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How do teachers cope with? 1) Different learning needs

Parents frequently express admiration for the skill of their child’s teachers, and wonder how they manage to cope under sometimes difficult circumstances.

I’ve therefore decided to write a short series about how teachers cope with the some of the conditions that they meet every day in their classrooms.

click here First, how do teachers manage to teach a class of children who have a wide range of individual learning needs?

Historically, we need only go back a few decades to a time when teachers did not have the skills to ‘differentiate’ (that is the term used for it) for the learning needs of every child in the class. Some schools tried to account for differences by ‘streaming’ children into separate classes or groups according to ‘ability’. This was a crude device, not based on research evidence, that may have suited some teachers (many others knew better!) but did not meet the children’s needs.

Today, in many classrooms teachers have learned the essential knowledge and skills needed to accommodate for different needs in order to enable every child to succeed. The skills of differentiation are one of the hallmarks of a great teacher.

There are different models of planning for differentiation, and below I will summarize just one. Like all models it is based upon the fact that the teacher knows how each of her students learns, and that she also has a deep knowledge of the curriculum.

The planning model for a unit of lessons works as follows:

  1. The teacher sets the same high expectations for every child. The learning goals are the same for all. No child is ‘written off’ as incapable. (Just imagine how you would feel if that child being ‘written off’ was your own son or daughter!)
  2. Every child’s final work is assessed against the same criteria. The teacher wants every child to acquire the same deep knowledge.
  3. Children may be allowed to demonstrate their understanding in different ways. The teacher may give the children two or three ways to show that they have understood what they have been expected to learn. This won’t always happen; for example, sometimes the teacher may ask every child to write an essay or draw an annotated diagram. But consider this: if a child is just learning to speak English, how can the teacher expect him to write an essay to show that he has understood? There are countless reasons why children may benefit from having a choice of ways to show that they have understood. But all children are expected –eventually – to meet the same criteria!
  4. When the teacher first introduces the students to the subject to be learned the teacher may give them a choice of initial learning activities. Not always, but sometimes. The skill of the teacher lies in knowing where and when to give the students a ‘menu’ of learning activities and choose the one they prefer.

That’s how teachers plan for differentiation. If this is the first time you have seen this model, you may have noticed that the end (the learning goal) comes first! That’s not a mistake: it is called ‘backward planning’. It’s the same process, for example, that athletes, generals and company directors use: they all start by visualizing the desired result.

There are some circumstances in which the classroom teacher’s differentiation skills may not be sufficient, for example in the case of a child with very severe learning or physical needs. In such cases specialist teaching and support may be required. But increasingly, children with even the most severe needs are being integrated into the same schools and classrooms as their peers.

One last point: you may think that your child’s teacher does not differentiate for your own child’s learning needs. However, maybe the teacher is doing this but hasn’t told you about it. Just ask!

Thank you

P.S. if you’d like to find out more about how teachers differentiate in their classrooms, you could refer to the work of the following experts: Carol Ann Tomlinson, Jay McTighe, Ochan Kusuma-Powell and William Powell. There are many others, but these will be a great place to start.

The role of memory in your child’s learning.

Modern approaches to education have moved away from the expectation that children should learn vast tracts of information by heart and be able to reproduce or recite it whenever called upon to do so.  We should be grateful for that!

However, the opposite extreme is possibly even worse. This is the belief that children should not have to store any information in their brains because everything is available at the click of an internet button. This idea is not helpful. In reality the brain needs to store information because information is the raw material of knowledge-building. Put another way, the brain needs to remember information in order to think. Fortunately, the brain is rather good at this, but we need to give it a helping hand.

