Reading ‘Little Soldiers’

I recently read Little Soldiers by Lenora Chu. It is part personal anecdote, supplemented by research, and tells of an American couple (one half of whom is Chinese-American) who moved to Shanghai for work and made the decision to enter their son in the Chinese school system. Chu’s insights on the system, particularly those from her personal perspective, are fascinating.

The book opens with note on Shanghai and its status as dominating the world’s academic league tables. Chu at no point questions the strength of Shanghai’s academics, but she does debate the values of the system. Throughout the book we continually see Chu finding herself at odds with the top-performing Shanghai school, and in parts of the book I couldn’t work out whether I sympathized less with Chu or the school.

Chu cites ‘troubling signs’ in her four-year-old son, including a ‘habit of obeisance,’ giving the example of her son, Rainey, saying ‘I don’t like singing, but if you want me to do it, I’ll do it.’ More troubling to Chu is that Rainey doesn’t like eggs, and she discovers that the teacher has put egg in his mouth, which leaves her feeling affronted at this invasion of her son’s choices. Although the episode did make me feel very uncomfortable, the mother’s interactions with the school also contains an uneasy kernel of truth that the Western way is far from perfect: “‘We motivate them to choose to eat eggs,’” she tells the school. “‘Does it work?’ ‘Well… not always,’ I admitted.” What is clear in this, and all episodes, is the Chinese clarity on values, with a black/white sense of right and wrong. The teacher follows up this conversation saying: ‘Rainey needs to eat eggs. We think eggs are good nutrition, and all young children must eat them.’ Conversation over.

At a number of points, the Chinese teacher advises that narrator ‘refrain from questioning my methods in front of Rainey… it is better that the children think we are in agreement about everything.’ I could not agree more. Although parents questioning a school’s practices can provide vital feedback to school leaders, if this is done in front of the children it can be undermining and give children an ‘out.’ I’m always grateful when parents ask to speak with me one to one after their child has left a parent meeting to share their concerns about how an issue is being dealt with.

Indeed, at times I did feel the narrator came across as slightly disrespectful to the teachers – not only in questioning their choices in front of her son, but also when she narrates her husband complaining as they tear and staple their son’s many worksheets of an evening: ‘Shouldn’t this be the school’s responsibility? Or a teacher’s aide?’ I am grateful that the narrator has been so honest, but I found this a shocking insight that parents would be so unwilling to do this kind of admin for their child, especially so given the massive class sizes in China. This factor would mean this kind of task, if done by a teacher, would take vital hours they could be spending more productively, in terms of planning the children’s learning.

At another point in the book, Chu is concerned that Rainey doesn’t want to stand out, for example on the school’s ‘grandparents day’ when he does not have a grandparent available to fly across the ocean and is advised to stay at home for the day (which does, I think, seem a little insensitive). Chu comes in and stands in the place of the grandparent. Chu’s worries this is due to ‘the Chinese cultural focus on the collective rather than the individual,’ but I think this issue transcends culture: in my experience, all children are sensitive to difference, and those who do not conform are often picked on, in nursery and primary schools often cruelly so.

In places the Chinese methods come across as simply shocking. On the first day of primary school, for example, physically placing children in their seats and shouting at them for breaking rules they have not yet been taught comes across as outrageously inhuman. But it is also easy to understand the Chinese argument that ‘with more than fifty children in a classroom, it’s simply impossible to let children step out of line.’

Again, though, it is shocking from both sides. When Chu and her husband visit the school to air their concerns about their methods, they are told during the meeting that their child is mounting other children like they are a donkey and hitting them. If I’m honest, their response is nowhere near as shocked on hearing this as I expected – surely this is a cause of huge embarrassment to them? (“‘Oh,’ I responded, as flatly as I could. [The teacher] looked at me with surprise, as if she’d expected me to recoil with horror. I was concerned, but frankly, I also wanted to laugh.’) Though I admit my experience of teaching reception children is precisely zero, so perhaps this is normal.

The book is underscored with the parents’ Western prioritisation of individualism and exceptions – yet their child actually adjusts quickly. As Chu says: ‘unlike me, I could see that Rainey had adjusted. He was finding his own way to get things done. He wanted more water, and he’d discovered that faking a cough was the most effective way to accomplish his goal without triggering the teachers’ ire.’ She finds that when they return to the USA for a vacation, everyone who meets them is amazed at how well behaved their son is and how advanced he is. The son’s pride in these interactions gleams off the page.

