Finger Clickin’ Good…

I’m not afraid of a twitter scrap – or any scrap to be honest – but you have to think carefully before you take on people who you a) respect and b) suspect are cleverer than you are. And so I’m not sure if I was foolish to question the defence of the practice of finger clicking as a collective show of approval by Harry Fletcher Wood and Laura McInerney. But I did, and now I have to explain my concerns as some of the twitterarsy joined in with complaints that my concerns were ‘ridiculous’. Perhaps they are. But here they are:-

Before I start, if you have no idea what I’m talking about, you may want to read this really interesting account of a visit to King Solomon Academy in London by David Didau. When I first read it I thought it just sounded weird and cultish but then someone tweeted a link to a video clip (which I can no longer find, so please supply if you have it) and I have to say it looked very sweet. When a child says something or does something admirable, the rest of the class clicks their fingers softly in approval. It looks like a little cloud of butterflies as their hands lift into the air and they, well, click. I was almost seduced – what harm could it do? But then, I’ve tried to train myself to look beyond what is sweet in my teaching and to ask “Why?” and “What could possibly go wrong?”

Culture is a complex adaptive system – an eco system of sorts, in which each element is more than the sum of its parts and in which there is constant emergence and growth. We’re not talking chaos theory here – I’m not suggesting that those soft little butterfly clicks are causing havoc in the Caribbean right now, but that we need to think really carefully about how cultures grow, read each other and inter-relate. In KIPP schools, where clicking originated, and there, at KSA, there is a strong drive towards developing a micro-culture within the school with the power to over-ride the external culture of the child. Within this culture, there is a strong drive towards group identity and belonging. Shared missions and goals. For these schools, the goal is to get to University. And there is no excuse for being poor. The results are impressive, and as David’s blog suggests, the buy in to this micro culture is universal.

It’s hard to argue against a drive towards this goal (well, actually it’s not, but that’s for another blog) – or at least to argue against schools who try to create purposeful climates and shared belonging for their pupils. Most strive for it. But there are some difficulties with making this so pervasive that normal human signals, signs and gestures are reprogrammed to create shared identity.

Firstly, in multi-cultural schools, such as these, children are already assimilating a minority culture into a majority set of norms and values. Navigating this is tricky and understanding the similarities and differences of those cultures is essential in securing future stability. The work of balancing different cultural needs, values and signs can be stressful for children. So there may be temporary relief in being drawn into a new, inclusive micro-culture in your school. It could be so attractive that it becomes necessary to you. And leaving that culture – moving on into a world in which no-one understands your clicking for example can lead to a feeling of isolation. You know that feeling when no-one gets you? Well multiply that by 100 when you arrive at your destination – never doubted – University, clutching your examination results and you try to fit in. What children need, is not simply to be driven to the door, but to be helped to understand how the world on the other side operates. People on the other side of that door tend not to click (unless they are highly impatient and want to get your attention – imagine the cultural gaffes; there’s a comedy sketch in there somewhere).

The 50% drop out rate of pupils from KIPP who make it to college is well publicised. In fact in 2012, the schools secured a $3.6 million grant to find out why. The reasons will be complex of course – but given the financial support, the academic level of qualification and so on, KIPP kids should be better equipped than most FSM kids to see it through. I suspect that one element of this research will discover that not feeling that one fitted in was a key factor. School cannot be a pure sanctuary for kids – lovely as this sounds – it’s a passing place; a ceremonial preparation for life. If we rewrite the codes and cultures of life, I worry that we simply create children who miss the old ways, who struggle to understand how others communicate their approval/feelings/routines and who fall out of step.

