High expectations for all?

This week I’ve worked with a very experienced senior teacher to jointly plan and deliver a maths lesson as part of our school’s peer to peer lesson monitoring. I have also just read a blog post by @nancygedge about differentiation and inclusion (here). The two are linked by the notion of pigeon holing children in the classroom.

When I completed my MA a few years ago, I chose to research and write about children’s perceptions of formative assessment, and ended up getting a little bit sidetracked by learning objectives and sorting children into ability groups. the two ideas have stayed with me as bugbears ever since. At the time, I worked in a school which had very prescriptive “non-negotiables” for every lesson which included children copying out differentiated learning objectives into their books at the very beginning of the lesson, a 3-way differentiated learning objective being practically the first words the teacher spoke in every lesson, and children being grouped into colour-coded ability groups. Their books even had to be stickered with coloured stickers to show which group they were in.

I am now in a school where teachers are trusted to teach and use their professional judgement about how to best do that. One of the first things I did when I left my previous school was to scrap the idea of ability groups and give children some ownership of their learning by allowing them choice. I still sometimes pull together a little focus group who all have similar next steps or who share a misconception, but for the most part, children in my class are taught together and then presented with a series of challenges from which they can choose.

I teach in a mixed year group class, years 4, 5 and 6 all together. This has its drawbacks, but one of the great things about it is that “stage not age” teaching is more easily achieved. However, that’s not without it’s difficulties, too. One very sensitive but self-motivated year 4 pupil in my class loves to push themselves and always wants to achieve the very best. This means that they can sometimes choose work aimed at level 5 or 6, rather than the high level 3 that they are. Sometimes that means that they need a little extra support to succeed, but succeed they usually do. However, the ethos in my classroom also means that sometimes, they decide that the most challenging of the choices is a little tricky for them and they lower their sights a little. But they have ownership. They have choice. They are not pigeon-holed.

It doesn’t take a child long to work out that if they are in the “circles” maths group then their teacher has lower expectations of their potential than if they were in the “octagons” group. It doesn’t take a “full stop” long to work out that they don’t need to work as hard as an “inverted comma”.

Glass ceiling, anyone?

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Learning through playing the game

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a PE course delivered by an England hockey coach. One thing he made very clear was that children should be taught hockey skills through playing the game. He talked about the relevance of learning new skills (see my earlier blogpost here) and explained how children learn these new skills best in the context of a real game. Yes, they will make mistakes (many of which he advised should not be picked up on immediately), but they will also learn through the game itself. Many skills will materialise naturally, and then can be used as teaching points for the rest of the class.

I was reminded of this “learn through playing the game” maxim during a twitter conversation the same week about teaching grammar.

@kvnmcl asked: “Have any other primary schools brought in grammar, punctuation and spelling as distinct timetabled lessons?”

I responded: “Lunacy. It needs to be taught in context!” Ok, I concede that ‘lunacy’ may have been a misjudged choice of word, but I firmly stand by my belief that good teaching and learning of spelling, grammar and punctuation should be in context rather than in isolated lessons.

Over the course of the day, the conversation and its number of participants grew. Words were twisted out of context and my original meaning was picked apart. I felt that I was being backed into a corner, and I received 11 DMs asking me if I was ok or advising me to ignore some of the comments. I chose to bow out of the conversation, but I have been mulling the subject over ever since.

I strongly believe that the most effective way of teaching grammar and punctuation is in context: linked to engaging texts and taught through an approach to English as a whole subject rather than through a series of disjointed elements.

I’ve seen lessons where children are shown a new sentence type, and are then asked to write out numerous examples of that sentence type with no context. I’ve seen lessons where children are told what an adverb is and then spend the rest of the lesson underlining adverbs in given sentences. I’m not suggesting that this is widespread, but it happens. One of the points made on twitter was that we wouldn’t teach young children a sound in isolation, without putting it into the context of words. That’s how I feel about the teaching of grammar in isolation.

Yes, sometimes skills need to be explicitly taught and then practised by the children. But that doesn’t mean that those skills and the practising need to be in isolation from the rest of the teaching of English. And yes, that does happen.

I try and teach through texts as often as I can in English (see my blog post here). At the moment, my Y4/5/6 children are reading ‘There’s a boy in the girls’ bathroom’ by Louis Sachar. Through the text, they have learned 3 new Alan Peat sentence types, which have given me plenty of scope for using the metalanguage of grammar they will need for their Y6 SPaG tests. We have looked at apostrophes for possession and omission; we have looked at antonyms and synonyms; we have explored modal verbs and we have looked at the punctuation of direct speech. And those are only the planned bits! There have been so many asides and so much incidental learning brought about by discussion of a rich text and children immersing themselves in writing in different genres in response.

And, not a single “grammar” lesson in sight.