August. Not the month before September: August in its own right.
Some notable feast days – this week the Transfiguration, for example, but Edith Stein/Teresa Benedicta, the Assumption, Maximilian Kolbe… – and for many in Europe at least a bit of downtime. Time to ignore the calls for educators to work all the hours they may rather than all the hours of their contract, or time to be judicious in the ways in which “given time” (the current generation’s version of feudal and post-feudal Boon Days?) is used or asked for.
We were living in something of a fevered state even before COVID overtook us: political instability; work-life balance skewed; worries about aspirations versus income; climate change and our need to fly, to drive, for the cheap T-shirt… “This is the world we built: congratulations.” And while Lockdown has calmed some of that, at a price, even before we count the deaths, the sorrow, there remains uncertainty, financial hardship… and the urge in education and outside it to drive the workforce on: Do more! Do More! Prove yourselves! Even if it’s only to show how much better you are than the old you.
The desert monastics of the C4th have an answer for so much, as Rowan Williams’ Silence and Honey Cakes so brilliantly explores, and this one is for just such an occasion:
A hunter happened to come by and saw Antony talking in a relaxed way with the brothers, and he was shocked. The hermit wanted to show him how we should sometimes be less austere for the sake of the brothers, and said to him, ‘Put an arrow in your bow, and draw it.’ He did so, and Antony said, ‘Draw it further’ and he drew it further. He said again, ‘Draw it yet further,’ and he drew it some more. Then the hunter said to him, ‘If I draw it too far, the bow will snap.’ Antony answered, ‘So it is with God’s work. If we always go to excess, the brothers quickly become exhausted. It is sometimes best not to be rigid.’
The great inspiration for the move to the desert, Abba Antony meets an outsider: tellingly this is a hunter, someone who has strategy, drive, all the things that make us want to do more. Antony uses the man’s bow as his own example of why the relentless pursuit is unhelpful. Draw the bowstring too far, tighten the tension in life and we risk being unable to accomplish the very things we set out to do.
Cello lessons, Judo Club, Choir, Art Club – and get that mindset improved, kids; a better running time for me, aquazumbaboxercise into another great weekend, the emptily competitive Great British Make Something Brilliant programme, draw up your complex plans for the micromanaged student experience (or risk the vilification of pundits): we have an urge to be better at everything all the time. Time to do that, to be dedicated and wholehearted, is certainly part of the life of all of us, and we have to say an important part of our professional or family life. Even those men and women whose lives were contained by psalms and basket weaving and silence felt that pull: but there are times to stop too. I wonder if sometimes our – my – urge to self-improvement is a sort of running away in itself.
As Williams puts it, the fear is that What you thought mattered – i.e. what you thought was truest to the Real You– turns out to be empty and dishonest... and hitting the Twitter nail on its twitty head in particular Self-justification is the heavy burden because there is no end to carrying it. In the end we have to stop sometimes, put down those burdens, because we cannot run forever – for something or from something – without exhaustion.
But here’s the rub: sometimes our leisure thing is an escape from other tensions and becomes, in turn another net for us to stumble into. The trick (I’m ditching the “us:” for me) is not letting that activity become a chance to run away from something else, and worse still not to spend my time telling myself how successful I am at it.
Abba Macarius was once dismissing an assembly of his monks in their desert retreat, and he did so with the words “Flee, brethren.”
One of the seniors asked him ” Where could we flee to that is further away than the desert?” Macarius put his finger to his lips and replied “Flee also from this,” and he went to his cell and shut his door.
At first we thought we would have a time-table, but we have given it up. We have a programme, and the hours are fixed for all big events like dinner, sleep, play and work, but our play and work lost so much force and interest by being snipped into little sections that after some hesitation we gave up the snipping altogether, and allowed ourselves to be interested in things.
Margaret McMillan “The Nursery School,” Chapter 9, pp 83-84
The McMillan project of care and education is exemplified in this book, well worth a read by those who would confine Early Years to a rather expensive version of baby farming, and describes the Nursery School as a place for refuge for children living in awful conditions and whose health suffers from lack of healthy provision – cleanliness, good food, plenty of fresh air all… ordered and fair…and the health of the children perfect. They were models for educators, for families, foundation for the children, and a nurture centre where miserable children flourished. There was direct instruction in all sorts of curriculum areas, but Nursery Schools in the early C20th were not hothouses but lighthouses: beacons of good practice. The model of childhood was really one combining the child-in-need-of-rescue with a vision of a child with a right to full nurture. Note, however, that this is not a place of total do-as-you-please: there is identified need, purpose, resource: Art lessons, dance, reading, mathematics….
In the same way, a University as an institution fostering learning has identified need, purpose, resource. I looked at this fairly recently in a goodbye to this year’s Education Studies students by examining our Guiding Principles at Oxford Brookes. The model of the learner here: someone capable of learning by doing; an institution with confidence in its staff and students.
I wonder, however, whether the confusions about lines of accountability leads institutions to show a lack of confidence in its members. What are we accountable for? To whom? Let’s look at this as being accountable for student learning, and for promoting behaviours that aid that learning. Here are some of the books I might suggest my students read, for example, depending on the context. It strikes me that this (purposefully odd) selection underlines the importance of the tutor not as arbiter but guide: to nudge, not judge. You wouldn’t get a degree if you read these – unless that reading were informed by wider reading, discussion, synthesis, evaluation. Quotation alone does not make an essay, although I do recall looking at a portfolio (at another institution) where the student had been told to “put in the quote about Vygotsky to show us you read that chapter.” The dependent thinker.