One theory of how our memories work is called the multi-store memory theory. This theory posits that the brain has three levels of information storage, as follows:

  1. The ‘sensory memory’ is what the brain remembers of what we see and hear around us. This is extremely short term. We forget these things almost instantly, within three seconds at the longest. That is a blessing! Can you imagine if you could remember everything you ever saw or heard in your life? We may be unreliable witnesses in court cases, but at least we retain our sanity!
  2. The ‘short-term memory’ is our working memory. This is the memory we use when we are thinking. We cannot hold much in our short-term memory, and only for a short period of time. This is why when we are researching a topic from a book we keep having to return to the book to re-acquaint ourselves with the information that we have already forgotten. We can remember small chunks of information that we can ‘rehearse’ (repeat to ourselves) within a time limit of a second or two (such as a telephone number) but beyond that we soon lose it. However, there is a solution to this problem: we can transfer the information to our long-term memory.
  3. The ‘long-term memory’ lasts forever. It is only cut short by accidents to the brain or by diseases such as dementia. The problem is that we are not very efficient at uploading information into our long-term memory for storage. Nor are we very good at down-loading it again when we need to use the information in our short-term memory in order to think. That is why children – and adults – find learning so difficult!

The multi-store theory of memory has several implications for parents and teachers wanting to help their children become good learners. Here are three of those implications:

First, if you overload the child with too many facts when she is trying to learn something new, she will not remember it. The short-term memory cannot cope. The learning will be lost forever.

Secondly, if teachers and parents teach facts alone, their children will not be able to use this information for thinking effectively even if they manage to transfer lots of these facts to their long-term memory. It will be useless information, because the facts are random and not linked together. That is why teachers and parents should help their children remember facts within the framework of higher level concepts. Concepts are like the drawers in an office filing system, making knowledge easy to find and use. Here is an example: If you teach a child lots of facts about the various ways in which we generate electricity, she will almost certainly forget most of it. But if she is taught about the methods of generating electricity within the wider concept of ‘energy is convertible from one form to another’, she will have a framework in which to remember the facts. The facts will make sense to her. She will be able to use her knowledge in any situation,  and approach new learning on the subject at any time in the future.

Thirdly, do not think that your child cannot thing conceptually just because she is rather young or because it concepts are ‘difficult’. They are not. By not teaching at a conceptual level we place limits on our children, something good schools and knowledgeable parents never, ever do.

If you’d like to learn more about all this, you may wish to refer to the books mentioned below.

Thank you

Hattie J., and Yates G. (2014). Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn. This is a wonderful book that I have mentioned before. It is based on the latest research in many areas of student learning, and is arranged in short and highly readable chapters.

Jean Piaget (1970). Genetic epistemology. This and Piaget’s other writings are absolute classics. His research on children’s cognitive development remains a bedrock of modern education. However – Piaget is not such an easy read!

No limits

To my mind, one of the most damaging things a parent or teacher can do is to place limits on what they think their children can achieve.

People who achieve highly in any sphere of life – academic, artistic, sporting, business, community service and so forth – are usually those who know they can always do better. They don’t recognize a ceiling on what they can do.

Yet so many of us do place limits on the children we love and care for. There are many ways that we do this, often casually and nearly always well-intentioned. Consider some of the phrases that we may hear ourselves and others using with our children, such as:

  • “Well anyway, you did your best”
  • “Don’t worry, mathematics just isn’t your thing”
  • “I was never any good at art either”
  • “You run very fast for a girl”
  • “It’s very hard for a black/working class/Hispanic kid to get into an Ivy League university.

Comments such as these are intended to bring comfort to a child who may be anxious that they have not done very well at something or should be prepared for failure. But the inevitable outcome is that the child comes to believe that they may never do very well. The child comes to accept the limits unintentionally, indeed lovingly, imposed upon them by their elders.

On the other hand, few of us would accept the “Tiger Mother” approach to parenting and teaching.  We want our children to be successful but are aware that if we put unrelenting pressure on them to succeed we will rob them of their childhood.

Probably the most effective approach is to recognize the open-ended nature of human potential and encourage our children to exceed the limits that others may unthinkingly impose upon them.

Thank you.

