from nothing to screeching to, finally, thankfully, a reasonable tone. I’ve sent him out now to serenade our newly hatched tadpoles in the garden so I can think straight enough to write this. From a little direct instruction, through practice, came a little progress. Simples. Except not really. First, he had a desire to learn. He asked to learn. He listened, and his interest was enough to persist, for several hours until the sound finally matched that which he had heard from me. He still can’t play it – his fingers can’t yet span the instrument and they’re too small to properly cover the holes. There’s muscular and sensory work to be done there. He will need to learn to read music. He will need to learn to love music – to have a canon of tunes at his disposal that he wants to be able to play. There will be complex interplay of patience, practice, passion and supportive parenting in his march towards progress. One thing is for sure though – it won’t be a linear march. This morning, when he picked it up again, he created a screech. He had fallen backwards. I would have failed an Ofsted inspection. It took him ten minutes to get back to where he had been yesterday. He looped. And as anyone who has learned to play a musical instrument will know, progress is not linear and the process is frustrating.
Will my son become a clarinet player? Who knows. He might drop it in the pond. And that will be the end of that. But, in a round about (non linear) way, the point of this post is that neither learning nor progress fit neatly on a ladder, and pretending that they are is getting us all in a bit of a mess.
Progress – it shouldn’t be a game.
One of the most damaging aspects of our current high accountability system is the notion of linearity and a reductivist approach to the idea of measuring progress. The concept that progress should be made in ’20 minutes’ by every child did not come from anything other than a panicked reaction to the words ‘rapid and sustained progress’ in the new Ofsted criteria. An inspector might only be in my lesson for 20 minutes, how can I show that all pupils are making rapid and sustained progress? Well you can’t. You can play all sorts of games to pretend that you can – an unbelievable amount of funky, coloured self assessed progress sheets seems to be around at the moment. Tell the kids something fairly undemanding. Get them to discuss it and then colour in on their progress sheet – your back is covered. The fact that this is getting in the way of, and even interrupting the learning that might be taking place, doesn’t matter. Progress can be ticked off the list. But the thing is, it’s only progress if it sticks. From one lesson to another. From beyond the exam into the next stage of life. Anything else is smoke and mirrors.
In our school, the emphasis on ‘progress over time’ has led to a re-examination of the way we record data and a focus on looking at the marking in books. There is a renewed obsession with levels, which judging from the feedback from our local T&L network group, is leading to some highly questionable practices. Observers demanding that pupils make at least one sub level of progress in a lesson, for example and a move away from portfolio based assessments to the individual levelling of every piece of work. In that world, they’ll all be getting PhDs by the time they’re in Year 9.
When such ‘data’ is scrutinised, the teacher feels under pressure to input data that seems to show progress. When I was adding half termly data into our tracking system at the beginning of the year, I was warned by colleagues not to show too much progress for the pupils, in case they fell back and ‘it looked bad’. Some of them, over a portfolio of six pieces of work, had achieved high level sixes, but I was warned not to put that data in – to ‘save’ it so it looked better later in the year – like I’d made a difference. Needless to say, I put in the marks they got. In the second round, one pupil had fallen back slightly. The others were pressing into Level 7. Elsewhere, some pupils look like they’ve stayed the same. Some look like they’ve fallen backwards. The thing is, we’re measuring different things all the time. The spreadsheet doesn’t allow me to say that a child’s mother was diagnosed with cancer, or that we were assessing technical writing ability at one point and speaking and listening at another. Crude instruments do not allow for a rich timbre, and at the moment, our clarinet is screeching. We think we’re showing progress, but we’re just making a noise.
Progress – it’s complicated.
There seems to be a vocal group of twitter teachers at the moment who are questioning the idea that relevance and engagement matter in learning. I know. It sounds mad, but they do exist. Mostly, they have had six weeks training before being dumped in a classroom, so you can’t really blame them, but a good dose of cognitive psychology, educational philosophy and neuroscience would not go amiss in increasing their cognitive gains. Firstly, then, let’s examine how relationships affect progress.
Relationships are not about being ‘nice’ and being ‘liked’. They are not about having fun all the time. They are rooted in the affective dimension and require watchfulness, humility and flexibility. They work on a complex interplay of actions, gestures, looks and words. A teacher who has great relationships notices things. The minutiae matter. And they matter because the brain is a bit more complicated than some people like to think it is. For a start, physical and emotional processes are more essential than we like to think they are – even into adulthood.
There is, in the communities of neuroscience and cognitive psychology, an emerging consensus of wonder at the complex interplay between mind and body, which challenges the traditional TOD model of cognition (Ryle, 1949). This is a model that has evolved over centuries in a trajectory from Plato to Descartes to Freud. In that determinist model, there was thought to be a close relation between intelligence, conscious thought and human identity. ‘Higher order’ thinking acting like a ‘Mini-Me’ of the conscious mind, collecting the information arriving from the senses and using logic and thought to organise, shape and present it on a clear-cut way. In this model, intuition and action are considered to be less ‘intelligent’ than rational thinking and binaries are formed. This TOD paradigm has permeated science for decades and has influenced education and research that has placed ‘critical’ and reasoned thinking as a pinnacle of intelligence.
