Mining No More
This week, I met my new classes in my new school. Teaching (and living) in an old mining town where the mines no longer exist, I knew that this school would hold challenging pupils. Not all pupils, but a high proportion of them, see school in a negative light. Often, their parents were let down by education and they see their futures as being no different.
Having set a task to allow me to diagnose pupils’ starting points, I was saddened to find that some pupils could barely read and their writing was illegible. With no specific learning difficulties that should stop them from acquiring these skills, I suspect that a fear of learning is beginning to take hold. Another five years of school could be torturous for both them and their teachers if something isn’t done. With modular tests a thing of the past and a higher emphasis placed upon a more stretching, essay-based system, these pupils will fail if they continue on their current path.
Fear and Driving in London (A Metaphor for Skills)
Before I learned to drive, I was petrified of roads. On my first day at university, I embarrassed myself by grabbing the nearest student to help me cross the street. My fear of the oncoming traffic outweighed my need to fit in socially. Aged 21, I got into the driving seat for the first time. The gears, the steering, the pedals, the rules of the road, add to that my fear of traffic and I was pretty sure driving was a skill that I would never obtain.
Jimmy, my instructor, recognised my fear and provided me with baby steps, practice, new situations and theory about these scary new skills. After one year of lessons on both familiar roads and roads I had never driven before, I passed first time. Jimmy allowed me to drive the test routes but he also showed me how to utilise my newfound skills in many new situations. By the time my test came around, it was confidence and a lack of fear that saw me through.
Recently, I found myself accidentally driving through central London. As I passed by Harrods, I knew I had taken a wrong turn. Lost in a big city, I needed to keep my calm and carry on. The skills that Jimmy had taught me and the years of application in new and unfamiliar territory meant that fear and panic did not take over; my well honed skills allowed me to survive and tell the tale.
Reading, Writing, Communication and Maths… Skills for Life
Much like my driving skills in London, reading, writing, communication and mathematics contain skills that we can apply to keep calm and carry out our lives. We can apply them to get us through many tricky situations. High levels of literacy and numeracy are associated with higher wages and a better quality of life but try telling that to a child whose parents get by perfectly well on their dole cheque each month.
If learning is difficult, if it creates a sense of fear followed by failure and if the community around you feel much the same way, pupils may conclude that these skills are something that they will just never obtain. Demanding that they sit through more English and maths lessons or doing harder maths at an earlier age is more likely to turn them off than improve their chances of success. They need brilliant teachers like Jimmy.
If all I had been shown during my driving lessons were the test routes, I may have passed the exam but I would never have survived London. I am twelve years in and have not had one accident. I attribute this success to the opportunity Jimmy provided to apply my skills to many varied routes before the test took place.
If we take time to allow pupils to see the purpose in their learning, allow them apply learning in familiar and unfamiliar territories; if we take pupils through their test routes but open their eyes to the possibilities of purpose beyond the examinations, we could instil in them the confidence that they need to go on practising these skills way beyond their school years. Over time, their confidence will grow and this confidence will be expertly applied to many different situations including final examinations. This is unlikely to happen if we keep our teaching behind closed doors, closed off and unconnected to the rest of the curriculum.
Planning for Practice
Graham Nuttall explains in The Hidden Lives of Learners that the learners he observed needed to understand and apply new skills at least three times before they could easily recall and use that skill again at a later date. If you only see your class once each week and they’ve experienced up to 29 other lessons in the meantime, how likely is it that they will be able to recall your teaching and apply the skills you have taught them?
Our secondary schools are set up in such a way that pupils will experience cognitive overload each day. As they travel from English to history, from geography to French, perhaps ending their day in mathematics, there is only so much information that they can retain. Information is left behind in each classroom as they leave to receive even more disjointed information in the next subject area. If we try to fill their heads without making any connections to their past learning, how much of that new learning will actually stick? It does not have to be this way.
By now, your subject area’s medium term plans will be written and you’re diligently working your way through them. As part of these plans, you are likely to have a column indicating how you will ensure literacy and numeracy are planned into your term. If you find written into your plans things such as, “counting the characters in a novel” or “spelling out the number one” the plans are paying lip service to vital life skills. However well meaning, these plans are not seeking opportunities to allow pupils to apply RWCM in unfamiliar territories. It is more likely that they are just covering your back in case Ofsted read them. Rethink your actions and be prepared to open your doors to collaboration.