Next time: The role of memory in your child’s learning.

 

The Child Trap

A trap has two defining characteristics. First, the prey has to be driven or lured into the trap, and second there must be no way out.

Sadly, many of today’s parents are unknowingly allowing their children to be led into a trap.

According to various studies* today’s children spend about half the time outdoors than their parents did when they were young. Parents give different reasons for this (all very understandable), perhaps the most common being that they wish to protect their children from the dangers of playing outside: dangers from ‘stranger- danger’, drug dealers, gangs of older children, as well as the risk of accidents in the heavy traffic of our city streets. Other parents say that there is more for children to do indoors, such as watching television, playing games on electronic devices, and using social media**.

Should we be concerned about this? Increasingly it seems that we should be. A research report called Life in ‘Likes’ by the Children’s Commissioner for England*** indicates that children who use social media are “worried about their appearance and image … and anxious about switching off because of the constant demands of social media.” This is particularly true of students aged 8 to 12 who are transitioning from primary education into secondary schools. Children of this age grow dependent on receiving online ‘likes’ and comments as validation of their own self-worth. They feel social pressure to keep constantly connected to social media at the expense of other activities. Even when they are engaged in other activities many children tend to think about how it would look on social media!

Here is a quotation from a year 10-year-old boy who took part in the Children’s Commissioner’s study:

“When you get 50 likes it makes you feel good cos you know people think you look good in that photo. I know that people like the look of me, it makes you feel that you are kind of popular ‘cause you got a high amount of likes”.

The problem is that when children don’t get those ‘likes’ their feeling of self-worth suffers, so they feel depressed and isolated. They are trapped. This is all too common, so what can we do about it?

Here are a few recommendations, broadly based on those mentioned in the Children’s Commissioner’s report:

  1. The owners of the social media platforms used by children should take effective measures to ensure that age appropriate safeguards are put in place for children. If they don’t do this, then our governments should take measures to regulate the social media platforms accordingly.
  2. Governments and schools should introduce compulsory digital literacy programs to help children develop digital literacy skills as well as resilience to the emotional and psychological problems caused by the use of social media.
  3. Governments and schools should educate parents about the positives and negatives of using social media, and how they might talk with their children about these things.
  4. Parents should monitor and if necessary limit the use that their children make of social media. The more informed parents are about the rewards and risks of social media, the more confident they will be in advising their children.
  5. Parents should consider not “sharenting” photographs of their children with friends on their own social media platforms. This is a common practice which many parents enjoy doing, but for youngsters it can be highly embarrassing.
  6. Whenever possible parents should allow and encourage their children to play outdoors with their friends. This is how children develop their imaginations and build healthy relationships with their peers.

I’ll finish with the words of an 11-year-old girl quoted in the Life in ‘Likes’ report. Judge for yourself whether you think this girl is trapped. Could it be your child?

“I saw a pretty girl and everything she has I want, my aim is to be like her. I want her stuff, her white house and her MAC makeup. Seeing her makes me feel cosy.”

Thank you.

*You’ll find many such studies on the internet.

**Some of the apps most used by children in the UK and elsewhere are Instagram, Snapchat (including its habit-forming streaks feature), WhatsApp, and Musical.ly

***Life in ‘Likes’, a report into social media use among 8-12 year olds. Children’s Commissioner for England, January 2018. Find this report at www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk  Follow the links from the home page. On page 37 you will find an informative list of the positives and negatives of social media use for children.

My end of year ‘top ten’ suggestions for parents.

As an educator I am often asked by parents what they can do to help improve their children’s education and life prospects.

Here are my ‘top ten’ suggestions, with a very short rationale for each one. I shall focus on those things that parents are better equipped to do than schools.

