A New Way of Reading

I knew I had to read this book when I heard Doug Lemov endorsing it. Reader, Come Home sells itself as a portrayal of the reading state of the nation. It is really about the state of humanity.

The author points out that the Ancient Greeks were concerned that rising literacy would fundamentally change people’s ability to remember, and that they weren’t wrong: the rise of reading did change the way our brains worked, making memory weaker, and remarkably rapidly. So today, with the rise in digital devices, both the way we read and the way our minds work has shifted. But are we worried about the right things this time? Our fears seem centred around the fact that more children (and adults, truth be told) are not reading… But they are.

In fact, we are reading more than ever before: the author quotes studies that reveal we are reading around 100,000 words a day now. That’s a short novel, every single day. But what should be cause for celebration is in fact cause for concern, because the way we are reading is so dramatically different.

Wolf quotes a memorable speech by Barack Obama where he said that information has become ‘entertainment rather than empowerment.’ Moreover, our reading is ‘chopblock,’ not continuous, and situated within a technological world where ‘cognitive overload’ is ubiquitous. To take in all this information, ‘skimming’ has become ‘the new normal.’ We focus on the surface rather than digging deeper. And this has a profound impact on the way we process information.

I have often felt I read too much fiction; indeed, my aim this year was explicitly to read more non-fiction. That was before Wolf articulated to me (and I do feel this is personal, as she writes the book explicitly as letters to the reader) the benefits of fiction. For Wolf, we understand others and can show compassion and empathy through reading. Reading connects divergent cultures, so we have a more in-depth understanding of those different to us.

But this only happens when we read with ‘close attention.’ This kind of deep reading requires ‘analogical reasoning’ and ‘inference’ to uncover its many layers. In praise of beautiful prose, Wolf reminds us that beauty in words holds our attention so we focus on what lies deeper.

Yet in the modern world, the prevalence of digital devices results in ‘continuous partial attention’: we live in a ‘world of distraction’. This is not conducive to deep thinking. As well as cycling through the argument, familiar to readers of Lemov and Murphy and Willingham, that knowledge is crucial for deep reading, and that critical thought ‘never just happens,’ the author goes on to explore the impact on children of this way of processing words.

Boredom in children is normal. But ‘post-digital’ boredom is a different kind altogether. Wolf says that this kind of boredom, rather than provoking creativity as the former can, ‘de-animates’ children. The constant stimulation of the screen prevents them from experiencing true, tranquil tedium.

We know from our own adult lived experience how addictive devices are; studies abound to support this, but are barely needed. Of course children are much more vulnerable to this. And when they are developing their cognitive abilities, this has a devastating impact. The multiple stimulants on devices split children’s attention, and studies show that texts read on devices compared with traditional paper lead to weaker comprehension even if no other applications are running. The mere expectation that the device will have multiple purposes diverts their attention, ability to focus, and thus weakens their ability to understand what they are reading.

Moreover, the information overload of our reading society makes it much harder for children to build background knowledge. With so much information and so little time to process it, this threatens the development of children’s attentions and working memories.

There is so much more in this book, and I would urge everyone human to read it. It urged me to reflect on how I feel when I read a novel compared with how I feel when I read Buzzfeed. The guilt I used to feel for losing myself in a novel will be banished from my life. Instead, it will be my phone that I must lock away; my laptop I must periodically lose. Fiction is vital.

Wolf asks: ‘What will happen to young readers who never meet and begin to understand the thoughts and feelings of someone totally different?… It is a formula for unwitting ignorance, fear and misunderstanding, that can lead to the belligerent forms of intolerance that are the opposite of America’s original goals for its citizens of many cultures.’ Far from an optional extra, deep reading is the stuff of life itself.

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The human side

I haven’t written for a while. It’s always busy at the start of the school year, but it has not been that busy, and it is suddenly October. But I had to write about what happened on Thursday.

Our school population is changing, and rapidly. At the end of last year, we began to have an influx of in-year admissions, with a heavy bias towards those for whom English is an additional language. That trend has intensified this term. The scale of the challenge is unprecedented at my school, and we are moving rapidly to put in place a more comprehensive programme for EAL learners. But it is embryonic, so I won’t write about it now. I want to write about the human side of EAL.