I’m zipping around here, going from 1919 to the present day, and then back a bit. Cut through the noise of managementspeak, and McGregor’s model from 1966 (here, from The Human Side of Enterprise) of how one might view workers in a team is still of use here. Theory X suggests that it is management that actively drives the project by directing the workers, and
The average man is by nature indolent—he works as little as possible
He lacks ambition, dislikes responsibility, prefers to be led
Douglas McGregor, The Human Side of Enterprise
Micromanaging a student experience starts from here, and it doesn’t take too many clicks to find opinions about lazy students – particularly first years. By nature indolent.
If we start, however, from McGregor’s Theory Y that
…motivation, the potential for development, the capacity for assuming responsibility, the readiness to direct behavior toward organizational goals are all present in people
Douglas McGregor, The Human Side of Enterprise
then learning and teaching become a different set of activities altogether. Riskier, perhaps for all concerned – but actually more worthwhile than the over-planned, micromanaged but beautifully accountable syllabus.
Students in Higher Education are not employees any more than they are customers, of course; the shifting sands of ideology put them closer to one end of the spectrum in some time periods and at others closer to the other end. Thus, it might in some contexts seem desirable to say to a student “This course requires you to set aside some ninety hours for your own reading” but the tone is quite authoritarian: what do we mean by “this course requires”? That also sounds a lot, although over, for example, the Brookes twelve week semester it’s seven and a half hours a week (since I’m referring explicitly to the Brookes system here, it is worth remembering that an undergraduate very often takes four modules at a time, so that is almost a full-time job: with classes to attend, it really is a full-time job!). Did I manage that in the 70s? Yes, sometimes – very often – I did: pastoral crises aside, I was reading Homer (very badly) for a weekly translation class at a rate of three books a week for eight weeks, and I regularly saw very little sleep. If I disliked the pace of work set, too bad.
But this is not a valid argument: the “I was unhappy so you should be too” approach to course design has, it seems to me, at its heart a misdirected desire for revenge. Far better to revenge oneself by turning up at a tutor’s hour reciting The Catalogue of the Ships at three in the morning1. But why do tutors set work – reading specifically – for undergraduates? What do we hope in doing this?
The pictures in this blog are partly there to identify the disciplinary shift I had to learn to manage when I moved from being, in effect, an ex-Classicist (or “lapsed Medievalist,” as I described myself) where text was the lead, to looking at educational practice where ideas and practical application are at the forefront. And yet there has always been in my work with education students, my desire to “get them reading.” Is this the change we seek? To make readers? What does Higher Education aim to do? And in a time where the norms of classes and library time are disrupted, what, at heart, are the aims of education? My first thought is to dive for a classic text:
Applications in Education. There is nothing peculiar about educational aims. They are just like aims in any directed occupation. The educator, like the farmer, has certain things to do, certain resources with which to do, and certain obstacles with which to contend. The conditions with which the farmer deals, whether as obstacles or resources, have their own structure and operation independently of any purpose of his…
It is the same with the educator, whether parent or teacher. It is as absurd for the latter to set up his “own” aims as the proper objects of the growth of the children as it would be for the farmer to set up an ideal of farming irrespective of conditions. Aims mean acceptance of responsibility for the observations, anticipations, and arrangements required in carrying on a function — whether farming or educating. Any aim is of value so far as it assists observation, choice, and planning in carrying on activity from moment to moment and hour to hour; if it gets in the way of the individual’s own common sense (as it will surely do if imposed from without or accepted on authority) it does harm.
So why the quirky title? I have used it with University students if I have had to leave the room just as a jokey reminder of the need to stay on task; it also belongs in the death scene in Muppet Treasure Island, where Billy Bones with his last breath warns against running with scissors2. Of course it belongs first of all in the Early Years classroom where, supervised or not, running with scissors is generally frowned upon; there is risk and there is risk.
And there is risk in learning. The independence of using scissors on your own might be an early step in education, but there are others, as outdoor learning sometimes emphasises. “Even” in everyday learning and teaching, as Dewey has it, we have an acceptance of responsibility to cope with in different contexts than our usual ones. We have (Dewey again) to let go of our own aims or at least to question them seriously through reevaluation of our observation, choice, and planning in carrying on activity from moment to moment and hour to hour. The shibboleth is about “going outside the comfort zone” and perhaps the conditions for teaching and learning have been so different of late that we are very far outside that comfort zone – and seek a firm foothold in managing the student experience and recording how we manage it. Do we (Higher Education lecturers, tutors, administrators and managers of the nebulous stuff that is Quality Assurance) ourselves run a risk here: not letting the students make mistakes? Make their own choices? Not letting the students find their own way? “Read this – then this – then this” is an easy way to put together a programme of study, but a difficult habit to break when the time is right. Snippinglearning into little sections (to return to Margaret McMillan) and not letting students or ourselves (McMillan) to be interested in things? After all, being interested wasn’t one of the learning outcomes. Was it?
It was and it wasn’t. The trivial round, the common task dominate our thinking. Lecture timetables, assessment deadlines. Dave Aldridge’s article (yes, go and read the original) puts it very clearly:
The descriptive understanding… leaves the materiality of university life untouched: those involved continue to memorise, recall, rehearse, assess, and implicate themselves in those activities associated with the accountability that encroaches on educational experience. Students attend or miss lectures, work part time, stay up late, participate in or shun their university’s union, and form and break relationships. Tutors struggle to find time for their research and the energy to resist institutional bureaucracy.
The “materiality” of higher education is currently in a sort of ideological and procedural Limbo that reminds me sharply of CS Lewis miserable opening to The Great Divorce:
Time seemed to have paused on that dismal moment when only a few shops have lit up and it is not yet dark enough for their windows to look cheering. And just as the evening never advanced to night, so my walking had never brought me to the better parts of the town.
and like the characters in The Great Divorce, escape from this is only possible by risking something: the letting-go of worn habits of affection (or lack of it). I would suggest that “getting students to read” is another worn habit, and is part of a bigger picture foisted on Higher Education by a false accountability: students, at least the ones I have had off-the-cuff conversations with, seem to me to want to be asked to join the dance, not to know their tutors can account for every hour of the module’s learning. Again, it is Dave Aldridge who sees this as courtship, the tutor’s task being to see the student’s learning with the attentiveness of the lover.