As with so many of these cross-cultural studies, it all ultimately comes down to what you value in education. The author cites country after country rejecting their low PISA results claiming that the ‘results don’t measure what we value.’ Chu cites the evidence that American children score far lower in Maths than their Shanghai peers, but follows up with the evidence that the American children who do score highly love it. This raises an important question: what is better, doing well, or loving the subject? And aren’t both outcomes possible?

At one point the father worries ‘we’re losing control of his mind,’ and some of the examples of Communist propaganda are shocking to read about, and a chilling reminder of just how easily influenced young children are. (I’m sure many Western readers will remember stories from Communist Russia where children would shop in their own parents to the authorities.)

It is also unequivocally disturbing for this Western reader to hear children being called by numbers and not names.

Indeed, it is clear that the Chinese system is far from perfect, most notably in the chasm of educational achievement between rural and urban areas. There are deep inequalities, with frightening numbers of children falling out of the system altogether.

At the same time, there is lots to learn. Chu quotes the values of Chinese educator Xiaodong Lin: ‘Americans emphasise achievement without hard work. They believe in the concept of genius. This is a problem. The Chinese – they know hard work.’ This includes training children to endure discomfort and persevere anyway: Chinese schools usually lack even the basics like heating, where, in contrast, an American educator is quoted saying his class can’t even sit still for an hour.

As the book goes on, Chu becomes increasingly positive about benefits of the Shanghai system, at least for her son in his high-performing urban school: over halfway through she writes: ‘the Chinese way is to hire good administrators and trust them to do their jobs; parents were to support the system, take responsibility for as much as possible, and keep petty distractions out of the equation. I didn’t disagree.’ In fact, Chu becomes increasingly concerned that her parenting methods conflict with the school and are potentially negating any advantages of the Chinese methods. All in all, this is a compelling read.

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Lessons from ‘Small Teaching’

I would really recommend this book. Though ostensibly aimed at university lecturers, so much of this works in the secondary classroom, perhaps due to the way American universities organise and assess their courses. I loved the way the author started each chapter with a story to illustrate his principles, and also the way the tweaks suggested are minor and quick to apply for busy classroom practitioners. Here the key learning points I took from the book:

  1. Knowledge

Lang’s book begins with how to ensure students acquire the necessary knowledge, and he stresses the need to frequently quiz students on what they have learned to aid them in knowledge acquisition. But along with quizzing, he also explores the impact of predictions and pre-tests: even if students get these predictions wrong, it can stir their curiosity (with the caveat that learners do need some prior knowledge for this to work! It’s no good asking complete novices what they think of the French Revolution when they have absolutely no knowledge at all of revolutionary France). He then explores the best way to ensure long-term memory by weighing up interleaving of knowledge, concluding that it is usually best to block learn something and then revisit it while teaching the next topic.

  1. Understanding

I’ve often grappled with what it means to ‘understand’ what we learn, and I loved the simplicity of Lang’s conclusion: ‘understanding’ is when we take the blocks of knowledge and link them to our prior understanding; it is when we form links between our knowledge to gain a greater understanding of the whole. In which case, activating prior learning at the start of any topic is vital, which can be as simple as asking: ‘what do you already know about…?’ He then explores other ways to get students to make links, such as making concept maps (otherwise known as mind maps…), or asking about different texts or themes and how they compare.

  1. Practice

Lang points out that mindless rote-learning is pointless – we need to find a way to get students to practice mindfully. We want them to know things to automaticity without it becoming mindless. He counsels lots of in-class practice with teacher coaching as they write, rather than a lot of practice at home when students can be lazier and not push themselves.

  1. Reflection

I had always thought of ‘reflection’ as a sort of useless add-on in education, as so often our idea of what we understand is misjudged. This is possibly still the case with younger learners. However, I was intrigued by his overview of ‘self-explanation’, whereby you get children to explain what they are doing as they are studying, including saying when they don’t understand or are stuck. He advises teachers to prompt this inner reflection with a simple question as they study or write silently: ‘why are you doing that?’

  1. Belief

The final part of Lang’s book is dedicated to exploring beliefs. We know that if students believe effort leads to success they will be more successful; we also know that the teacher’s own beliefs about the reward of effort will rub off on their classes. Lang reminds us that humans are social animals and feed off emotions, and so the atmosphere of the classroom is vitally important. Like Willingham, he advises using story-telling to tap into their emotional response to learning, along with reiterating the purpose of the material covered and being generally enthusiastic about it. Citing Carol Dweck’s Mindset, he also asks educators to build in low-stakes tests that enable students to take risks and fail, as this will lead to greater learning, with the caveat that many students have a fixed mindset, and so early failure may put them off learning.

