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Tuesday, 2 June 2020

Are you sitting comfortably? Then move.

Hello everyone!  The world turns and just gets more and more bizarre.  Here in the UK, the COVID-19 lockdown is still in effect... kinda.  Schools have 'reopened'... sort of.  People are being encouraged to go back to work... but only travel it is essential.  Basically, no-one seems to know the score.  Don't get me wrong, I'm sure far more intelligent people than me are at the helm and I wouldn't want their jobs for all the blanks in the Scrabble bag but it is tough to establish a new normal when the variables shift quite so frequently.

So what better time to talk about Vygotsky's gift: The Zones of Proximal Development!

Children don't learn from within their comfort zone
Children need to be guided out of their comfort zone
Children need to feel safe to take risks
Children who take risks learn

Our old buddy Lev Vygotsky (see here for previous musings) decided a long time ago that learning cannot happen when we are comfortable.  And no, I don't mean that you need to be kneeling on a bed of nails to read Shakespeare, you can be physically comfortable.  Vygotsky was talking about psychological discomfort (which makes sense given that he was a psychologist).  

Okay, Mr M, neat-o.  So what?  Why should I care?  How does that help me help my child?

I'm so glad you asked...

A while after Jean Piaget (another social scientist) established his key stages of development, Vygotsky decided that simply allowing time to elapse and expecting learning to happen wasn't enough.  Vygotsky argued that, in order to grow and learn, we must first leave out comfort zone of known things.  

This is a legacy that has impacted all areas of our everyday lives, not just education.  Would there be any fun in playing a video game that did not get progressively more difficult as you played though?  Would you be content to read a simple cloth book of first words with a soothing glass of shiraz of an evening?  As human beings, we derive pleasure from success; endorphins are released when we accomplish difficult goals (probably - I am not a biologist); we feel good when we grow.  

Again, so what?  How does this help me convince my child that completing their maths homework is good for them?

A fair question.  My answer is that in understanding Zones of Proximal Development (ZPD), we can use their influence to encourage children to take bigger risks; to be willing to make mistakes; to celebrate the missteps on their (forgive me) learning journey.

Let's stick with maths for the moment.  When I am teaching a class of Year 6 children (that's 5th grade for those of you who speak American), there will be a few children who are a little further behind the others.  There is no shame in that - we are all beautiful sunsets.  However, I still have to teach long division to the whole group.  So how do I use ZPD to do that?

Give them permission to not know

We start by establishing a comfort zone.  On the board, I'll write the most challenging question that I expect everyone to be able to answer by the end of the sessions (note, sessions; there's no guarantee that this will fit neatly into an hour).  Let's say it's What is 235.6 divided by 17?

Even to a confident child, this will look daunting the first time they see it.  Not only is it division by a double-digit number; not only is that double-digit number Prime; not only is there a 7 in it (kids dislike 7s in division); there's a bloomin' decimal in there as well!  If questions were Star Wars films, this would be Episode 9!

So I tell them that it's okay to not know the answer... yet.  I explain that they are here to learn how to solve the equation and discover the answer (remember, they are not here to know the answer.  If they know it outright; they haven't had to use their brains).  I invite them on a journey.  A happy little journey outside their comfort zone.  No-one is worried; everything is fine.

You've already come so far!

To teach something new, I go back to something old.  I go all the way back to How many 2s can I get out of 4?  Yes, with 10-year-olds. Yes, even with the confident ones.  Because it reminds them of how much they have already learned; of how many risks they have already taken.  I am a big fan of pointing out that at some point in their school career, how many 2s in 4 would have stumped them.  The fact that they are laughing at it now suggests that they will soon be laughing at what is 235.6 divided by 17?

And this is huge!  

It's also really important, so I'll spend some time ensuring that everyone knows that they know this stuff.  Next, we move through the various stages of learning division.  First, we grouped physical objects, then we grouped representative objects (dots on a page), then we grouped abstract concepts ('lots of' a number).  These stages are simple for these children.  All of them.  They know how to apply an abstract concept to an equation to solve for an unknown quantity because they can all tell me that there are 2 2s in 4.  

And we celebrate that.  These kids are brilliant.  They can do the maths!  Woohoo!

The more things change...

The very next thing I tell them (or remind them) is that the maths doesn't change.  The maths they need to apply to 235.6 divided by 17 is no different from the maths for how many 2s are in 4?  It is only the numbers that have changed.  So we'll write the problem up using the bus stop method and we'll approach it slowly, calmly and bravely.  The scenery hasn't changed but the sun has set and we are no longer in the pleasant clearing of how many 2s are in 4? We are now in the deep, dark wood of what is 235.6 divided by 17?  So remind them again and again, as many times as they need to hear it: it's okay, the numbers have changed but the maths is the same.  And you know the maths.

Then we walk it through.  How many 17s in 2?  Write in the 0, yes children, it's okay if our first answer is 0; we just carry that 2 and use it to make 23.  Now, how many 17s are in 23?  This is where I will choose a timid little lamb to be our champion (once at the start and once at the end, even if the end is just reading out the number.  They need to know that it is not scary and it is not incalculable).  This is maths they are very familiar with because it's essentially 23 - 17.  They'll get the answer and we'll move on in the same fashion until we get to the decimal point.