So this certainly doesn’t mean a chaotic “pick the bones out of that” model of teaching. As Julie Fisher (yes, of one her books is in that first photo) has said Independent learning is not abandoned learning. I want students to read, I will propose work for them that will require them to look at and analyse texts from the role of therapy dog through to John Dewey, not simply so that they will read (as if that on its own will cure some ill-named ignorance, a Very Hungry Caterpillar transformation of Take-It-All-And-You-Will-Emerge-A-Butterfly), but so that the ideas they encounter will encourage them to take a risk – to think for themselves, to apply what they read about to the educational questions of why we do what we do. Systems and accountability will not suffice: we are back at the challenge of Margaret McMillan in her 1919 Nursery School: being allowed to be interested.
And if the everydayness of Higher Education is lost at the moment, we still have that as a challenge for tutor and student alike.
1: Actually, don’t even think of it. And certainly do not turn up at my house at any point day or night to discuss the place-language of Robert Macfarlane or to recite Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. At least, not without an invite.
2: Although if we meet in the pub and you can sing the Professional Pirate song I will be impressed.
I had a conversation the other day with one of the leaders, to my mind, of Early Years philosophy and practice, a man who describes himself as “Theorist by instinct, Pracademic by experience,” Jan Dubiel. We were thinking about how the transition into training, writing, Higher Education, &c., from Early Years is tricky because our first instinct is to think first of the wellbeing of the children in our care. This isn’t really a high-minded and self-sacrifical statement, just that the practice of day-long working with young children is so all-engossing, it is hard to look up and see the other things looming.
I was talking to him while I was down at the allotment in the sunshine – that is, I was at my allotment in the sunshine; I don’t know where he was, but we were talking on the ‘phone, and when we had finished I watered, and netted, watered some more and picked courgettes, and I thought and thought about the lack of neatness of the professional world of what he calls the “pracademic.” I think we crave neatness, sometimes, and whether we achieve it or not, it says something to many of us about how much we can control our thoughts, or professional lives. Maybe the single-minded, plan-ahead hunter caught the gazelle aeons ago and it stuck. I don’t know: if so, I expect my ancestors were scavengers…
But this neatness has down sides. It suggests, for example, that orthodoxy is linear, or internally consistent and somehow wins because of this. This in turn might suggest that the monolith of an educational theory or practice is valid because it is massy and impassive; those who oppose it are dashed against the rock of its certainty. I am very wary of it: life is too complicated, families are too messy; what general theory might suggest does not mean that it can be reduced to “all children must,” still less “unless you do this as a teacher, the children will fail.”
Life is not neat. If I were to extend the idea from this previous blog post I might suggest that the lived experience of the professional educator is a task not unlike the complex task of literary criticism: we might, as Margaret Meek says,
…take the simplicity of the words for granted…but each double-page spread with its three words of text is full of possibilities.
How Texts Teach what Readers Learn, p12
I worked this morning with marvellous people from Home Start, a charity working with “families who are having difficulties managing parenting for a variety of different reasons:” we read Anthony Browne’s Voices in the Park, and (thanks to the complexity of the book, I rather think) they got my point at once. These are people – often volunteers – who understand that all children are not the same; all families are complex, full, like a picture book, of possibilities beyond the simple statement, half-quotes from past lives, chances missed or taken. The task of working with children and families requires a skill beyond the monolith, or beyond the first glance. This allows practitioners and practice-focused academics and trainers an interesting leeway: we are not joining a church, but enhancing the lives of children and families. Disagreement in one thing (or even a raft of things) does not make heretics, but can make thoughtful practitioners.
I grew my first beard aged 19 and was really stupidly proud of it, in a month I spent with some nuns in what these days might be called my “gap year.” The sisters’ reactions were varied: for some it was a real curiosity, having seen men with beards and men without but not a man actually starting one off; for one Dominican sister it was nothing she hadn’t seen before, and she would advise on itchiness, shampoo &c. quite happily. As a woman who had served in the WRNS, she explained, she had “seen plenty of boys [ouch] try out a first beard.” I shaved it off when I got to University: other students used to ask me things like where the library was and I would tie myself in knots trying not to admit I was as lost as they were. But this was where I learned something about beards: they make you look like you know stuff. The history of beards suggests that they are markers of sagacity, in the west, certainly – but also of scruffiness and a lack of care. A wobbly history of disputed masculinities in the West? The attitudes change, of course (this is a great digested read, which points out great beards of the past as well as work-place “clean shave policies;” Margaret Thatcher was apparently deeply opposed to beards); it’s really quite an ephemeral thing.
It is clear that some school managers feel strongly that children have naturally fewer rights around what they wear, how they behave, and that these codes will reflect issues of belonging and compliance to a degree that means non-compliance is bad behaviour. Teachers will likewise dress “appropriately” or “professionally,” and while I would often advise trainees about to enter a placement in a general way, and sometimes have had to discuss dress codes with individual students (never a happy conversation), dress as a teacher has always been something I’ve found hard to grasp. Early Years men, unless they are in an institution that has a uniform, can be a bit torn. I was asked to wear a suit when teaching in Reception – but at the other end of the spectrum also not to wear shorts in one nursery. For women, shorts and the dread “strappy tops” seem to constitute some kind of marker in the same way. Shoulders are “inappropriate;” knees too. Jeans? Someone ( a resolute chino wearer) recently suggested I was “bold” to wear jeans in Higher Ed. Sandals? Is a bow-tie appropriate or comic? Kilt? Gown? There seems to be no simple way to manage these routes to appearing like a professional.