 

All in all, a fantastic and helpful survey of some key aspects of the science of learning, with lots of applicable ideas.

I Wish I Taught Maths

I was terrible at Maths. I had never learned the basics – times tables, long multiplication – nothing. When I sat the entrance exam for an assisted place scheme to go to a local private school, I scored almost nothing on the Maths paper. The kind Headteacher led me through the paper question by question, one to one, and decided to offer me a place because I seemed to understand it, I had just ‘never been taught it.’ Once ensconced in the private school that changed my life, I was sent to top set Maths. I struggled. I made my teacher, Mrs Meadows-Smith’s, life a misery. I asked stupid, time-wasting questions. I hated Maths.

And so the next year, I was placed in the third set for Maths. And I loved it. Finally, I could understand what was going on. Mr. Shepperson’s explanations were clear, and his enthusiasm was encouraging. I spent a term in set 3, before being propelled again to set 1. Where again, I hated it. We took a half-termly test, and every half term I came bottom, or second from bottom. On the eve of year 11, I heard someone say in an off-hand way: ‘The kids at the bottom of set 1 will get Bs; the kids at the top of set 2 will get As.’ That was it. I petitioned the Head of Maths, and got to join set 2… Again, with Mrs. Meadows-Smith. That poor woman. I had learned nothing in terms of behaviour, and continued to be distracted and annoying. She persevered. She never once raised her voice. She was kind and patient, even though I was her literal nightmare. I have no idea how I managed to get an A at GCSE Maths, but I imagine it was 5% due to me, and 95% due to Mrs. Meadows-Smith.

By the end of year 11, I loved Maths, because I could do Maths, and Maths is incredible when you can do it. I asked the Head of Maths if I could do Maths A-level. The response was categorical: no. I may have ‘scraped an A’ at GCSE (code for: we have no idea how this has happened but we are very happy for you), but I could only hope for a C at best in the AS level, not to mention the even harder A-level.

He was right. But when I walk the corridors of any school, I always linger a little longer in Maths classes. Maths is different to basically every other lesson in schools. The operations required are different. The method, in many ways, is different. Children do not encounter Maths in any other lesson apart from Maths: Maths teachers have the hardest job in terms of getting children to understand their subject.

 Reading Craig Barton’s How I Wish I’d Taught Maths has only convinced me more that I wish I could teach Maths. But the book is about so much more than Maths. Barton’s journey is one many readers will recognise: ‘mid-career’ he hit a ‘crisis’, whereby he realised that much of what he had done was actually ‘wrong,’ and did not lead to greater student understanding of Maths. He embarked on a mission to find out how to do it better, and this book is a record of that mission.

Each chapter follows the same helpful pattern: what Barton used to think, what he has read on that particular subject (always an astonishing amount of books, journal articles and a few blogs thrown into the mix), before a useable summary of his ‘takeaways’, which, because they are written by an actual teacher who teaches actual children, are completely actionable and never require bonkers amounts of effort.

So much of this book is helpful beyond Maths – chapters on how children learn, the novice/expert issue, what motivates learners, how to get better at instruction, cognitive load theory, worked examples, deliberate practice, formative assessment and long-term memory all include a useful précis of the science involved plus applicable insights for teachers of all subjects.

For example, in a chapter exploring what motivates students, Barton talks about the balance between struggle and success, something that every teacher will recognise: while we do want children to ‘struggle’ a bit, so they find the work challenging, and endure the kinds of difficulties that ensure their thinking is engaged, we also need them to succeed so that, long term, they will be more likely to persevere. Yet we don’t want them succeeding too easily, or all the time. Barton’s exploration of tricky issues like this, with his perspective as a working teacher, is invaluable.

One example of a transferable, useful and research-informed trick Barton shares is to get students to give each answer they write a ‘confidence score’ out of ten prior to marking. The idea is that it makes the children think about how much they think they know something. When they then go through and self-correct, they are more likely to take in the mistakes they have made and remember to not do it that way again. This is the ‘hypercorrection’ effect, whereby ‘errors committed with high confidence are more likely to be corrected than low-confidence errors.’ Another of my favourite insights is that student learning is significantly improved following self-assessment, but students who have peer marked do not experience as much improvement. This is a great nugget of research that will save countless minutes of class time across the land (‘I don’t have a partner’/‘no, that’s a 2 not a 3!’/‘Miss, he’s doing it wrong/making a mess of my book!’).

