What Works?

Middle child has a controlled assessment in German next week. He’s predicted A/A* in all of his subjects except German, where he’s currently working at a grade D. I need to do some work with him on his fixed mind set in languages but our conversations seem to stall at “I’m just crap at it”. So I was a little surprised when he came home seemingly unperturbed about his latest challenge. “I just put some of these phrases together and make sure I’ve got my tenses right – I know my tenses – and then I learn it off by heart and write it up. If I can do that, I should pass it,” he says nonchalantly.

He can’t/won’t speak a word of German. He’ll leave school having studied a language for five years, like his brother, who gained a grade B in the subject, unable to communicate on even a basic level with a German speaker. It’s not the fault of his teachers who are enthusiastic and committed. It’s the fault of a system that has prioritised the rote learning of grammar and tenses over the practicality of speaking a language. How absurd. It is no wonder that take up at A Level and University level for languages has fallen. At advanced level, there is an expectation that one can communicate in the chosen language. Surely that’s the bottom line? Well no, because learning in this way ‘Works’. It works for the school – EBacc measures are met. It works for the government – Ebacc measures are met. It does not in any way, shape or form, work for the child in being usefully applicable to his/her future.

It’s an extreme example of how our obsession with passing tests has blinded us to the real purpose of education, which at its most basic level is surely to equip children with knowledge and skills which will help them in some way in the future. Whether this is simply being able to access a classical reference at a dinner party and not feel like an idiot, or if it is to be able to accurately figure out how much carpet you need, time spent in education should produce either joy, interest or useful application. Beauty and utility.

When I hear the words ‘what works?’ I want to ask ‘works for what?’ If it is to simply pass tests, especially when the tests themselves are flawed, we have a very short term vision indeed. We are not equipping children for life. We are crippling them. The recent 75 year longitudinal study from Harvard on quality of life summed up its findings in three words – ‘Happiness is Love’. We should be looking at our education system and asking ‘Does education equip children for love?’ For loving learning, for loving people, for loving life? How much joy is there in being able to reach across a language barrier and connect with another human being? How little joy in learning a paragraph off by heart on healthy living?

Let’s ask again, “what works,” but let’s add to those two words some others: “What works in order to live a full and happy life?”

Bottom’s Up!

After my post about my MoE journey with my Year 9s (http://debrakidd.wordpress.com/2013/09/30/bottoms-on-fire/ ) lots of people asked me to let them know what happened next. You see that’s what a good story is – a hook – and it’s much easier to get children to learn once they’re hooked. Of course there were also those with questions – What did they learn? – was one. So here’s the next instalment of the Snoop family holiday.

You may remember that Mrs Snoop wanted adventure, that money was no object and that she didn’t want to fly. At the end of the first session, the children had settled on India, Nepal and the Maldives but they had forgotten an important detail. The daughter was in Year 11 – the holiday would have to take place in the Summer.

In terms of ‘English’ we were learning to write in order ‘to inform’ – the kids were writing an itinerary and designing a brochure, but I have a lot of sympathy with the Hirsch/Christodoulou position that knowledge is vital in equipping children with the skills of the future. It doesn’t seem enough to me to say ‘here are the features of informative writing – off you go…’ Instead I think, how can this be an opportunity to learn more about the world? Hence the two constraints. Not flying means they have to look carefully at a map. In doing so, they discovered that travelling overland to India meant going through either Afghanistan or the northern parts of Pakistan. A quick look at advice for travellers on the Foreign Office web site showed that this was a dangerous area. The children, before we did this, had no idea where Afghanistan was on a map. Now they do. They also know what the Foreign Office is and how to check for information about travel.

– Never mind, they said, we can take them to Oman and sail them across. So I got out some weather charts. 

“She’s coming in soon – do you think we should check the weather in India in July – she might ask.”

They found it quite tricky to read the information on the chart – in PISA tests, the OECD reports that UK children find interpreting visual data more difficult than those in other countries so the practice can’t hurt, right? Eventually they realised that it was going to be very wet. Very wet indeed. They didn’t know what a monsoon was before the lesson. They do now.

So when she came in, they quickly needed an alternative. We had a quick recap. What did she want?

– sky diving

– animals

– adventure

– rainforest walks

– water sports/beach

– Maybe we could try Africa?