  1. Make sure your child gets enough good quality sleep. Sleep affects health, cognition (thinking ability) and longevity. Get your child to bed at a reasonable time in a darkened room from which phones, computers and televisions are banished.
  2. Ensure that your child eats a well balanced diet of dishes made from high quality ingredients. Instil good eating habits that will last a lifetime. Even better, teach your child to cook healthy meals for himself. Cooking is a basic life skill that gets passed down from one generation to the next. If you yourself can’t cook, I suggest you learn (that’s what I’m doing these days – better late than never!).
  3. Insist the family eats one main meal together every day around the dining table. That’s where news is exchanged and where children learn from their parents.
  4. Teach your child good manners. Manners are the means by which people show respect for each other, and manners have to be taught. People recognize good manners even across cultural differences, and they are always appreciated.
  5. Have lots of books in your home. Take your child to the library as part of your routine. Read to your child, and listen to her reading to you. Make sure your child catches you reading quietly to yourself for pleasure; this will tell her that reading really matters. If you don’t read, then almost certainly your child won’t either.
  6. Make strong connections with your child’s school. Learn about the school’s mission, and about how the teachers teach your child and assess her progress. Become a strong partner in the home-school-child relationship.
  7. Teach your child the benefits and dangers of social media. Regarding the dangers, please be aware that a lot of peer bullying takes place on social media. Also be aware that there are many adults and algorithms that target your child for some very unpleasant reasons, including sexual grooming. Work with the school on this, and ‘gang up’ with the parents of your child’s friends; when parents work together they can have a dramatic and positive influence on the peer pressure to which your child is exposed.
  8. Provide your child with a variety of new experiences, some of which may be challenging. Do whatever you can afford. Take them to the theatre, cinema and opera; go with them to sports events, big or small (it doesn’t matter if you don’t like football or basketball – it’s in your job description as a parent); take them hiking and camping; encourage them to play a musical instrument; send them on overseas exchange visits with children from other countries and cultures; introduce them to new kinds of food; encourage them to join a team, or a choir, or a youth organization. The more varied their experiences the greater their learning and the higher their chance of discovering an activity that will be a joy for life.
  9. Take your child for walks in the countryside. I wrote about this in my most recent post ‘Lost for Words’,  see below.
  10. Teach your child not to drop litter. Litter is dirty and unsightly. Litter is a major cause of the 8 millions of tons of plastic that is carried every year by rivers and wind to the ocean where it kills marine life and even enters our own food chain. Plastic pollutants and climate change are two of the greatest challenges that we humans face and neither is necessary. For the sake of your child, please teach her good habits so that she becomes part of the solution to these problems.

Those are my top ten suggestions, but readers may have some very different ideas. Please let me know by sending a comment, and I’ll include them in a future post.

Thank you.

There will not be a post on December 28th, but please come back in January!

Lost for words

The wall of my small back garden is smothered with a thick layer of ivy. It is a rather nondescript plant, so dull in fact that most of the time you’d scarcely notice it. But in autumn the ivy produces a mass of little florets, which on a sunny day attract clouds of brilliant red admiral butterflies, hundreds of bees and any number of other flying insects. For just a few weeks my back yard becomes a tiny, urban nature reserve.

The word ivy shares a sad distinction with many other words from the natural world including bluebell, acorn, heather, kingfisher, wren, dandelion, conker, newt, magpie, and starling. Such words are like a glossary of my childhood, the names of the plants and creatures that I would look out for on everyday sorties into the fields and ponds just down the road from where I lived. The sadness is that all these words and more have been dropped from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, the authoritative and highly readable guide to English vocabulary for children aged seven to nine.

This matters. It’s bad enough that our children and their children are faced with a potential environmental Armageddon for which they bear no responsibility, without now denying them access to the commonplace vocabulary of the natural world.  While it is true that many schools teach the importance of environmental conservation, there is a danger that the notion of environmentalism will remain a remote, theoretical construct for children who have not blown dandelion clocks, picked up conkers from the foot of chestnut trees or rolled in itchy moorland heather.  Children think from the local to the global, not the other way round.