Tattoos. The recent fashion for body art has reached employed and employable people in new ways over the last maybe ten or so years and teachers are sometimes asked not to show theirs. The Vox Pops (or should that be Voces Pops?) here in the Guardian give a good idea of the pros and cons from school leaders. I had an ear pierced as a trainee teacher (my first headteacher asked me not to wear a ring in my ear to church on Sundays); I had three ravens (from Thomas Ravenscroft’s song) tattoed on my shoulder a few years ago, in my late fifties. I’m not hiding them; they are where I wanted them – occasionally on show, and something I can see and smile at. They are there rather than my forehead because I don’t think my forehead would look very nice with a circular tattoo. But of course this is where the trouble lies: what is “nice,” or “appropriate” or “professional”? Fashions change, attitudes to fashion change, how fashions mark professions or “class” (or lack of these) change. Maybe, too, the placing and reason for the tattoo matter: a wedding ring finger tattoo is approved of, where a heart and anchor and “Mother” might not be. But an arm tattoo is OK as long as you keep it covered? What about the educator with a usually covered tattoo who wears a short-sleeved shirt that reveals it? Dress codes are subtler than they first appear, and context is everything.
And so at length to professionalism. NQTs or about-to-be-NQTs are concerned about this (I remember a poolside conversation on this in Greece [the marvellous Pension George, actually – but is this product placement?] once with three young people just about to start their NQT jobs), and while I can understand the punctuality and dress professionally stuff, of course I can, all I think I’m really saying is that there are ways of expressing authority and professional attitudes that go beyond outward markers. We might consider what they are. They probably need to be embedded in teacher training: the outwards signs of professionalism may change (hence the previous paragraphs) but the need to appear a member of a caring and well-educated profession sees to me to be a fixed point.
Planning is a good marker, and all those pedagogic behaviours sort of go without saying, although adjusting to different schools’ ways of and attitudes to planning/record keeping can be a shock for an NQT – or indeed for anyone moving school. The subtler things like how to sound professional face to face and in terms of address are not as hard as they look: a bit of distance but coupled with a warm greeting will top off the ways in which you convey your knowledge. Does it need a tie? Know the children, be clear about what the school has planned, be able to pull out the big words and big ideas when necessary – and be ready to talk plain and simple teaching-and-learning without waffle. This is basic.
But the ground is shifting. Sod the beard. the suit, the tattoo and all that stuff: how many followers have I got? Social media seduces us – me – into thinking that professional status is akin to celebrity.
A very thoughtful blog post came my way at the start of the month. Thoughtful, but painful, Twitter’s @MrHill34 is bemoaning how much of the inimical and confrontational material on social media “exhausts the energy needed to develop some meaningful actions/solutions to such issues. We solve nothing this way. All we do is hang our professional dirty linen up to dry within a giant online echo chamber.” Great image.
It seems to me that we are in a time of such flux that Headteachers can go public with their political views, and when soi-disant leaders on Twitter can use all sorts of wolf-pack strategies and bullying that (one would hope) they would crack down on in the school they teach in (of course some don’t teach in schools, but that’s a distraction). I would join him in my disquiet about pontificating (knowing I am guilty of it) and the ways in which seniors in the profession – or at least self-professed leaders – bully, mock and indulge in name-calling without regard for the standards of the profession they aspire to influence. This can’t be the message we give to new teachers: shout as loudly as you can, be abrasive to people you will in all probability never meet, as long as you score the point or look brilliant on Twitter, or get your name in the paper.
There is a sense – and maybe it’s the uncertainty of the times that encourages it – that what we really need is coherence, compliance. Put-up-and-shut-up is part and parcel of the rise of the guru: not listening is endemic in our politicians. And when we don’t get the compliance we want (I think that emphasis is important), we are entitled (somehow) to mirror the name-calling of our most infamous of current world leaders. We look far worse on social media than we do with a bit of scruff as the beard grows in, or with that tattoo about love that shows when you roll your sleeve up. What this snarling does, of course, is to make us all look incompetent, losing our way, a squabbling bunch of people arguing about their seats in the lifeboat. And that’s not professional.
Perhaps we should look at a different model of human interaction here. One that is fashioned around respect as well as passionately held beliefs, one that is founded on a genuine regard for others rather than point-scoring, one where arguments about behaviour are not a reductio ad absurdum, where phonics is not an excuse for ad hominem snapping. My school is better than your school? My pedagogy is better than yours? Really? We cannot have a system that is genuinely compassionate (and that can mean high standards for the marginalised just as much as it can an understanding of the out-of-school lives of the disruptive: I’m not making a point here) without this sense of respect for one another as colleagues, a real attempt to see what is at the heart of the educational project for these people who so readily object to others or do them down.
As Sue Cowley has said on Twitter:
I yearn to see more coverage of HTs quietly doing good, inclusive things in their schools without feeling a need to generate headlines or talk negatively about the work of their colleagues…
I have my review copy of Sue Cowley’s Ultimate Guide to Mark Making in the Early Years with me, its new-print smell still strong.
Thank you, Sue, and thank you Macmillan/
Bloomsbury/Featherstone for the copy: I hope I do this book justice.
Sue is engaging here with a number of the subjects she is well known for on Twitter. She is not unprepared, I suspect, for the to-and-fro tussles around the issues she discusses such as self-regulation and phonological awareness. We might debate quite how we have come to such spasms of controversy that I am mentally listing people who will engage with the ideas she presents (and how professionally they will do so), from secondary mansplainers to single-issue advocates. Nick Gibb was in prophetic mode when he foresaw this debate when arguing about power and curriculum with David Blunkett: what he either didn’t see or chose not to discuss was the potentially poisonous nature of such debate. Sue enters into these times of trial more willingly than I – and she doesn’t shy away from them in the Ultimate Guide, either, so these reflections will attempt to look seriously at Sue’s book, but without drawing down on her the πειρασμός of the curriculum wars.