I want to write about G. G is new to year 7. Two days new. I noticed him first on Tuesday, where he was sitting at the back of our ‘Aspire to Oxbridge’ assembly with this sort of blank look on his face. Entirely still from the tummy up. Legs dancing on the floor ceaselessly from the tummy down. I saw him on Wednesday, when he was late in, and I mimed PE for him before taking him to the class, much to the hilarity of the reception staff. I’ve seen him in lessons, sitting happily compliant, his legs a constant dance below the table, clearly at sea. It is so hard for G.

At lunch today, I saw him during my canteen duty. He was eating alone, but with others – we make our students fill every gap, so no one is ever sitting alone. As usual, those legs were going. I said hello and he replied, merrily, before leaving. He returned ten minutes later.

A lot can happen in a school canteen within ten minutes. For one, I’d spotted a lull and started eating my own lunch in the same spot G had eaten in, so I was right there when he lolloped back to his place. I had a front row seat. And I’ve never seen anything like it: he crumpled in two, and wept. He convulsed with heaving sobs. The boys behind him turned to see what the noise was. I gave them my ‘look.’

‘What’s wrong G?’ but he couldn’t understand me; or if he could, he couldn’t tell me. The year 7 to G’s right clocked it faster: ‘he’s lost his bag. He’s come back to look for it, and it’s gone.’

I didn’t know what to do. I got G to sit down, and he wept on the table.

‘Romanian?’ I guessed. G did not look up. ‘Romanian?’ I prodded further. He looked up and nodded. I used the radio to locate a Romanian-speaking student I knew of on the playground, who came in and spoke to G. Two sentences. Then the student turned to me: ‘he’s not Romanian. He doesn’t understand me.’

But the young helpful man continued to speak to G, and then turned to me. ‘He’s Bulgarian, Miss.’ A few more calls on the radio, and we had a native Bulgarian before G, who had stopped crying, but was still visibly distressed. It hits me in a wave: this goes beyond his bag. It’s the fear he has lost something he will never get back, compiled with the fear of all these strangers in a strange place speaking a strange language.

‘Miss! I don’t even remember Bulgarian! Is so long since I’m there!’ said my native Bulgarian, whose patchy grammar belies his actual home language situation. I suspect Bulgarian may be one of many languages he speaks.

As my so-called Bulgarian tried to talk to G, G suddenly broke into a wide smile. He was laughing. I don’t know what about – was it the old Bulgarian’s broken language? Or was he joking in the language? I have no idea what was happening.

‘Tell him we will find his bag! Tell him not to worry!’ I pressed.

‘Miss, Miss, I can’t even remember “find,”’ my helper protested. ‘Use Ms C’s phone. Use Google translate.’ I do; tell him: G, don’t worry, we will find it. I send him away with his two helpers.

And then comes H, another year 7.

‘Miss! Miss! I found G’s bag!’ Because what had happened? K, the student sitting next to G, had noticed G had left his bag, and had picked it up to give it to him. This has all stemmed from an attempt at kindness.

We move rapidly to the playground to locate G, and I trust I know where he will be. And it is so. He is sandwiched on the bench where my Romanian and my old Bulgarian sit every lunchtime. All are laughing. He grabs the bag with such glee, without even the words to thank his helper.

That afternoon, I pen an email to his father. I write that G was upset about his bag, but that he found it. I write that I hope he is ok, and that he should let me know if there is anything else I can do to support his son. I then stick the whole thing into Google translate and press send.

Twenty minutes later comes the reply:

‘I will talk with him when he gets home. I’m trying to speak English with him at home so he can learn quicker. And thank you so much for your email that was very kind of you trying email me in Bulgarian. Next time you can just email me in English.’

Non-Violent Communication

When a close friend of mine who works in the prison service told me to read this book, she caveated it with saying: ‘I know what you’re thinking. But it’s actually really good.’

The name alone sent shivers down my spine, let alone the tag-line: ‘if “violent” means acting in ways that result in hurt or harm, then much of how we communicate could indeed be called “violent” communication.’