Wherever children live in this world their respect for the environment is strengthened immeasurably by recognizing the sights, scents, sounds, and touch of things that live locally. And without names, these things lose their importance in the minds and hearts of children.

If our children don’t learn to care about local birds, plants and insects, how can they appreciate that careless lifestyles can endanger distant forests, farmlands and marine life and even the water that we drink and the air that we breathe.

Please, let’s continue to teach our children the names of the living things that surround us – wherever we live, and whatever the writers of dictionaries may think. Don’t let future generations become lost for words.

Thank you.

P.S. Look out for a children’s book called “The Lost Words” by R. Macfarlane and J. Morris. It’s a sumptuous collection words and paintings illustrating wildlife names that have been lost from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. The authors respectfully do not mention the dictionary by name.

 

 

And another thing …

Last time I wrote about the concept of learning styles and how there is no research evidence to suggest that they exist. I did mention, however, that some students may prefer to learn in a certain style – either through images (visual), or through words (auditory) or through movement (kinaesthetic). As I said, there is no evidence that students learn better in any of these ways, but the fact that they may prefer to can be useful for some children.

If, for example, a child prefers drawing to writing, it may be a good strategy for a parent or teacher to start the child off on any given topic by asking them to draw what they know about it. The important thing is to move them on into writing once their interest in the topic has been aroused. This is referred to by teachers as using the child’s preferred mode of learning as an entry point into learning. A highly respected colleague describes this approach as the student “drawing her way into writing.” The critical thing is to move the child into writing (or whatever other mode is required by the teacher) because actual learning takes precedence over learning preference. By not moving the child on, the adult may may unintentionally cause long-term repercussions for the child’s educational achievement and even her social mobility.

There are two other current misunderstandings about learning that I’d like to write about briefly. The first is the idea that today’s children and young adults can multi-task. All parents know about this. They watch their children doing several things at once – for example typing their homework, listening to music, and messaging their friends – and wonder how they can manage to do this. I’m sorry to say that they can’t! Research evidence suggests that the human brain can deal with only one thing at a time. So the children you see ‘multi-tasking’ are actually switching between different tasks, not doing them simultaneously. Additionally, although my evidence for this is only anecdotal based on sometimes sitting among youngsters when I work in my local library, I’m sorry to tell you that the task that suffers most is the homework – not the music or the text messages!

The other contemporary idea is that youngsters do not need to memorize facts, figures formulae because all this information is readily available on the internet. Unfortunately, this is not true. Knowledge stored in the brain is the raw material for higher level thinking. Those teachers who do not insist that their students engage in some old-fashioned memorization and that they practice basic skills such as multiplication are unknowingly depriving them of the ability to think at deeper levels, both critical and creative.

If you’d like to find out more about all this, I highly recommend an authoritative but readable book entitled “Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn” by John Hattie and Gregory Yates. It’s written in short chapters that get straight to the point, so you can dip in and out of the book to read whatever most interests you.

Thank you.

Next time: Three ideas for parents to think about.

 

More research that points us in the right direction: the fallacy of Learning Styles

Since the early twentieth century there has been considerable focus in the fields of education and psychology on the nature of intelligence and on the existence of what may be called different ‘cognitive styles’. The underlying assumption has been that there are factors in a student’s make-up other than his or her intelligence (however that may be defined) that may impact on his or her ability to learn.

One widespread concept has been the notion that people have different http://alternativespacetime.com/?attachment_id=1260 learning styles. A particularly popular version of this idea is the VAK model, which states that children are likely to learn in one of three different ways, namely Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic. Thus each child in school is thought to be likely to learn best when the knowledge to be learned is presented in the form of images (Visual Learner), words (Auditory Learner), or though movement (Kinesthetic Learner).

In schools around the world, students take surveys to identify their particular leaning style, and teachers are exhorted to match their style of teaching to the style of the individual leaner.