To the book.
One of the things Sue states in the introduction is that this book is not about getting children to ‘meet targets,’ nor is it about how to please OfSTED inspectors, local authority advisers or the DfE. Given how hard it is to discern the mind of any of these – and certainly impossible to discern a hive mind for all three together – this is an important point. She is aiming directly at effective practice, at people who will read it, in her words, so that it will help you trust in your professional judgement. This means that, for example, the fine motor activities for eye/hand coordination are not a scheme of work, a set of practices that the disempowered practitioner must follow, but things that might be of use; similarly, a Reception class might typically (her word) spend 20 minutes on literacy/phonics per day – but key to effective practice might also be having an eye to children who are absent. There is a fluidity to the suggestions in the book, which is both a guide a resource bank. Ideas that are simple and straightfoward – like developing dexterity by playing with hole punches and paper, or thinking about regulatng noise even in nursery areas – can sometimes be overlooked. This is a rich book of ideas. Some people might like this; for others, either hesitant or hard-line (or both: not all rigorous practice stems from confidence) this will mean they might want to ponder: What works, and why? Why is this section before that in this book?
This is no bad thing.
However, I wouldn’t want to give the impression of a wish-washy book. I don’t think Sue does wishy-washy. When I was a new-ish teacher, the Bright Ideas books were a big thing: landscape format double-pages with time saving ideas, things to dig you out of a hole, some things you hadn’t thought of to make a display really shine. They fell from favour a little because they were scattergram ideas, rather than anything systematic. Because the ideas were good, I used them as a teacher and head teacher – just with the proviso that you can’t start on page 1 and move through to the end. To give a sense of direction in a book like this is absolutely vital, and one strength of this book is that it moves between the might-and-could-and-trust-your-judgment approach and a structure rooted in an understanding of how children learn. Not everything works for everybody, despite what some people in education want to say, and a Ten Top Tips approach would have been destructive of the need for genuine professional reflection.
Starting from a discussion on who leads the learning (her quick response around what child-centred pedagogy is immediately followed by a page of coloured boxed on Finding a Balance), Sue takes us through developing talk, the physicality of starting to make marks (some great ideas here) through self-regulation (see below) as far as moving from letters to words and words to sentences. This (to my mind) really sensible structure not only gives shape to the text, but also allows Sue and her practitioner-readers to focus on particular practices or pinch points: I love (and will be pointing my students next semester towards) the motor skills section and then the glorious Mucky Activities; the genuine attempts at involvement of parents/carers likewise are deserving of attention. There are basic ideas, quirky ideas, points to stop and think, thinks to love, to debate – yes, always the challenge to reflect.
So the Ultimate Guide isn’t an all-or-nothing Programme, but a series of practice-based discussions around some areas that need serious consideration. This gives me a bit of leeway to question some things. Edite, a child whose writing of her name we see all through the Early Years in the section on marks holding meaning gives us a brilliant display of handwriting that develops, but given the lovely section that follows (the graffiti wall – which reminds me of the boy I taught who learned to write his name on the shed wall in letters taller than he was), I might have wanted more of Edite’s Story. More links between the discussion on motivations and Edite’s reasons for her name writing might have been illuminating- but perhaps that would have been another book?
The sections on motivation and self-regulation are interesting, and worth some discussion on their own. Sue takes a light-touch approach to a difficult topic that is currently quite controversial, and a different book would have had more room to discuss the issues she presents – but again, this would have been a different book, and with a different audience. Her advice is solidly part of the “nursery inheritance,” emphasising that the dance of inculturation is slow, and suggesting that our own impulse control may need some time for reflection. Nevertheless, she is quite firm: Success at writing is inextricably linked to behaviour… And where a child cannot use language effectively, school becomes a daily trial by literacy. Trial by literacy. Ouch: that is an uncomfortable phrase, and well worth pondering. In this context I might also have wanted Sue to present the developmental continua of writing with a bit more of a health warning for nervous practitioners wedded to their milestones – but actually any misgivings about atypical development are set aside time after time by real-life considerations of children with a range of additional needs.
Any quibbles I have are minor. I know Sue will be prepared for the battles that purists, only-one-way merchants and the secondary mansplainers will want to join with her. There are a good number of reasons why this is a book to be proud of, Sue – and why I shall be suggesting a range of people I talk to should buy it.
The presentation on What Children Shouldn’t Read for the Reading Spree didn’t go too badly, and reflecting on what did (and didn’t) get heard has been interesting. A few messages went astray both from me and from other presenters, although the “reviews” to listen to are, of course, the people who were actually there, and caught nuances more than the powerpoint slides Twitterers want to argue with. Responses on social media have been thoughtful (and certainly less spittle-flecked) than they were following the first one, at least. However, reading them does bring me back to Kieran Egan, whose Teaching as Storytelling was a key element of my 20 or so minute ramble. He asks
What is most important about the topic?
Why should it matter to children?
What is affectively engaging about it?
and then follows this with the challenge to find binary opposites/pairs:
What powerful binary opposites best catch the importance of the topic?
Big questions when we look at storytelling and curriculum. I suggest that they are different for teachers than they are for children. In What Not to Read I suggested we might ask “How do we look at books when we are educators?” and the same is true of how we look at the whole phenomenon of the outdoor curriculum and outdoor storytelling in particular – and in many ways, looking at curriculum is closer than using Egan’s probing questions as being essentially about storytelling.
