Learning Is Not Linear.


 ” You always start a subordinating clause with a subordinating conjunction” (my son aged 10)

Flu, bed-rest and an over-exposure to Twitter have given me plenty of opportunities for reflection this week. Work is in the mid-year cycle of reports and lesson observations, with an OFSTED question mark bubbling over our heads. The media is full of debates and enquiries about assessment agenda and exclamation marks, and #44weeks is asking me to blog about ‘lesson endings’.

A KS2 class in my school last week performed an amazing assembly on the Romans and how the Romans transformed our roadway system into ‘straight lines’. This was to fundamentally enable a quicker journey, but linear roadways also removed ‘hidden corners’ for the ‘enemy’ to hide in and surprise them with an attack. Straight roads were a strategy for defence and they also fast-tracked the soldiers towards a quicker destination; they were an efficient and predictable route to manoeuvre cumbersome artillery, cavalry and supplies across the country. The Romans were efficient, organised and single-minded in their approach, driven by a dictatorship that was powerful and uniquely strong. They brought with them technology and organisation that transformed the infrastructure of our country, which, to this day, we are undeniably indebted to.

There is a definite metaphor lurking with the message of that assembly; about life and how we live it. Sociologically we are all living in an incredibly competitive, results-driven, target-driven world. The bar is raised constantly with regard to expectation and achievement; we are measured against this and judged. This message has dripped down through the corporate world and into our schools. We all know this. Now, ultimately, we have a system of education that is underpinned by what some are saying is an unrealistic and linear model of achievement. This is being debated across many different camps of education up and down the country with conclusions being drawn from neuroscience, politics, traditional models of research, comparisons drawn with different systems of education in different countries, data analysis etc etc. “Let’s make our education system the best in the world! Let’s provide our children with an education that makes them the best educated children in the world! In order for us to prove this, they MUST know XYZ. They can prove this in a test, the results of that test will show how clever they are. If lots of them pass it, we have proved our point; we have the highest achieving children in the world! They know what subordinating clauses are; they know what improper fractions are; they can break down a beautiful sentence from classical literature and mechanically separate it into semantics and grammar; when they are 5 they can spell ’emergency’.”

What do you know? How do you know it? When can you show me? NOW!”

I am not pretending or pertaining to be an expert on this – I most definitely am not an expert. But I am a stakeholder. As a parent, and as a teacher, my opinion about this does count. From the age of 4 we are placing our children, MY children, real children who have a life outside of education that influences their engagement; real children with a personality and an opinion and a whole body full of creative potential, and we are harnessing them into a Formula I car on a straight track with no curves, bends or tangents, in order to fast-track them through a system that doesn’t recognise that 99.9% of their life has nothing to do with phonics, subordinate clauses, exclamation marks, and complex spelling. Teachers are filling every 30 second gap in their timetable with an opportunity for rote-driven ‘catch-up’ to counteract ‘slippage‘, whilst creative subjects are slipping down the curriculum and losing their importance. What can’t be measured isn’t important, what you did at the weekend isn’t important, MY child is no longer important.

 As a parent, frankly, I don’t care about the neuroscience or the data collection across the whole country, even if I am mindful of it as a teacher. What I actually want for MY children is for them to…

1. Emerge from our education system emotionally unscathed.

2. Have a relevant education that meets their needs and abilities holistically. 

 3. Achieve their full potential academically.

And I want this to happen in that order.

 ” You always start a subordinating clause with a subordinating conjunction” (my son aged 10)

Yesterday, over dinner, my son said this to his 3 year old sister. After we all stopped looking at him with incredulous bafflement, I asked him to provide me with an example – not to test him, but because I didn’t know the answer either. My son said he could only do that if he “could highlight it on a worksheet”. I asked him if he knew what a subordinate clause was, “no”, I asked him if he could write one, “I don’t think so”. My son, next year, will probably not meet ‘expected’ in his KS2 SATS because he disengaged from literacy years ago with a ‘can’t do’ attitude. He will then be forced to resist his SATS in year 7 in a brand new school. This will ultimately reinforce his sense of failure. I am 43 years old, I am a teacher, I have an English degree…and I would fail it too. I am a teacher and I have become disengaged with my 10 year old sons learning because it is written in a language neither of us can understand. How on earth has primary education come to this point where we are all on this motorway and driving so fast and furiously towards that end point that what is to our right and left is nothing but a blur? What learning opportunity is being missed in this frantic race to the finish line? With my son, in the corners and crevices, is enormous creativity, untapped enthusiasm, an interest and engagement in the world around him, an ability to interpret literature dramatically and in context with flair and expression. And yet, he has no stamina to read a whole book because he only ever gets exposed to photocopied extracts from books in school. He can’t write a subordinate clause himself because he has little opportunity to write at length within a relevant context, but he is being judged on his ability to infer content and highlight semantics from a paragraph typed out of context on a prepared sheet. To what purpose? For whose purpose? To what value?

As an Early Years teacher I am lucky enough to still (tentatively still) be within a curriculum model that does value the bends and curves in a child’s unique learning pathway. The children I teach are not statutory school age; I am still in a position where I can protect them from the culture of testing that will begin for all of them in 6 months time (when, let’s not forget, they are still not statutory school age). I am lucky enough to be able to plan a curriculum that stimulates them holistically, and to be able to engage with them personally to assess their knowledge base. Child Initiated Learning is an established value-based model of learning within the EYFS that recognises the quirks in the cognitive development of small children, and the need to engage with them from their own relevant perspective. The assessment pathway that all EYFS professionals use is not linear, and we are encouraged to work within a ‘best fit’ approach. At teacher level there is minimal ‘scoring’, ‘plotting’ or ‘charting’ and the bends and the curves are seen as a potential learning opportunity. We are given the autonomy to allow the children to navigate us through them, to pause at pit-stops, refuel and carry on. Essentially, every child is guided through a learning process that is relevant to them and in a context that is meaningful; there is an overarching emphasis on pedagogy, enquiry and critical learning. There is an expectation that children are able to utilise taught concepts independently and in a relevant context. Pupils ARE assessed but these assessments are informal, informed, relevant, valid and credible. The assessments are often unique to each child and are unanimously used to prepare the child to engage with the next stage in their development. It is a system that is rooted in established theory of childhood cognition, emotional well-being and stages of physical and conceptual development. It recognises that children learn in different ways and that it is the adults’ role to adapt to that and engage accordingly. It is a system that understands that children need to develop concepts and schemas before they are ready to show cognitive understanding.

Why does this suddenly stop?

Learning is not linear.



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