Having endured many ‘co-planning’ sessions, I, like Barton, was perplexed: why does all the research suggest co-planning leads to better teaching, but every session I sat through seemed like a total waste of time? Barton’s insight is that planning a lesson together is less helpful than writing questions together. To transfer this out of the Maths domain a little, we might think of this as creating the lesson content together, rather than the logistics of a lesson together. Indeed, I increasingly think the best way to support teachers is to give them (or co-create with them) the lesson content, and then use coaching to ensure they are delivering that content in the best possible way.

Obviously, all of the examples in this book are of Maths, and I’m afraid I am unqualified to share my insights on how helpful these are; though I defer to two readers, Kris Boulton and Dani Quinn, whose Maths skills are, in my view, unparalleled: their effusive praise for the book speaks volumes (Maths pun attempted).

One of my favourite things about reading excellent books are their citations. After reading Barton’s book, my Amazon wishlist is absolutely bursting with education tomes, which works well with my new year’s reading resolution to read more non-fiction books.

So what will I do now? The plan to get a Maths A-level looks to have legs, thanks to Kris Boulton’s ‘Up Learn’ project, and, life-logistics depending, I’m hoping the next five years will see me re-engage with Maths in a more formal way. In the mean time, I will continue to lurk in Maths classrooms, and lend Barton’s book to everyone I know who actually does teach Maths (and to a few people who don’t).

Top Reads of 2017

Fiction

William Sutcliffe – Bad Influence

My prize for ‘person of 2017’ goes to Sarah Cullen: colleague, friend, flatmate and so much more. She recommended about half of the below selection for me to read. This one is aimed at KS3 readers, and I’ve told every teacher I know about it. Told from the perspective of a year 6 boy, it evokes the way children can do bad things just to be in with the ‘cool kids.’ A wonderful cautionary tale that every year 7 should have read.

Ali Smith – Artful

I’m so lucky to be surrounded by reading colleagues. Dani Quinn has to be the best-read Head of Maths in the country (contenders on a postcard please), and this was a very thoughtful birthday present from her. I adored it: it reads like a university lecture made accessible; a contemplation of literature and art which feels both gritty and realist while at the same time intellectual and whimsical.

Liane Moriarty – What Alice Forgot

Another recommendation from Sarah, this is most definitely the reading equivalent of Ready Brek – warming, unchallenging, but somehow with a grain of good in there too. It is about a woman who loses her memory, and is learning how she has changed over the past 10 years. It’s a great one to prompt reflection. I read it partly on a train packed with hammered football supporters, one of whom said: ‘what’s that? Oh – hardly great fiction is it love?’ Well, perhaps no; but it was a really comforting read. And sometimes that is exactly what we need.

Zadie Smith – Swing Time

I’ve loved everything Zadie Smith has written, and this was no exception. I especially loved the trajectories of two friends and how their lives went in such wildly different directions. It was uncomfortably familiar to read the way you want to preserve that friendship for the sake of how long it has gone on, but still find it almost painful to persevere in it. The ending was surprisingly philosophical.

Julian Barnes – The Noise of Time

My favourite book of 2017, Barnes’ novel follows the fictional life of Shostakovich, drawing on real examples of his life dogged by the Soviet authorities. A horrifying sense of what life in an authoritarian state looks like, combined with beautiful observations about classical music.

Patrick Hamilton – Hangover Square

An old line manager of mine told me to read Hamilton’s ‘Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky,’ and so I knew I would love ‘Hangover Square.’ The two books are quite unlike one another, however; ‘Hangover Square’ is a comedy of indecision and inaction. It is worth reading this entire book for the final two or three lines which are just superb (do not skip to the end, though – they make no sense out of context!).

Melissa Bank – The Wonder Spot

Another Cullen read: I adored this tale of a young woman trying to make her way in a new city, new career, and with new loves. Melissa Bank has a wonderful way of making you feel like you know every character of her books intimately, including the ones who are barely in the book at all. Bank has this marvellous way of dropping in the perfectly chosen detail to make you feel like you’re reading a true story.

Wallace Stegner – Angle of Repose

Stegner’s style is like Steinbeck meets Walt Whitman: a roaring story told in beautiful prose. This book felt like a dreamscape, but it had moments of harsh clarity. This book also felt enduring, like the best classics do – it contained eternal truths beautifully phrased. I’m not sure why modern books don’t usually do this.

Katherine Taylor – Rules for Saying Goodbye

A familiar-feeling account of modern life for a girl, following her from school to adult life, and full of astute observations and ‘this is so me’ moments for female readers. A fun read, but one which stays with you.