The other concern centres more around the impact of the body on the mind. Embodied cognition is a relatively new field of study and new discoveries are coming along all the time. But what is clear is that children become incredibly adept at reading other’s gestures in order to decide whether or not they are to be trusted (Hattie and Yates, 2014), and in order to better understand what is being said (Goldin-Meadows et al 2005, 2013). Add to that the findings of Masson Bub and Newton-Taylor (2008) and Glenberg (2008) in which the body is seen to react and prime to verbal cues even in abstract sentences (for example the words ‘delegated the responsibility’ led to the muscles in the hand priming themselves for a gesture of giving) then we have to carefully consider the wisdom of reprogramming the gestural codes we have established over millennia. If we accept the research that children will quickly and subconsciously read and respond to minute gestures and that these gestures create strong physiological responses, then should we be creating small numbers of children who carry completely different physical and psychological codes? What misunderstanding might occur? Who knows.

It might all be fine. Sweet. But we don’t know. And so for now, just to be on the safe side, I’ll stick to smiles and nods and applause.

Trailer:- Next week’s blog. “Hey You, Poor Person. I am Here to Save you From Yourself.” Or something similar.

26 thoughts on “Finger Clickin’ Good…

  1. Not sure that there is much of an argument against the clicking here, it seems much wider than that. Isn’t clicking just like applause? A signal of approval? That is pretty culturally widespread and a slow hand clap for disapproval – relatively rarely used. Is their a slow click equivalent? Seems to me that recognition through approval is a positive motivator so with appropriate guidance clicking approval seems a positive benefit. Ok, it could be used possible negatively for bullying by being silent when the victim speaks but that could be said about applause too. So for me its not the clicking that is the issue, but how it is used, why and whether or not it achieves that purpose. And I suppose if there are any unintended outcomes.

  2. Thanks for this Debra – thoughtful as ever…
    I’d make three points in reply.

    1. It’s important to put the KIPP graduation rates in context. Young people who’ve been through KIPP do have a 50% drop out rate as you say but 44% of all those who go through KIPP do graduate. This compares to 8% (yes, 8%) for all low-income pupils in the US – so they are still vastly more successful than other schools at helping their charges to academic success. (Data here:

    We don’t have the data yet to know how young people from Mossborne; KSA; Burlington Danes and the like will do at university but they’re actually getting large numbers of young people from very poor communities into university in the first place which is a huge step forward (well not KSA yet but the other two).

    2. I do get why this type of school makes people uncomfortable. As I’ve written elsewhere (and as David Didau implies in the post you link to) it does seem problematic to have schools that focus on giving a different type of education to poorer kids (particularly if, like me, you’re a rich white man). However we have to remember that these communities are massively supportive of the schools. KIPP are massively oversubscribed; as is KSA; as is Mossborne etc… If the families want it I’m not sure our psychological uneasiness is particularly important. Also I’d happily send my kids to KSA – I can’t because I’m not in what will always be a low-income catchment.

    3. As for clicking – or the other little cultural routines – schools like this often use I can’t say I’m hugely worried. Humans are pretty good at adjusting to context. I know I can make obscene gestures at a football match than I can’t at a toddlers’ birthday party. Many of my relatives’ kids go to Jewish schools – which are full of strange little rituals – but they know to avoid those rituals with non-Jewish friends.

    Moreover any classroom is full of odd quirks that young people know are context-dependent. In fact one reason for using these types of routines systematically across a school is so that pupils don’t have to separately adjust to the cultural choices made by multiple individual teachers. They know to *always* track the teacher – not just in Mr. Fletcher-Wood’s class. They don’t have to deal with one teacher allowing rowdy applause while another tells them off for it.

    Finally – if you haven’t had a chance to see one of these schools I would try and visit (I particularly loved Dixons Trinity Academy in Bradford – who also use of lot of these heuristics). I think it’s quite hard to understand the point until you see it in action.

    Thanks again for the post + apologies for lengthy reply!

    1. Thank you Sam – useful analysis here. I know Dixon’s – Tait Coles’ school isn’t it. I particularly like his work. Might be worth looking at Janet’s comments too.