There are tensions, binaries around ecocriticism and curriculum. Am I storytelling outdoors as a part of the Green Agenda? How do I deal with a tension around book sharing and how we might orally present traditional tales – there are, for example, practical issues around books and outdoors (as we discovered in a session last year when it poured with rain)? Teachers’ binaries will be concerned with these curricular issues; children-as-audience will be concerned with, as Egan puts it “the human adventure that began in magic and myth…” and they might be concerned with good and evil, danger and escape (Roald Dahl’s Goldilocks is a wonderful skewing of these concerns with his “delinquent little tot” and her fate at the hands of Baby Bear) or with destruction and redemption (I think at once of a beautiful and politically charged book I have discussed before: Michael Foreman’s A Child’s Garden).
So many binaries to disentangle, when the challenge from Egan is to find the “binary opposites” that “best catch the importance of the topic” (my emphasis). This is no small task when selecting books or stories for an outdoor audience; a huge task for teacher or school when considering why they might want to do storytelling and the practical considerations that arise from this plan. Why do we teach how we do? What prevents us from running on the free rein of professional expertise and creativity?
To end with an esprit d’escalier thought about presentations and co-presenters at the Reading Spree, I will take a wide-angle lens view, and ask another of Egan’s questions:
What content most dramatically embodies the primary opposites?
This Saturday it was for me testimony from Simon from Whitby – of children in his school who had never been to the beach – and Nicki – a librarian on a TA’s salary, buying library stock from her own pocket.
I went the next day (Sunday) to a panel discussion hosted by members of the Blackfriars congregation about the impacts of poverty and austerity on the educational experiences of children in Oxford. The feelings of the three speakers (and including my Maggie), all in various roles in education, around the squeezed budgets of public services suggests to me the final and most obvious binary: funding and austerity. Life chances are enhanced by things like decent libraries and book provision (and excellent library provision and staffing such as evidenced here) in towns and schools: refusing to answer calls for better staffing and book stock is an ideological choice, to cut public funding and cut taxation.
Cut after cut and cut as politicians tear one another apart and us along with them. There’s a binary for starters.
Some twenty years ago I used to “do pottery” at the local FE college. Two hours on a Monday evening and a kebab on the way home. Today, courtesy of a birthday present (thank you, Lizzie), I was back – same room, probably some of the same tools, same mistakes of misplaced omnipotence and self-criticism. Different tutor, still good: thank you Activate Learning, and thank you, Graham, for your skills as a tutor.
Tutor intro. Tour, health and safety. “No running with scissors” was not mentioned – but beware the dangerous chemicals and the clay dust. And then into the task. A demo which showed how very easy it was.
First attempt. Dismal. In trying to make something small, I had something fiddly, and the techniques I hoped to use needed to be applied more delicately and with a more practised hand. A small pot became a pile of used clay and my ambition took a bash. Been here before.
Second go: The longer attempt and really (with a lunch break) the work of the day, 11:00-3:30, went a little better. A larger piece, but it still took a long time and I had to unguess shortcuts, to keep the pace, to refine and design. I watched smooth surfaces appear for other people when my effort looked like something the Beaker People would have looked at and said whatever their language had for “Meh.”
The work later in the afternoon was not without challenge but did allow a certain amount of “distract and redirect” as I used slip to decorate the misshapen vase. Plans and designs revised, the learner supported and encouraged – and forgiven, if that’s the right word – for assumptions and wrong turns.
What went right. Well, it wasn’t perfect, and I hesitate to think how I would have felt if it were being marked, and certainly on such an initial piece of learning and creation. Would I have tried harder? Paid more attention? Worried more? I am reminded of Margaret Donaldson’s warning (in Children’s Minds) that
” …if an activity is rewarded by an external prize or token…it is less likely to be enjoyed.”
and the next point might be (for me and the pottery) that I might have decided, given the freely chosen nature of activity, not to participate. Not everyone is the same: for some, the medal for Salsa or the position in the running club league is an important factor: but this is not universal. I am brought to consider pedagogy and curriculum because of my engagement as a learner.
I wonder if every teacher/educationalist should be asked to go back to something and try to think about their learning. The “There is Only Knowledge” team might find that no amount of knowledge organisers substitute for the feeling of clay, or the knack of smoothing a wet joint into place, and the “Experience is Everything” crew might find something too, about where clay comes from, how its history has been so close to human development, how art and colour and chemistry work together. We might find common ground; we might learn something important. So too might the pigeon-fancying behaviourists (particularly watching themselves when things go wrong) and the “It’s All About Self-regulation” group, watching how as adults we motivate and self-regulate (and help others to regulate) with breaks for a drink, chatting, swearing…. And my contention would be that when we observe our own learning we are acutely aware of the humanity of the learner. This isn’t a suggestion that everyone should take up dancing or running, or pottery, but perhaps that we might have a richer professional development experience if all CPD – or a large part of it – were directed to reflection on how we learn, and then ask how we might apply those insights to our own pedagogy. We would have to be bold and committed for this to work as trainers or learners: genuine reflection is hard.
Observing ourselves as learners is not easy – but it has an important advantage over watching our students or being observed by our leaders, and that is that we are less free to persuade ourselves “the children really love it” (or “won’t notice” in the case of baseline assessment) or “the students lap it up.” We are certainly much less able to disentangle ourselves from the learner’s impatience, or the sense of a desire to build the perfect pot (the photos show I didn’t quite manage this) – even the sense of envy or discouragement at the gorgeous things other people produce. And in Higher Education we might look again at our modes of assessment: writing at the same time as our students are on the essay treadmill we put them on is a revelation!