E.L. Doctorow – Ragtime

Set in New York at the turn of the century, fact and fiction collide in this gorgeous account of all of human life. Doctorow draws the central characters with such depth and emotion, and the novel feels so realistic I looked up pretty much every character after reading to be absolutely sure which were drawn from real life, as they all seemed so believable.

 

Non-Fiction

Paul Kalanithi – When Breath Becomes Air

My colleague Lia Martin told me to read this when I was feeling low, and it absolutely restored my mind. The story of a (very well-read) surgeon who is diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour doesn’t sound very uplifting, but I promise you, through the tears comes a sense of hope, joy and purpose.

Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen – Thanks for the Feedback

Receiving feedback is one of the hardest things about being human, whether it is from friends, colleagues, or partners. This fantastic book considers the best way to deliver feedback, and the best way to accept from it and learn from it. All leaders in all organisations would benefit from reading this.

Patrick Lencioni – The Advantage

A colleague from a past school recommended this, and Chris Fairbairn, Head at Totteridge Academy, has used this with his leadership team to create an astonishing pace of change in his school. The simple message at the heart of this book is to build a great team, create clarity around aims, and communicate (and over-communicate) that clarity; but the book is worth reading for the fine grain detail.

 

Reading resolution re-boot

In 2017 I went off the rails a bit reading-wise. Before, I was very strict with myself in reading one children’s book, one adult fiction book, and one non-fiction book. In 2017, I pretty much ‘comfort read’ for the entire year. Let 2018 be the year of getting back to a more healthy regime!

Top reads of 2016

Education reads:

Doug Lemov: Reading Reconsidered

I wrote at length about Lemov’s book – safe to say, it will revolutionise your teaching. Everyone should read this – not just English teachers. Lemov deeply considers the best way to read with classes, but also how to blend fiction and non-fiction for optimal understanding.

Amy Chua: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

I also wrote at length about Chua’s book, which we now all read at Michaela for our staff CPD. Chua’s book is wildly funny, but also exposes a totally different paradigm for thinking about kids and discipline.

Roger Scruton: Culture Counts

My whole way through university, I thought I was stupid. I didn’t ‘get’ post-structuralism, post-colonialism, Foucault or Derrida. It turns out, there is an alternative way of viewing culture. Reading Scruton felt like a warm blanket. For others, this book might feel like more of a scratchy towel in its challenge. Whatever your values, this is a must-read for anyone interested in curriculum.

Michael Puett: The Path

This book is eminently useful for the way it showcases the Eastern paradigm. I stole an example from it in my speech at the Michaela book launch, with the toddler who says ‘thank you’ mindlessly, growing into the adult who can use the word with thought and understanding, to challenge the idea that explicitly teaching children (knowledge or behaviour) does not lead to adults who flail without the structures of a school.

J.D. Vance: Hillbilly Elegy

Vance’s tome details his life and upbringing, and interweaves through this narrative some fascinating statistics. It gives educators pause for thought on what is really needed to ensure poor kids succeed, and triumph against not only poverty, but the ideas and values that keep poor kids poor.

E.D. Hirsch: Why Knowledge Matters

This is the best of Hirsch’s books yet – a lucid and compelling case for knowledge. It is the number one book to read if you’re interested in the knowledge debate, or if you’re still not sure that teaching knowledge is the best way to raise academic standards for all children.

 

Other non-fiction:

Charlotte Gordon: Romantic outlaws: the extraordinary lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley

If you love the Romantics, and you especially love the Romantic ladies, this is a must-read. An eye-opening lens on Shelley’s life and her mother’s influence on it, with the male poets an intriguing sub-plot (for once).

Howard C. Cutler: The Art of Happiness

This was the year I decided to try to calm my mind and quell my anxiety. Spoiler: I have not succeeded (yet). But this was one of the most helpful books in providing a different perspective on happiness, with some genuinely excellent advice to be mindful of in a modern world obsessed with acquisition and status.

Jon Ronson: So You’ve Been Publically Shamed

I read this book in the summer (and if you know anything about Michaela you probably don’t need me to explain why) and found it both hilarious (in its tone and humorous examples) and troubling. Why do we feel like we can hurl insults at people on the internet in a way we never would in real life? Anyone interested in this should also watch the latest series of Black Mirror on Netflix.

Simon Sebag Montefiore: The Romanovs

Undeniably the most fascinating royal family in the history of the world, Montefiore’s tome explores the very beginning of their dynasty right through to the bloody and harrowing ending. This historian’s gift is to render those of the past in a convincingly human light, with details and insights from correspondence carefully chosen to humanise the fated monarchs. 