Pretend to panic

So far they've been guided through their ZPD and that's not truly experiencing it.  My mum used to tell me, you won't learn to drive until you've got your licence and you're on your own in the car.  It's the same for these kids.  They need to take the reins (I've lost track of my metaphors, it's true).  So I ask them what to do with the decimal point.  Taking suggestions and gently hinting at the right direction until they work it out for themselves.  

Now their ZPD is becoming more familiar.  Their comfort zone has grown.  They want to have a go on their own and take risks and prove that they have conquered long division.  So I let them.  I display the differentiated work and I let them choose their level of challenge.  

Yup.  They choose it.  

Some will be lazy and choose something that is too easy for them.  They're easily spotted and encouraged to move on.  Or, maybe they only seem confident.  Perhaps they need to try their skills on a practice range before heading out to join the hunt.  Again, let them.  

Some will gallop off and attempt things way beyond their comprehension.  Again, let them; just be there when they fall.  Work with them to answer the question they attempted and reassure them that it was a tricky one.  They'll adjust and self-correct.  Kids are resilient.

But what about us?

What do we, the grown-ups, do while the children are off mastering long division?  We learn to let go.  Just as they have been reaching beyond their comfort zone, so we have been reaching beyond ours.  It is a wonderful feeling to control a classroom.  To be the boss, the king, the shah and it is truly challenging to watch children make mistakes and only intervene when asked.  But that's what we have to do if they are ever going to learn and be independent.  And the more we do it, the easier it gets because our comfort zone grows to include that independence.

That kind of wandered into a weird medieval hunting metaphor.

To close, I am very excited to announce that I am working on a collaboration with the wonderful Molly (Mimmerr) @mimmerr, so that should be coming very soon (I'm off to write a bit of it now, in fact).  We'll be co-hosting so please check out her blog as well as this one.  

Also, for those of you keeping score, I am 1000 words away from only having my dissertation left!  So hopefully I'll be able to devote more time to my blog and my possible new podcast... we'll see.  

I hope this was either useful or at least mildly diverting for you.  As always, if you have any questions I can be reached using the links below or by leaving a comment (I read them all).  Wherever you are in the world, I hope this virus has left you and your loved ones alone.  Thanks for reading and I'll be back next week!

Carl Headley-Morris

Friday, 22 May 2020

Here are my top 5 blog posts!

Hello people!  Due to being incredibly busy (lots of extra pupils at the moment plus essays and dissertations to complete) I have been unable to write a blog post this week.  I have one in mind, a few, actually, and I'll get back to it as soon as I can.  

In the meantime, given that I've been at this blogging lark for a year now,  I thought it would be a nice time to reflect on the highs and lows of Mr M's Musings.

I've been very lucky.  I had one of my posts published on the Times Educational Supplement website; I've been awarded EduBlog of the Week; heck, I've managed to attract readers every week!  That's more than I ever expected.  This whole blog started out as a way for me to get my thoughts on education out of my head and away from my wife (she's very understanding but has her own stuff to do - she's the one who suggested a blog)!

A sincere heartfelt thank-you to every who retweets my notifications, reads the posts, especially the few who have left comments... it means a lot.  In the coming year, I intend to launch a related podcast (after I've finished the MA) and a companion YouTube channel.  Well, that's the plan, anyway.

I leave you now with my top 5 (based on views)...

stay safe

(June 13, 2019 - 304 views)
A post about how to reduce marking stress and time.  Full of really useful information for leaving school work at school.  I imagine this would now be endorsed by the UK Government, given their 'marking is dangerous' message!

(October 17, 2019 - 112 views)
This was all about how I handle parent-teacher meetings.  I am a staunch believer that anything that can't be said in 10 minutes doesn't need to be said.  My main advice: open with Is there anything you would like to know?

(March 2, 2019 - 107 views)
One of my favourite days as an educator.  Completely off-piste and improvised.  Turned the classroom into a news office and the kids into reporters and ended up with a version of Little Red Riding Hood featuring terrorist conspiracies, SAS hitmen and insurgency!

(August 9, 2019 - 98 views)
This was a supply teacher special based on personal experience.  I had gone through a terrible ordeal at my school (something I still can't write about for legal reasons - don't worry, I was the victim) and was waiting for my MA to begin.  What to do in the interim?  Supply teach, of course.  This post was all about what to expect; what to demand; and what to walk away from.

(October 3, 2019 - 92 views)
This post was all about getting children to write actual coherent stories.  I still use the techniques I talked about and recently had a very nice exchange with someone who wrote a very similar post of their own (even down the to the recommended book!).  There are some really useful resources in this one, as well.

So that's my top 5.  Like I said, the numbers aren't huge but hey, I'm not the Huffington Post.  And someone is reading!  So I'll keep on writing.  For the year to come, I would love to engage with some of you via the comments, so please do leave some.  Disagree with me if you want to, I'm not above debate!