  3. I think Sam Freedman Tweeted the KIPP stats. . The KIPP drop-out rate of 50% matches USA average and is a lot better than the USA low-income rate of more like 75%. Proviso is that these are their own stats. but should think this is easily checked. I suspect it’s hard to look at these from a UK perspective unless the US college system is well-understood. I don’t really understand it but I’m guessing the horrendously high drop-out rates for all but high-income may reflect the financial situation. I think there is also a difference between the most and least prestigious institutions that is more important than in this country. None of this detracts from your thoughts on KSA clicking, which may well be valid, but I’m not convinced that you can use college drop-out rate to support your argument. The stats. suggests that either all low-income students have difficulty wanting to stick four years, or that they have difficulty being able to do so.

  4. The question of the role of schools in creating micro-cultures is fascinating and troubles me too. One of my standard questions on visiting schools is ‘How ready are these students for the rest of the world?’ (The validity of this question isn’t confined to charters: I’ve asked it in mono-cultural schools too – this year that’s included a 90% Bengali all-girls school and a 99% white coastal school). Although I’m more inclined to sympathise with schools’ attempts to create micro-cultures which are achievement-focused, I certainly share some of your misgivings about the underlying impact this has and am unconvinced it represents a long-term ‘solution’ to social inequality.

    Alienation is undoubtedly an important issue in university – but it can be the case for anyone who feels they are an impostor or of the ‘wrong’ social background in their university. Clicking is pretty tangential to these broader social questions.

    Nor do I think every student should go to university. But I do want them all to have the option (in terms of grades and knowledge of the choices open to them)… and schools like KIPP and KSA, like them or not, have made this possible in greater numbers than most comparable schools. I don’t believe that either one represents a solution to Britain’s educational or social issues, but I think it’s a bold move to ignore or condemn them outright (not that you’re doing this here – but I sometimes worry that their unfamiliar practices can lead people to be suspicious of everything about them).

    As to changing gestures – any student who moves abroad (or spends time among people of a different culture to their own in the UK) will have to adapt to unfamiliar physical expressions – in living abroad I’ve managed to pick up the Indian ‘head-wobble’ and the Japanese bow. No such manifestation is immutable… I’m not convinced that a handful of pretty minor gestures represents a ‘completely different physical code.’

    The video clip is here:

    1. Thank you Harry for this generous response. I take your final point (and Sam’s) RE the ability of children and adults to adapt to other cultural norms. I just don’t really see the point of creating further confusion. A bit like the nonsense words in the phonics test, I guess. I always think there’s enough to learn from the words and gestures that exist without making others up. But I am certain that in your classroom, it is thoughtfully and carefully applied and works beautifully.

  5. The point is that when you change social norms you generally do it for three reasons; 1( because they are destructive in some way, 2) in response to some ideological stance that may be good or bad or finally 3) because you are trying to control people.

    As far as I am aware there clapping is not destructive nor is there an ideological movement against it.

  6. Your point about absorbing a different minority culture is really interesting to me. I work in a large urban primary with about 93% of the pupils being from various ‘minority’ cultures. Since the staff and curriculum are broadly from the ‘majority’ culture (I use quote marks since everything is a bit topsy-turvy in my working life compared to day-to-day life outside of work) we are forcing them to conform to a different culture and find that we have huge problems in terms of social behaviours, language and cultural references but, since they are assessed within the ‘majority’ culture we have to keep persevering (forcing them to conform). I wonder what effect this has on them when they return to the safety of their culture and/or enter the big wide world after they leave formal education. Do we cause them to have no sense of belonging or do we force them to hang on to their cultural identity to the exclusion of being part of another culture?

  7. Research from the states shows that zero-tolerance policies have a negative effect on minority ethnic students.

    KIPP schools in New York did particularly badly in the new standardized tests in 2013.

    Only 22 KIPP schools take students beyond eighth grade (age 13/14) so holding KIPP up as an exemplary model ignores the fact that the schools don’t teach older secondary children.

    KIPP schools have been accused of having high attrition rates and replacing these pupils with higher-achieving ones. Research by Mathematica (2014) found this wasn’t the case. However, researchers suggested KIPP schools’ success (the New York test results notwithstanding) could be explained because KIPP schools attract only those pupils who would be happy with their ethos. This in turn suggested that the KIPP model may not work in other schools where children are not so motivated.