Claxton (2012:79) outlines the TOD principles in an acronym – CLEVER:-
Clear-cut (not vague)
Explicit (well justified and not hearf-felt)
Verbal (not manifest in gesture or expression)
Explanatory (not manifest in action or perception)
Rapid (requiring neither patience nor contemplation).
Yet there are a series of studies which show a complex and inter-related system of knowing in which the physical, emotional and intellectual are mutually dependent and variably expressed, leading many, including Claxton, to suggest that:-
‘the idea popularly attributed to Jean Paiget and widely believed in education, that we ‘grow out of’ our reliance on the concrete and the sensorimotor and that once we achieve ‘formal operations’ we can happily kick away the ladder of physical experience that helped us to get there, turns out to be highly questionable. Bodies are a whole lot more than vehicles for getting minds to classrooms and they may deserve a greater and more sophisticated role in education than merely ‘letting off steam’ on the sports field.’ (Claxton 2012:81)
In traditional modes of teaching, the body can be seen as ‘distracting, disruptive or unreliable’ (Claxton 2012:79). In fact, the body can tell us a great deal about what a child knows or is in the process of knowing. There are high levels of activity occurring in what sometimes feel like moments of stillness and silence.
In their article ‘Innovative Data Collection Strategies’, Onwuegbuzie et al (2010) point out that in spite of much writing on data collection, little has been written about the collation and representation of non verbal data. They state that even in the ‘seminal’ Handbook of Qualitative Research, only two short paragraphs in a book of 1126 pages, raise the issue of non verbal communication. We know, however from these recent developments in neuroscience that many ‘conversations’ take place in this space and they are conversations which can shape the mood of the participants powerfully (Curran, 2008). Current thinking in the field of neuroscience shows that it is almost impossible to separate the emotional, motor and higher order thinking processes and where it is possible, there is damage to the brain (Damasio 2006). Moreover, the body’s motor system reacts to metaphor and imagination as quickly and effectively as it does to reality. Claxton notes that unsurprisingly, when we hear a sentence such as ‘Bill caught the cricket ball’, our hand primes itself to catch a ball. He goes on to cite studies from Masson, Bub and Newton-Taylor (2008) and Glenberg (2008) in which similar physiological responses occur in sentences such as ‘Anna had forgotten her Blackberry’ (listeners primed their motor cortex to make small pressing motions with their thumbs) and even in more abstract modes such as ‘Judith delegated the responsibility to Sheena’ where the motor cortex indicated a gesture of giving – open palm handed out. (Claxton 2012:80). While we linguistically accept that metaphors such as ‘kicking habits’ or ‘pushing up daisies’ mean other things, our brains still react literally to them, priming our legs and hands to kick and push. Do the words ‘can’t’ and ‘can’ have a similar impact?
In an observation a senior leader commented that it was good that I was not afraid of silence and would wait, but I wanted to say that there was no silence – there is talk all the time – it’s just gestural talk, waiting for words to catch up. Goldin-Meadow and Wagner (2005) point out that gestures are of the essence of explanation. That children will frequently convey meanings and understandings much richer than their words suggest through gesture. They argue that paralinguistic features of communication are often more daring and creative than children are willing to express in words or writing. We dance our language – sometimes imperceptively, sometimes clearly…
I knew it but I didn’t know I knew it….
I am teaching Year 9 and trying to get them to identify metaphor – can they tell me what a metaphor is? I ask. One boy is bobbing, hand in the air, but when he tries to say it, he falters:-
‘I thought I knew, it’s….no I can’t explain it.’
Normally I would move on, but I’ve just read about embodied cognition and so I look at the boy’s hands.
‘Look at your hands – what are they trying to tell you?’
He looks. His hands are making a curved shape – a bit like the shape men make of women, a bit like a vase. I’m not sure which, but his hands are moving in this shape without him knowing. He looks.
‘Oh, it’s like a vase…a vessel…is a metaphor a vessel – like a container for a meaning? Oh I can’t say it!’
‘You did – you found a metaphor for a metaphor.’
If we are really going to help children to make progress, we need to think about it completely differently. Progress is not about putting numbers into spreadsheets. It is about seizing upon small but significant moments of opportunity. Clues. Being open to possibility. Being positive.
Too often, teachers fail to see those small moments of something that can so easily be lost. We fail to capitalise on clues – to probe a hesitant speaker, to see an embodied explanation. We let them go and they become lost in the frustration of knowing that they almost knew but not quite. I can see my son on the edge of the pond, serenading tadpoles and it prompts a thought of myself as a fisherman, just trying to make sure that none – not even the tiddlers, get away. If we are to take the idea of progress seriously, we need to learn to look, to hook, to reel them in. And it’s complicated.