My friend told me that some prison officers use this technique with their most challenging inmates with amazing success, though, so I thought – why not have a read? If nothing else, I always try to engage with what I disagree with to ensure I keep an open mind. Plus, at my current school, we have a short-term programme of alternative provision (run on-site) for children at risk of permanent exclusion. I thought this could be a good route in to re-engaging those children with school.

Whilst I couldn’t claim to agree with everything in the book, there was a surprising amount I found incredibly helpful, and perhaps applicable even beyond our alternative provision. The foundational idea behind the book – which is, in my view, impossible to argue with – is this: treat everyone with respect. To do this, we must resist the urge to respond to others in anger or upset. When we hear something that upsets us, instead of reacting we have to ask: what is this person needing that they are lacking now?

In order to practice non-violent communication, there are four basic steps:

  • Observe what is happening in the situation;
  • Explain how this makes us feel;
  • Ask what needs of ours are connected to the feelings identified;
  • Make a specific request of the other person.

For a full explanation of the method, you really need to read the whole book. The part that seems least obvious to me, however, was step three: needs. According to Rosenberg, the root of our feelings is in our unmet needs. We need to ask: ‘what does this person need? What would they like to request in relation to those needs?’ We have to accept full responsibility for our own intentions and actions, but not for the feelings of others. We are completely responsible for our feelings and reactions, as illustrated by this eminently relatable anecdote: ‘if someone arrives late for an appointment and we need reassurance that she cares about us, we may feel hurt. If, instead, our need is to spend time purposefully and constructively, we may feel frustrated. But if our need is for thirty minutes of quiet solitude, we may be grateful for her tardiness and feel pleased. Thus, it is not the behaviour of the other person but our own need that causes our feeling.’

Another central theme of this book is empathy: ‘empathy… requires us to focus full attention on the other person’s message.’ Rosenberg gives example phrases for tricky situations, like: ‘I’m frustrated because I’d like to be clearer about what you are referring to. Would you be willing to tell me what I’ve done that leads you to see me in this way?’ For the author, ‘Self-expression becomes easier after we empathise with others, because we will then have touched their humanness and realised the common qualities we share. The more we connect with the feelings and needs behind their words, the less frightening it is to open up to other people.’

I still believe that for a large institution like a school to work, we need sanctions that are enforced fairly and predictably. Children must know that their actions have consequences.

For all children, sanctions can be given with love. We must reiterate to children that we are showing them their actions have consequences because we love them enough to care about their future, and to want them to change their behaviour to have a great future. I have never worked at a school where sanctions have been implemented without this philosophy, but I think in every school every teacher has, at least on some occasion, failed to be explicit enough about the love behind the sanction. We could all get better at this.

But what I am increasingly coming to see is that for the very most challenging students, sanctions with love are not enough. Our children at risk of permanent exclusion are impervious to sanctions. They simply do not seem to care what happens as a result of their behaviour. Yes, these children need to be apart from the mainstream, at least for a short period of time, because they need something more and something different to reorientate their mindset. And I do think that this method, which undoubtedly will take much more time and effort with each individual case, sounds extremely promising in helping these children feel understood, cared for and listened to. At this point, our only hope is that they choose to change their behaviour. Sanctions haven’t worked – what comes next?

“Do now”

I recently finished Glass Ceilings, which is my favourite education book of 2018 – so far, that is. Amongst the many, many take-aways from this book was a reminder to me of a simple but effective practice I had all but stopped. The ‘do now.’

In Glass Ceilings, Hall describes the powerful simplicity of a small number of repetitive teaching activities observed in US Charter Schools that had a dramatic impact on learning, and one was the omnipresence of a ‘do now’ so children entered a classroom and were immediately working. Hall called this ‘bell to bell working,’ which I loved.

I raved about ‘do nows’ in my early years of teaching, adopting the name after devouring Doug Lemov’s seminal Teach Like a Champion. You wouldn’t walk into my classroom without finding a slide on the board of some kind of ‘starter’ or ‘warm-up’. The idea is that they ensure all students have something to do from the moment they enter the classroom.

At some point, I seem to have forgotten this. During my first few terms at Ebbsfleet, I’ve wasted at least 3 minutes of every lesson getting my class in and doing the register, tending to ask the students to revise using their knowledge organisers while I do this. But for the past two weeks, I’ve asked them instead of answer the questions on the board silently in their books.