Fiction:

Margaret Drabble: The Millstone

Drabble’s central character in this little book defies every expectation of her society. A virgin when everyone around her is experimenting, then rapidly reversing to become an unwed mother who keeps her child against all the advice. The heroine will fill you with hope and admiration at her calm perseverance.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Americanah

This book deftly interweaves ideas about race, class, history and geopolitics. The central character’s experience of moving from Nigeria to America and back again, with all the cross-cultural difficulties anyone who has lived overseas can empathise with, is intertwined with a quite beautiful love story. The shifting lens of the story is beautifully crafted, as we follow the heroine, who tells much of her lengthy tale to us at the salon, revealing her hopes, dreams, and fears in the most beautiful prose I read all year.

Elizabeth Jane Howard: The Light Years

This is the first of a long series of novels that document the lives and loves of a family living just before the Second World War. The cast of characters is large, but through different chapters you slowly begin to sense them knitting together, as they negotiate the start of the greatest upheaval of modern times.

 Elizabeth Von Arnim: The Enchanted April

I bought this book on an absolute whim, loving the idea of four strangers on holiday in a castle in Italy. A wonderful period piece, the whimsical nature of the chief perspective lends a childish delight and joy to all she sees. A life-affirming read. 

Zadie Smith: NW

This is my favourite of Smith’s novels yet. I loved the setting – near my school, I felt this gave an insight on the area I’m starting to get to know – and the relationships between the characters. At the centre is a strange relationship between two schoolgirls who have grown into very different adults, and surrounding them a cast of eternally intriguing others.

Joanne Harris: Different Class

This is a fantastically fun read, with a twist mid-way through that led me to frantically re-reading the first half of the novel to work out how I could have possibly missed it. Set in a traditional private school with a relentlessly modernising Headteacher, this novel also contains pertinent insights on education! 

Agatha Christie: Murder on the Orient Express

Despite my shameless love of murder mysteries, I had never read a single Agatha Christie novel before this year. A summer holiday to Devon changed all that. (Prior to reading ‘Murder on the Orient Express,’ my other choice for this slot was ‘Gone Girl,’ which is great by the way.) Christie is the absolute master of this genre. I’m now totally addicted to her novels. 

Anne Bronte: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

I’ve spent a lot of this year working on (and teaching) nineteenth century fiction, and I’ve come to enjoy it more than I could have possibly anticipated. Anne Bronte is the lesser read of the sisters, and this novel is disconcertingly modern: dealing with a painful, disastrous marriage, and forbidden love, you quickly forget that this is a novel not set in our own time. I would only caution do not read the blurb of the book which will absolutely ruin the plot twist. 

William Boyd: Any Human Heart

The wonderful Liz Cowley gave me this book, and it is now one of my all-time favourites. We follow the central protagonist through his journals, experiencing his life and all its adventures, longings, desires, failures. Deeply moving.

Thoughts on ‘Cleverlands’ by Lucy Crehan

I have been excited about Lucy Crehan’s book for what seems like eons, and it does not disappoint. Unlike Amanda Ripley’s (also excellent) The Smartest Kids in the World, Crehan’s book has real direction and pulls together helpful strands, always with a focus on what we in the UK (or in the USA, as she makes frequent allusions to both countries) might learn from these successful systems. Crehan’s style also fuses strong, robust research with anecdote, all told in a witty and engaging style evoking a sense of a travelogue. 

Early on Crehan refers to her research as a ‘geeky gap year.’ Many teachers would surely envy her travels, but she does not shy away from evoking some of the tougher aspects of travelling from place to place, spending around a month in each country, teaching, observing, helping and discussing education.

There is much to be learned from almost all of the countries explored by Crehan, and I was pleasantly surprised by which I learned the most from in reading Cleverlands.

As a former ‘progressive’ teacher, I used to hold up Finland as an example of all that progressive education could accomplish: comprehensive, child-centred, homework-less. But as its PISA results have flagged, and my own pedagogical values have shifted, I have increasingly turned my back on this previous analysis, listening instead to those who claim Finland’s previous results were down to its earlier, more traditional methods.

And yet I learned much from Crehan’s chapters on Finland; perhaps more so than any of the other chapters. She points out that in 2012, Finland was still the highest scoring non-Asian country. Her analysis ranges over the late school start – age 7 – and the counter-intuitive ‘learn through playing’ ideology that pervades these early years. But the focus in those years is on making children school ready, and Crehan cites extensive research showing that it makes no difference if children begin school early or late.