I want to conclude with praise for the kinds of tutors who work as my tutor did today: a judicious mix of direct “do-it-like-this” instruction, demonstration, leaving us to try, and advice. It seems to me the best way to respond to the humanity of the learner is by listening, responding but never letting go of the role of instructor where it is necessary. There are times when each of these is needed, and it is the professional educator (not the politician, I would contend, but that is by-the-by) who is best placed to find the way to teach. Top tips too easily become high horses (if that turn of phrase works) and teachers are better than that. As Donaldson concludes (and I will too), we have to keep trying
to help our children meet the demands we impose on them
and to do that, a deficit model of the child learner is simply not enough:
…we must not call them stupid. We must rather call ourselves indifferent or afraid.
It’s a spring day as March comes to its “out like a lamb” ending. The sun is shining and I’m out on Warneford Meadow, treading through tufty grass, and along paths worn by commuters. It is our local Green and a valuable space, with a rich and (I suspect) growing biodiversity. I am one of a number of visitors, human and non-human – and as I trot down one of the paths I see a bunch of magpies. The Opies record the rhyme as:
One for sorrow
Two for mirth
Three for a wedding
Four for a death.
Lots of other versions are on record, testimony to the respect people (maybe) had for these striking birds as messengers. The Boke of Saint Albans has, in its lists of the Compaynys of beestys and fowlys has a tiding of [mag]pies (but beware: I’m not sure I trust a list with Superfluyte of Nonnys or Noonpacience of Wyves)…
One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Never to be told.
Eight for a wish
Nine for a kiss
Ten a surprise you must not to miss.
(It received a boost by being the theme tune for the Thames TV production of Magpie, ITV’s Blue Peter Rival, when perhaps other customs and rhymes have fallen by the wayside – but that began when I was the key audience: a long time ago, now.)
Back to Warneford Meadow as I slog over a possible Roman settlement and try not to think about the Quis Est Iste Qui Venit of such a run. Nine magpies, then as I approach it’s four then seven and then just one. What do we make of portents whose mobility makes the I Ching look solid? Well, of course, we don’t, in general; it’s a bit of mind play while I run.
I remember that as I qualified as a teacher, the National Curriculum was just coming in, and the course leader was ending his goodbye speech to the PGCE with “May you live in interesting times.” He did not foresee where we might be today: if we were only contending with conflicting views about curriculum that would be enough, but we have Schoolsweek announcing scandal upon scandal, Unionist bands and racists openly on the streets in London vying for publicity (and no, they don’t get links) with crowds and crowds of people with more politeness and less threatened violence, a Parliamentary struggle the likes of which I have never seen before… These are interesting times, but not in a good way. There are no signs or portents to match all of this rubbish.
And while I trundle my sixty-something way and wonder about what the list of magpie numbers might portend (I really did get the one above the other week), part of my mind is wondering: instead of nines and sevens am I just seeing magpie after magpie after magpie? Sorrow and sorrow and sorrow? I don’t think I have ever felt gloomier about the state of my country and my profession.
So instead of corvid fortune telling, I will end with part of my play list for running:
Nina Simone whose version of Billy Taylor’s anthem to Freedom has been a lifesaver this winter.
And while we’re at it, her singing of Randy Newman’s great hymn to compassion.
Sod the magpies, stuff the omens: this is what we need.
Or Unofficial (and Sweary) Views about Referencing
This is an odd piece to write because some of the students whose discussions prompt it graduate this summer. Too late, maybe, is the “well, I think” nature of this personal rant. Sorry.
I am also not able – or in fact willing even if it were in my power – to bring the whole edifice of referencing down, and I am not speaking for anyone but me – and probaby not me as a marker, when I am, apparently, harsh. I’m writing as an unwary fellow traveller myself, someone who continues to forget where a quotation comes from, and who, when I actually do publish something, dreads the Guides for Authors which tell me my own style won’t work for the Journal of Grindylow Studies when it was perfectly OK for Nelly Long-Arms Quarterly. So this is just my view, and you can’t hold me to it when I mark you down for something.
And with that disclaimer has to go the advert for the Brookes UpGrade (or Upgrade) service, who will help Brookes students get it right. The Upgrade web pages are a study handbook in themselves for referencing, note-taking, how to make a powerpoint… and include my favourite resource, Manchester University’s Academic Phrasebank. Yes, I use it when I get stuck, if you’re wondering.
The official view – and I wouldn’t depart from it – is that academic integrity demands it, and that anyone who writes should be able, as it were to show their workings. Nicely put here, it comes down to: No Fudging, No Half-quoting, and No Nicking ideas off other people. But with this there is another subscript, if you like: students reference because courses from Foundation Degrees and BAs on are in some bizarre way part of the apprenticeship for what every student really wants to be, and that’s an academic. And academics’ jobs hang on the notion that their work is their own, their writing and teaching are trustworthy – so you, dear students, must buy into this most basic membership of the academic club.
Why Referencing like This?
or that? Why footnotes or endnotes or Harvard or whatever?
Really only because for the first bit to work, the reader/marker has to know what you’re trying to get at and where your ideas are coming from. Death by buzzword makes for an essay with little substance, and “everybody knows” is not a watertight argument.
Here we go with the kind of ranty thing I can’t really do much of in a class.
So I am bowling along in my writing and there’s this article, and I want to cite it. It’s Elizabeth Bucar’s The Ethics of Visual Culture, and it’s in the Journal of Religious Ethics, March 2016, Vol. 44 Issue 1, p7-16. That still won’t do us, even though I copied it faithfully from the article itself. Since the references list is alphabetical by surname, it has at least to be Bucar, E – and since we also used the date when citing inside the essay, that makes sense to be next. Bucar, E (2016). The rest falls into place as Article title, Journal title and then more precise details.
Bucar, E (2016) The Ethics of Visual Culture. Journal of Religious Ethics. 44:1, pp7-16.
Or something like that. And that’s where people start to panic.
What was all that stuff about Grindylows?