At first, they rebelled. The first two lessons they went from being placid, calm and silent on entry to chatting and asking unneeded questions as I valiantly struggled to behaviour manage, answer questions, and take the register. Any change in routine is hard for children. After about three days, they got into the swing of it, and the focus and learning right from the moment they enter the room has now hugely improved.

The other benefit of a ‘do now’ is it forces me to reflect on each lesson as I teach it: what are the key concepts they struggled with that I want to revisit straight away at the start of the next lesson? Here are some recent ‘do nows’ for our study of Jekyll and Hyde:

  1. Write down every date you can remember that links to ‘Jekyll and Hyde.’
  2. What happened on those dates?
  3. Use your knowledge organiser and add anything you have forgotten in a green pen.

Extension: What has happened so far in the novella?

Super extension: What do you predict will happen next?

  1. Who wrote ‘On the Origin of Species’ and when?
  2. How does ‘On the Origin of Species’ link to ‘Jekyll and Hyde’?
  3. Who developed the theory of psychoanalysis?
  4. How does this theory link to ‘Jekyll and Hyde’?

Extension: what specific quotations or examples from the novella link to these two texts?

 

These examples are quite ‘knowledge-heavy’ – they look like overly basic recall perhaps. But over time, after finding the students were beginning to automate this, I started adding some more ‘application of knowledge’ questions to these – such as ‘why did Stevenson write this novella?’ or ‘how do specific aspects of Victorian society impact on the novella?’ or ‘why did Stevenson choose to write a novella and not a novel?’

All in all, the do now takes me about four minutes to plan and type into a Word document, and four minutes for the students to complete. Simple but effective.

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).

What should school CPD focus on?

We’ve all sat through some real shockers of school CPD sessions at one time or another. Thinking about the elements of what I think makes great teaching, here are the school-based CPD sessions I think every school should be running:

Behaviour

The most important thing in a school is that the children behave. Managing behaviour should be returned to again and again to ensure all teachers have clarity, and that the systems are applied consistently by all. It is also worth thinking about when behaviour slips – is it in the canteen, at the beginnings of lessons, during the fire drill – and addressing those specific moments with a new approach.

Reading

Children read in every single lesson, but it’s not always obvious how to get them to the point where they will read aloud confidently.


Writing

Children write in every single lesson, but is their writing always accurate and coherent? There are lots of small tweaks we can make to out practise to help children write more effectively.


Questioning

I think questioning is the absolute most important thing a teacher can do. The best teachers I have seen pepper their explanations with multiple questions asked of as many students as possible to check they understand, and then to see if the students can apply their understanding to new scenarios and begin to think more deeply about the content.


Explanation

Subject departments should be talking in their CPD time about the best way to explain tricky concepts, and thinking about the common misconceptions children have.


Booklets

Rather than using Powerpoints or photocopying multiple sheets, departments should focus on pre-producing booklets and then planning how to deliver them. Those responsible for resourcing should be trained in the best and fastest way to produce booklets under the inevitable time pressures of any school.


Knowledge Organisers

Knowledge organisers force teams to consider what they want students to learn for the long term. CPD on making them as effective and clear as possible would be helpful, especially in the early days of adopting them.


Recaps and quizzing

Understanding the science of memory, the power of overlearning, and the simplicity of recapping prior knowledge would go a long way to helping children retain knowledge for the long term.


Deliberate practice

Not all practice is as helpful as it could be. Helping teachers discern the most important skills for children to practice and then supporting them to make activities that ensure children are undertaking deliberate practice is invaluable.


Feedback

Rather than laboriously marking every book, teachers can give whole-class feedback. But it is not always obvious which aspects to focus on to make the feedback as effective as possible.

 

All of the above aspects could easily be covered in short 20 or 30 minute slots, and focused on key aspects or resources, but I think that all the elements are crucial to good teaching. In terms of pedagogy, I don’t think we can do better than implementing coaching observations, as advocated in Leverage Leadership, with frequent low-stakes observations focused on one minor tweak each time to improve teaching.