Manglish Challenge and Opportunity Spotting
Working collaboratively with my new colleagues, I will be reflecting upon ways in which we can support the pupils of my new school in gaining confidence through practical application of skills across the curriculum. Reading, writing, communication and mathematics can be purposefully applied, not accidentally bolted on. Through #manglishchallenge, I hope you will share your own experiences to show just how fruitful working in this way can be.
This will take an email, a conversation or sharing of medium term plans. Find out what is being taught across the curriculum this term. Find out what skills are being learned in English and mathematics lessons and then question the opportunities in your subject area that will allow pupils to apply these skills in unfamiliar territory. Look at their timetables and find out what lessons they have had before they make their way to you. Can you avoid cognitive overload by using the knowledge of their other lessons to enhance your own?
The following information was obtained in a matter of minutes via one email to the Assistant Head: In English lessons this term, pupils are learning to write for purpose. They will be practising planning writing, using punctuation for effect and choosing their vocabulary carefully. In geography, they are learning about the world and Britain’s position in it and ICT will be creating presentations for purpose.
Cross Curricular Example of what Could Happen With This Knowledge
The English teacher explicitly teaches audience and purpose. The pupils are taught to choose their vocabulary carefully to match their readers. They are taught the importance of standard grammar and how this allows readers to easily access their work. A standard planning structure is used EXAMPLE HERE and they take this template with them as they leave their English lesson.
As they travel from English to ICT, pupils can pick up where they left off as their ICT teacher (knowing that this is their topic in English lessons) allows them to apply the same skill in developing presentations for audience and purpose. To ensure that pupils link their learning back to English, the ICT teacher reminds them of the resource that the English teachers have provided them with. They are encouraged to use this planning structure in order to create a link between ICT and their learning in English.
Leaving ICT and entering their geography classroom, pupils are greeted by a teacher who knows that their learning in ICT has made links to their learning in English and they have planned to make links with both subjects as pupils create purposeful presentations for a new audience. Once again, their cross-curricular writing resource is utilised when practising this same skill in a brand new context. The teacher wants them to consolidate their understanding of Britain’s position by creating a guide for primary children through the medium of ICT. The learning in geography remains geographical but the skills learned in English are utilised to demonstrate their purpose and applicability in a wide range of subjects.
Both the teacher of geography and the teacher of ICT questioned their own subject for opportunities to practice what has been explicitly taught in English. By knowing the skills that are being taught, they have built in opportunities for pupils to practise and see purpose in these skills beyond the parameters of their English classroom walls. Pupils do not leave their learning behind to be forgotten for another few days but take it with them, use it and improve it.
This example could easily to manipulated to include any other subject area or topic. You can read more examples on this blog and there are even more in the book. The more people that get involved with the #manglishchallenge the more examples there will be out there to explore.
#ManglishChallenge The First Steps
Get involved! Open your doors and talk to your colleagues. Find out what is being taught and when. If you can create a group of teachers from several subjects that are willing to give this a go, get started by questioning what is being taught and what opportunities already exist.
So far in my new school, I have easily found out what is being taught in each subject area. The mathematics teacher that teaches the same groups as I do has agreed to developing a series of lessons that allow pupils to practise their maths in English and their English in maths. I hope to get their geography and ICT teachers involved this term too. Starting small and building each term by bringing in new subject areas, I hope demonstrate that subjects can support each other towards achieving better outcomes for all. The goal is to raise pupils’ confidence in applying reading, writing, communication and maths, remove their fears of failure and provide purposeful, knowledge rich and varied situations for them to practise and perfect these skills.
If pupils have made their way through primary school and entered secondary fearful of reading, writing, communication or mathematics, we should not write them off. We can use Key Stage Three as an opportunity to right this wrong before it is too late. If you have examples, stories or lessons that purposefully promote cross curricular literacy and numeracy or if you are willing to give this a go for the first time, please get involved and share using #manglishchallenge.
Optimus Education are running the following fantastic maths and English event. If you are interested in pursuing ideas such as this plus many more, click on the link to sign up. Use discount code LJA15 for a special Learning Geek reader discount.