A Grindylow is “a Yorkshire water-demon who lurks in deep stagnant pools to drag down children who come too near to the water” (Briggs 1976: 206. See also Jenny Greenteeth, Nelly Long-Arms and Peg Powler) and I used the fictitious journals earlier because referencing is itself a bit of a Grindylow in that if you’re not careful it can drag you under if not, as the song has it, by “the fancy tie round your wicked throat.” Let’s not panic – but I’ll admit that a couple of weeks ago it dragged me under, chasing references because I thought I had lost the notes I was working from – so
Rule 1: Take Notes and Keep Them. Full notes too – not just “Bucar” (as above) but the title and the year of the journal at the very least.
And it can drag you down in other ways too. Tutors are not always very helpful here, and my experience is that we think we are consistent but often we slip or we have different expectations. This isn’t a Brookes thing: I’ve done enough work as an External Examiner, looking at coursework from other Universities, to know that one tutor will find
Bucar, E (2016) The Ethics of Visual Culture, Journal of Religious Ethics. 44:1, pp7-16.
acceptable and one will want
Bucar, E. (2016) The Ethics of Visual Culture. Journal of Religious Ethics. 44:1: 7-16.
But in most cases, marking tutors are less worried about this than you might think.
What all tutors find hard is when key information is missing (e.g. the whole reference – and that happens a lot!) or if it turns up in the text and not in the end list, or it some of it, but not all is in the end list, like these:
Bucar (2016) The Ethics of Visual Culture. Journal of Religious Ethics. 44:1, pp7-16. (Sigh: where’s the initial?)
Elizabeth Bucar, (2016) The Ethics of Visual Culture. Journal of Religious Ethics. 44:1, pp7-16. (Ah crap: now not in alphabetical order.)
The Ethics of Visual Culture. Journal of Religious Ethics. 44:1, pp7-16. Bucar, E (2016) (What the fuck?)
Bucar, E (2016) Journal of Religious Ethics. 44:1: 7-16. (What the actual fuck?)
Bucar, E. (2016) The Ethics of Visual Culture. Journal of Religious Ethics. Page 14 (Where’s the rest of it?)
And yes I’ve seen all of these. They aren’t the be-all-and-end-all but they sometimes indicate a lack of respect for the sources used. So to be safe:
Rule 2: Make sure all the details are there and in the right order. Styling is helpful.
We tend not to mind if you have a convention of pp rather than : to introduce page range; we don’t always notice if the author’s initial has a . after it (and some styling argues against it); consistency will help, and if you use things like Cite Them Right (the library at Brookes recommends it) you will rarely stumble too much.
And the third way references can drag you down is the really complex one: why you are quoting in the first place, and what you need those actual words for. Maybe you don’t. Look back at the guidance from Upgrade about why we reference anyway.
to enable other people to identify and trace your sources quickly and easily
to support facts and claims you have made in your text
to show that you have read widely and use a variety of sources
So it starts from how you access and use your sources. That means
Rule 3: Propping up the Easy-to-Grab Sources as you write and bunging in quotes that sound good won’t help you make your argument.
Reading, thinking and talking about your ideas will help your argument: quotation for the sake of it is just a bit desperate.
And that reading and discussing will also be the best “entry into the academic club,” in which as a graduate you will be able (and at liberty) to define Higher Education in terms of inclusivity, raising aspirations, employability or plain BS Spotting. Not fancy words, not even, actually, neat referencing – but reading and digesting other people’s ideas and making coherent and engaged arguments that challenge you, challenge the writers you have read and the practices you have seen. Get the references right and then forget them: what you really need, and what your markers are looking for is usually much more about ideas than whether you have put bullet points on all the entries in your references list.
PS: Don’t put bullet points on the entries in your references list. It really pisses me off.
It’s International Women’s Day, or Woman’s Day – there are lots of hashtags on Twitter for it. I have put my contrarian hat on and just have some questions (I’m not going to attempt to answer them, and I have attempted not to load them with commentary – well, not too much). No, they’re not the boring and boorish stuff from eejits asking why there isn’t a Men’s Day (apparently there is, but come on, chaps) nor it is about the pay gap in Education, although probably it should be: it’s just questions arising from having been in professional contexts all my working life where women have been prominent leaders and thinkers and managers, notably in Primary and Early Years education and then in Higher Education in a School of Ed. I am not commenting here on opportunities for women to lead, or anything like this: I simply celebrate my time being taught and managed by women who have inspired me.
Last year, very probably my final year in full-time employment, I had a male line manager for the first time since I was a student. It was a nice experience – Roger is a splendid manager, a lovely guy – at a difficult time, so this isn’t a moan about blokes as managers but it does lead me to my first question:
Was it me, or why did I never see having a woman as my boss as an issue?
I learned so much from having a series of headteachers to shape me professionally: Sr Anna in Esh Laude, Leslie Grundy and Elaine Smith at Grandpont. In very different ways they were thoughtful and mindful of my need to learn my trade. When I was a headteacher, I had advisers like Julie Fisher and inspirational figures like Rosemary Peacocke to nudge me, and writers like Tina Bruce and Kathy Sylva. My next question then:
Should we prepare men coming into Primary and Early Years for some ethos-shocks, or, building on my previous question, might professional development for educators simply take female mentorship and leadership as read? Do men really need their hands holding because they might get told to do something by … a woman?
And finally: well, I continue to work with the School of Education at Brookes, and count its previous and current heads as friends, as well as delighting in working with a strong body of women as well as men. I also work with The Slade Nursery where Carol the head is an inspiration and the staff are a joy. I know umpteen reasons why people press for men to work in Early Years but my last question is
In pressing for men in Early Years are we in danger of seeing the thousands of competent, exciting (female) professionals who are already making a difference to children and families seem somehow lesser mortals?