In fact, trying to teach very young children difficult skills may even prove counter productive: ‘like scattering seeds on a path, trying to teach children to read aged one or two will be unproductive, as they don’t have the skills, the language abilities or the cognitive capacity to be able to do it yet.’ Moreover, such a focus could ‘detract from the time they could be using to develop the knowledge and skills that are needed’ to be ready to learn to read.

Crehan considers the success of Finland’s comprehensive system to be due to its slow lead-in time, extensive training, and oversight and inspection of teachers and schools until its full establishment. And Finland is fully comprehensive, down to mixed ability classes, which make a number of appearances in the book. The focus for the Finnish teachers is on the weakest kids: one teacher opines ‘the brightest kids, they’ll learn anyway, whatever you do with them.’ This equity is also reflected in school structures; only the Headteacher is different in the hierarchy. There are no department heads, or senior teachers. There is no performance related pay.

Teachers are continuously developing their own practice independently, genuinely engaging with research and education and cultural writing, and there is a palpable culture of believing this makes them better at their jobs. Crehan warns, though, that this is only possible with a highly motivated workforce.

Of the often celebrated ‘teacher autonomy’ of Finland, Crehan has much to challenge, beginning with a 1996 report on Finnish schools which found: ‘whole classes following line by line what is written in the textbook, at a pace determined by the teacher… you could have swapped the teachers over and the children would never have noticed the difference.’ From Crehan’s observations, she notes a ‘consistently traditional approach’ in classrooms, with lessons ‘led by the teacher, but with substantial whole-class interaction.’ High quality textbooks are ubiquitous. Teachers are not forced to use these, but she points out it would be foolish not to. As Finland has no official exams until age 18, these textbooks are not focused on drilling to a test, but instead on promoting ‘engagement and deep understanding’ of the topics.

Where Finland’s values are reflected in each of its schools, Japan’s system seemed the least coherent. Whereas middle schools invoke military discipline to toughen kids up for high school (Crehan includes one of many brilliant details in outlining the lightweight uniform being entirely useless in winter, but due to layers and coats being forbidden the children ‘buy self-heating pads, which they put in their socks and stick to their backs on the really cold days’), the primary schools are almost completely devoid of any behaviour system, with teachers relying on the children to discipline each other using peer pressure. Teachers are graded A to E, but never know their grade, and they are moved from school to school as their district sees fit. The families in Japan demonstrate strong support for education, with mothers expected to ‘retire’ when pregnant and devote their lives to raising kids, and the school constantly admonishing parents for not supervising children’s homework if it is not done.

More positive aspects include the curriculum: in Japan it is, according to Crehan, narrow but deep. Teachers share planning, and all teach the same lessons. They support struggling pupils outside lesson time.

A large proportion of Crehan’s discussion on Singapore schools pertains to selection, which occurs throughout the system, with streaming beginning early, and schools sorted into more and less academic. Personal responsibility is strong in the chapters on Singapore, and Crehan cites former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew saying: ‘nobody owes you a living.’ The schools are extremely competitive, and private tuition is big business: kids are often being tutored until 10pm or even later, as the exams increase in difficulty every year. The ‘disparity between what is taught at school and what is in the exams puts further pressure on parents to fund private tuition,’ which Crehan dubs a ‘shadow education system.’

The results of this highly competitive system are indisputably impressive: even the poorest pupils in Singapore are far ahead of their Western counterparts. Yet here, Crehan challenges her reader to think more carefully about what equality looks like. Because although the poorest echelons and weakest performers in Singapore are far ahead of other countries, ‘it doesn’t mean they have better academic opportunities, as their advantaged peers in their own country are still ahead of them, filling the places in the junior colleges and forcing them onto less academic courses.’

In Shanghai, the overriding message was that a Chinese value is that everyone is capable of learning. Success was not considered to result from innate ability, but effort. All work is given to all children, meaning the work is pitched to the top: weak pupils are ‘given challenges rather than concessions, and were expected and supported to rise to them.’

Interestingly, the parents in China ‘tend to play down their children’s successes, because they see it as their role to promote effort in their children… when parents from Eastern cultures point out a child’s failings or mistakes, its whole purpose is to allow the child to grow and improve.’ This puts the writings of Amy Chua into perspective, and helps to explain to a Western mindset why, though the Chinese mother might seem ‘cruel’, it is, in fact, working from a different paradigm in raising children’s expectations of themselves. Like Japan, schools constantly communicate with parents and hold them to high standards. In lessons, pupils are taught didactically, but there is little time for extended practice – this is done as homework.