This situation is so widely accepted (if you search the Internet for information about learning styles you should set aside plenty of time to do it!) that it is important to examine the research evidence to support it.

There isn’t any.

I’d better repeat that. There is no research evidence to suggest that students learn most effectively in a particular style. There is no research evidence that suggests that teachers should match the way in which they teach to the assumed learning style of the individual student.

To clarify this, it is perfectly possible for a student to complete a questionnaire of the type common in many schools and come to the conclusion that he or she prefers to learn in a certain way (such as by studying images) but there is no research that proves that he or she actually learns more in this way.

This is good news and bad news for teachers and parents. First the bad news: around the world teachers are wasting their time trying (usually unsuccessfully, it has to be said) to adapt their teaching to each child’s so-called learning style. The good news is that they should feel empowered to forget this nonsense and focus instead on those teaching strategies which research evidence tells us will actually work for nearly all students.

Parents of children in schools that advocate the learning style theory should feel empowered to challenge the leaders in those schools to state the research evidence that supports it. I predict that any school challenged in this way will soon quietly drop the idea and get back to promoting methodologies that have a proven and positive impact on their students’ learning. More on those methodologies next time!

Thank you.

 

Some fascinating research on how children succeed in life

Are there circumstances that cause some children to succeed in life while others seem to stumble from one setback to another? Is there research that can offer trustworthy guidance to parents, schools, and governments?

In 2016 the scientist and author Helen Pearson published a perceptive and highly readable book entitled The Life Project*. In this book Pearson gives an account of the British birth cohort studies. These studies started one week in March 1946 when the details surrounding the pregnancy and birth circumstances of nearly every child born in Britain that week were meticulously recorded. The circumstances of their lives have been systematically recorded ever since their birth.

These ‘babies’, at least those that have not experienced premature death, are now over 70 years old! In addition, the life circumstances of later cohorts of British babies have been recorded – those born in a single week in 1958, 1970, 1991and 2000.

Our detailed knowledge of the life stories of these five cohorts of people have provided enormous insight into the correlation between life circumstances and life fulfilment.

Based on her analysis of the research, Pearson suggests five key findings. I list these below in a highly simplified form:

  1. Inequality at birth affects the health of babies (and their subsequent prospects in education and life). This finding influenced the foundation of the Britain’s National Heath Service.
  2. If a country has an education system based on selective schools, the life chances of those children who do not attend the ‘best’ schools are diminished (for many different reasons).
  3. Those mothers who smoke during pregnancy reduce the birth weight and life prospects of their children.
  4. In the 1980s many of those people born in the 1946, 1958 and 1970 birth cohorts began to put on weight at around the same time. This was the start of the current obesity problem, with all the health and lifestyle implications that now diminish the lives of those who are badly overweight.
  5. Children born into disadvantaged circumstance have less social mobility. They are more likely to remain ‘trapped’ in their disadvantaged childhood circumstances throughout life.

These findings provide grim reading! However, Pearson identifies four sets of circumstances which seem to enable some children to overcome their difficult circumstances and succeed. Here are those circumstances, in summary form:

  1. Children whose parents are highly interested and engaged in their children’s upbringing and who are ambitious for them, are more likely to succeed in life.
  2. Schools that are ambitious for their students are more likely to produce children who succeed in life.
  3. Children born in better locations, for example a town where there are plenty of job opportunities, thrive more than those born in depressed regions.
  4. Children who are highly motivated to overcome the disadvantaged circumstances in which they grow up are more likely to succeed. Self-motivation is a key factor in life success.

This empirical evidence from the real life stories of tens of thousands of children born in different decades provides huge insight into how we should raise and educate our youngsters. Understanding this, the bigger challenge facing all of us as parents, teachers, and government leaders is this: in the face of the dreadful inequalities we see all around us, what will we do about it?

Thank you.

*Helen Pearson. The Life Project (2016). Allen Lane (Penguin Books), publisher.

Next time: More research that points us in the right direction.