    The same could be true of the ARK model. Bolshie teenagers (and I admit I was one) would have great fun subverting the finger clicking (wrong time, wrong place, too loudly, too often).

    1. In a democracy the people should have choice. This means choice in the type of schools their children can attend. Its fairly well established with religion but seems a lot less so with secular ethos. If as a parent you violently disagree with the KSA/KIPP ethos you should have the choice to send your child somewhere different and I guess this is probably the case now, its possible. But equally if you desperately want that ethos you should be able to get it which is more of a problem if the schools are over-subscribed. So I’d turn it round and say if it’s what the parents want and there is no really clear cut evidence that it is harmful (and as far as I can see there isn’t any) then professionals with ideological concerns should get out of the way and let parents and children decide what they want. If someone really believes they have the “killer ethos” then set up your own free school and sell it to the parents.

  8. Kris, I think there are so many culture clashes in operation here its difficult to know where to start. The title alluding to KFC is telling. It projects a parody on US culture and an association with fast food and stuff traditionally associated with low qualifications and poor education. It is catchy for that reason because it is juxtaposed to “highly educated professional issues”. This might well not have been the conscious intention but I think it demonstrates that there is a significant clash of cultures in operation here and that explains why the discussions tend to be more political than rational. Anything that shortcuts a trigger to confirmation bias is going to be used by either side because both have an entrenched belief that they are right. Change threatens professional status, especially if outcomes are counter-intuitive. (to the professionals). OTOH anyone that has committed their life to a new way is going to be reluctant to say it was a mistake in any shape or form. Both sides tend to see themselves as the victim of the other.

      1. As I said, it may well not have been consciously intentional but if you asked an external person with no axe to grind I’m sure it would resonate. It’s not anything peculiar to you, its just the way human psychology works and why we are so susceptible to confirmation bias.

  9. A really interesting comment thread here. Personally, I have little problem with the whole clicking business. I think we all have routines in our own classrooms that are distinct and context bound. I use my own verbal short cuts and other control mechanisms that work for me that I would expect others to dismiss. I think it is the proverbial storm in the tea cup!

    I’m not sold on the tentative notion of it being negative related to our embodied cognition either. I just think it is a quirky little routine that students can use, will use, and discard in almost all other contexts. in short, no biggie!

    What I am deeply interested in was your discussion of the KIPP problem with University retention. Though, as Sam rightly points out, the high drop out rate should be put in context with the high rate of college uptake, given the socio-economic circumstances of such students. My personal experience is that students from a working class background struggle at university because they don’t have the legion of implicit social codes and confidence-imbuing understanding that students from middle-class backgrounds enjoy, as well as the financial comforts of course. The emotions that attend students who leave a working class family and friends are potent and can cloud, and in some cases, wipe out the gains of confidence achieved by great GCSE results. This is something that all teachers, particularly schools with working class students, like our and KSA, need to look at alongside exam result outcomes. Student confidence, or self-effciacy, though muddier than outcome data, is something we need to consider regarding getting working class students to higher ed. with success.

    The complexity of a wide network of KIPP schools, akin to Free Schools like KSA, is hard to unpick and make generalisations from. School size, funding, parental engagement with education, exclusion rates, breadth of curriculum, student and staff well being etc. all-relate to the ultimate outcome measures, some directly, others indirectly. Quite clearly, KSA is doing some spectacular things in terms of student outcomes, so we should consider their methods and learn as best we can to apply lessons to our contexts, whilst being conscious of the unique needs of our own school students and contexts.

    In short, all this debate is much more complex than clicking!

    1. It is Alex, and thank you for this detailed comment. Harry blogged this morning about how he uses it and there is nothing there that makes me uncomfortable at all – in fact, I really liked what he described. So I think what we’re peeling away here is an underlying difficulty with uniformity and compliance forming a key part of a child’s identity. I think that’s what this thread is helping me to move towards.

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