Of all the countries covered, Canada to me sounded more nightmarish. Crehan outlines a national curriculum full of discovery learning and group work. Yet Crehan herself in fact favours Canada, praising its balance between ‘the teaching of academic content and broader cognitive, social and moral skills and traits.’

There is much to learn from this extraordinary work, but one aspect I found compelling was the teaching in nearly all the above examples in mixed ability classes. Since moving to Michaela, I have really enjoyed teaching streams – lessons move at a pace the very vast majority of the class is comfortable with, and I can give whole-class feedback that is relevant to all pupils. Teaching to the top in a mixed ability class is not impossible, but it does rely on the weakest children working the hardest: doing more homework, and coming to teachers for individual support. This is possible in a culture where hard work and personal struggle to achieve are normalised. The practical reality, in my experience, is that the weakest kids are also the least invested: the least likely to do homework, and the least likely to attend additional clubs (non-teachers wouldn’t believe how hard it is to get kids who have fallen behind to attend catch-up clubs put on specifically for their benefit). But what we can take from the mixed ability argument is a need to pitch our curriculum to the top, so we teach all children the same stuff. This could be done by changing the allocation of lessons, so weaker children do the same high-quality work, but just have more time to spend on that tough material.

This book is fascinating for its research, but it is also a crucial one for all educators in that it reminds us that education is about values. More than once, Crehan asks: ‘would you want this in your country?’ This is why education will always be a knotty issue, because we do not have a consensus on values. We know what works to improve pupils’ behaviour, learning and habits, but what we don’t know is whether we all want pupils to behave in a certain way and know certain things. This book is crucial to prompt reflection from all educators.

cleverlands

Team Mentality

 

‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’

Western society prioritises individual achievement. Many of us spend our lives in this paradigm, and Western society applauds us for doing so. We are focused on ourselves: what grades can I achieve in my exams? What kind of degree can I get? How impressive can my first job after University be?

And teachers are not immune to this. We are surrounded by people climbing the ladder, reaching for the stars; young headteachers are showcased by the media and applauded. We are programmed to aspire and to achieve.

I’ve written before about why I chose to join Michaela. Doing so meant stepping out of the ‘ladder’ mentality: I was an assistant headteacher in two schools prior to becoming a Head of Department here.

But it also meant stepping out of the ‘individual achievement’ paradigm. Before I began, I thought: ‘let’s see how fast I can be promoted.’ But when I started, I realised that I was in utterly the wrong paradigm. It wasn’t about me anymore. In fact, it had never been about me to begin with.

When weighing up the decision to join Michaela, Katharine gave me some honest options: ‘if you want to be a headteacher quickly, stay where you are. You’re not going to be a head fast if you come with us. In fact, it will slow you down.’ How badly did I want to be a headteacher? Really badly. But why? I wanted to change the lives of thousands, not hundreds, of children. But was that all? Or did I also want the ‘glory’? The responsibility, the excitement of being in charge?

I forced myself to face reality. Would I be ready to be a headteacher in five years? Or maybe even less? What kind of mistakes was I liable to make if I was promoted too quickly? How many people – adults, children – would suffer because of my ambition?

At Michaela, it’s not about me – it’s about the team. And that is, of course, how it is in other schools, for people who have left behind their ego, as I have learned to. I may not go fast, but it’s not about that. We, as a team, will go far. Together, we can accomplish what I could never do on my own. How could I make an extraordinary science curriculum, as Olivia Dyer has done? What do I know about Geography, History and Religion? Nothing compared to Jonny Porter. I took A-level French, but I don’t have a hope of teaching people to teach languages like Barry Smith and Jess Lund. And Maths? I can barely add up without using my fingers to count. Dani Quinn has a degree from Oxford. I don’t even know the first thing about how to teach grammar, and I’m an English teacher with a degree in English! I need Katie Ashford.

At Michaela, I’ve stopped focusing on what I can get, and started thinking about what I can give. When I have extra capacity, I ask Katharine what other parts of school life I can contribute to. That’s why I have had the opportunity to help to shape our CPD sequence, which I write about in our forthcoming book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers. I’ve been able to do so much more in a school where everyone works as a team, and the impact on the kids is beyond belief. With all of us ‘rowing together,’ the boat gets a lot further.

Our book is a great example of this. Individually, the teachers at Michaela write a whole heap of brilliant blogs. But this book is more than one person’s perspective. Instead, it is the perspective of twenty people, who all contribute to make our wonderful school the happy, productive place it is. We are a team, and team beats individual every time.

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