It turned out that most of them thought that Africa was a country so it was a revelation for them to discover not only that it was a continent made up of many countries, but that there was such a variety of experience to be had. Among other things, in planning their route, they found out that there were more ancient pyramids in the Sudan than there were in Egypt and got really interested in the history of a country that none of them had ever heard of before.

So a holiday was planned and the Snoops set off and they wrote many postcards on their journey. They were having a fantastic time – seeing Europe first of all and the famous landmarks of Paris, Rome and Athens; sailing across to Alexandria and crossing overland to Cairo then down the Nile right through to The Sudan. Camping in the desert by ancient sites before passing into Uganda for forest treks and gorilla spotting. And finally into Kenya with a spectacular safari trip ending with a parachute jump over the Masai Mara. But then we got an email. There had been an accident and Mrs Snoop was dead.

The boy who gathered the team together to deliver the news was brilliant in his serious and low key delivery of the news.

– We need to fly them home

– We should pay for the funeral

– Was it our fault?

There was a silence. Was it our fault? Who had checked out the safety record of the parachute company? Hands went up.

– They had a safety certificate

-The parachutes were new

– We’ve used them before

But who is liable? None of them have ever heard the word liable before. We need to unpick it. If we offer to pay for the funeral, are we admitting liability?

– It’s the right thing to do.

– Maybe we should just pay to get them home?

– Don’t they have insurance?

– We should write and offer help, but not say sorry.

They rush off to write carefully worded letters of condolence (another new word).

When the Health and Safety people come round for a visit, the children are quite confident that they’ve followed procedure and are in the clear. But they’ve forgotten one thing – that we had photographs of previous accidents stored away in our filing cabinet. Do they shred or hand them over…..

Mantle of the Expert is loaded with knowledge. But it is also loaded with ethical dilemma, rich language and notions of responsibility. It is more than a gimmick; more than a fad. But it is also difficult, time consuming and complex. It is not for everyone, but for this group, and this teacher, it worked a treat.

Dispelling some Mantle Myths

I’m setting myself ten minutes for this one because it’s really not what I want to be doing on a Friday night. But here are some of the issues I want to put to bed about Mantle of the Expert. I was somewhat astonished last night to see it dismissed by a secondary Maths teacher as ‘insane’ and by a Conservative counsellor as ‘dismal’ based on a brief perusal of a web site. It’s not just that it’s not very scholarly, or that it’s rude, though these reactions are both anti-intellectual and dismissive, but that no-one criticising it seemed to have the slightest idea of what it is. Said maths teacher even put it in a blogpost alongside the hugely discredited Brain Gym as if waving your arms around and pressing your belly is in some way comparable to high level inquiry led, knowledge based thinking.

At its most basic level, MoE is a bunch of children and their teacher, engaging with a problem one might find in the real world and figuring out what to do about it. It involves imagining but not pretending – you don’t ‘con’ children in mantle into believing something is true and you don’t put on costumes and prat about using funny voices. Instead you have serious and responsible conversations about how best to handle a situation. Like these little ones here, who are excavating a site in London and working out which time period we might be looking at


As with any tool for classroom practice, MoE is great for some contexts and not for others. I wouldn’t teach children to read using MoE or to learn their times tables. But we would read in MoE and do calculations as the context demanded. Most primary schools who use it consistently and well, spend between 40-60% of their time in Mantle and the rest in activities like Synthetic Phonics, Numeracy, PE and Guided Reading. So why bother?

Well, there are no large scale RCTs to suggest it ‘works’ – the idea of the work being measurable is a bit of an anathema but primaries like Woodrow and Bealings do report significant rises in results and Bealings has been consistently rated outstanding by Ofsted for over a decade. A project I worked on at a secondary school in Huddersfield showed that children exploring their Science, Maths and English topics in Year 8 through a combined MoE project, outperformed their peers in all three subjects in end of unit tests, with teachers reporting that the gains were so noticeable that they could ‘spot’ the children who had been involved a year later without being told who had been in the project group. Another, in Barnsley saw GCSE A-C grades rise by 40% for the year group that had been taught through MoE. Of course, these are small scale experiences in single setting and don’t really mean anything. But it’s irrelevant. You don’t do mantle to improve results – you do mantle to build general knowledge, vocabulary, responsibility, relationships, connected thinking, playfulness and seriousness. If there are side effects of performing better in tests, then whoopeedoo, but this is a philosophy not an intervention.

Right, my husband is home. Wine is in the fridge. Ten minutes are up.