Oh, and just because it's something I would want to know, my least read post of the year...

(May 5, 2019 - 11 views)
What‽  But this one is important!!  It's all about keeping your kids safe online at home!  Ah well, you can't win 'em all...

I'll be back next week with the more regular format.  Hopefully, I'll only have the dissertation left.  Wish me luck!

Carl Headley-Morris

Thursday, 14 May 2020

It [should have been] Assessment Week!

Hello everyone, I'm a day late with this one.  Apologies - I spent yesterday reading through every UK Government Education Act since 1989.  Seriously.  I'm writing a paper on how assessment has changed through the ages - I'll share the abridged version here as soon as I'm allowed.  It's interesting stuff but it takes a lot of time, hence being a little tardy with this week's blog post.

you got it boss

Also, last week's post didn't get much love, so if you here reading this one, you should totally check it out when you're done.  It's here.

This week is going to be a very quick read but very useful if you have a child who has been kept home from school for the past month and a bit.  The week of May 13th is Statutory Assessment time in UK Primary schools.  The SATs would be finishing today and the nation would be breathing a sigh of relief.

In a few weeks, you as a parent would receive the grade (now reduced to a simple 'pass' or 'fail' dressed up as 'ready for Secondary' / 'not ready for Secondary' - although it's actually not as cruel as it sounds.  More on that as soon as I'm allowed to share it!).  But this year that is not going to happen.  No children are going to be assessed.  

There are benefits to this - arguably the amount of stress for your child has been reduced, although if the school are doing things properly, assessment should never be a stressful time for a child.  However, a lot of parents I speak to would like to know how their child is doing.  Y'know, officially.  

Well, I figured I would offer my 10+years of experience and share with you my assessment packages for free.

These are based on the National Curriculum; they are year group specific; they have agreed mark schemes and grade outcomes.  And I'm offering them for free.

To be absolutely crystal clear, the assessments themselves can probably be found online for free anyway, what I am offering is a neat package for Reading, Writing, Arithmetic and Maths Reasoning plus marking.  That's right, I'll mark your child's work and let you know how they did.  All it will take is some time from them and an email from you.

And that's it.  That's all I have this week - I have some teaching to do in a few minutes, then it's back to the research grindstone.  Like I said, do check out last week's post because it's about eSafety and there's some good advice and free resources there.

If for some reason the picture link doesn't work, you can also access the materials here.

Have a great week everybody!

Carl Headley-Morris

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

e-Safety During Lockdown

Happy Tuesday, everyone!  My hair is still blue, in fact, it's now bluer than ever (I decided that I liked it so much, I've re-dyed it with permanent colour).  You can still donate towards my chosen charity, The Little Princess Trust by following this link.  I've raised 36.5% of my £1000 goal and I am truly grateful for every penny.

With the Government now saying that schools will likely not reopen until June, teachers and parents up and down the country are facing the reality of at least four more weeks of home-learning.  For some, that is great news; for others, it's not.  For pretty much everyone it means more time for children online.  Is that okay?

Bitmoji Image
Online grooming is still a thing
You should be aware of what they're doing online
There are great, FREE resources out there to help

Just a heads-up...

This week's post content gets a little heavy, so in an effort to not make light of the serious nature, I'm not going to use my usual bitmoji images (except for TL:DR Carl).  The information used comes from the article e-Safety and online safeguarding from Vol. 2017, issue 13 of Children and Young People Now, if you want to dig a little deeper.  

Hopefully I am preaching to the choir with this one but I decided to focus on e-Safety this week after watching this video on Twitter:

I used to run several e-Safety workshops every year in various schools and it always shocked me how little parents were aware of their children's online activities.  I remember one parent of a 7-year-old declaring proudly that her daughter had her own laptop that she used in her bedroom.  That parent was very proud of their child's tech-savvy ways, and to be fair, the kid was a whizz with Scratch and the like.  But I had to caution the parent about the non-supervised screen time.  The response I got back, and it has been echoed by far too many, was:

"It's okay, she doesn't go on those sites."

Now, I'm not suggesting that any young children seek out dodgy sites.  What I am suggesting is that there are people out there who seek out perfectly reputable sites for dodgy reasons.  And those people aren't big with the truth.

Also, kids talk without thinking.  They can overshare information.  They can be easily influenced by social media.  They can be flattered by a stranger's interest.  It's too easily done.  I'm not alone in thinking this way, either.  The article e-Safety and Online Safeguarding (Hayes D, Carr J, Hancock M, 2018) reported that just over one in every two parents were concerned about their children's online presence.  

It's okay, my kid doesn't have a laptop.

That's fine.  79% of young teenagers (12-15) use their phones (for primary-aged children, that number is a little lower, but still over a third).  What's more, 70% have an active online presence.  That's seven in every ten children of school age.  If you think your child doesn't have a social media account, it might be a good idea to double-check, even if you know you didn't set one up for them.  Let's face it, it isn't difficult to do.

 But is it really that big a deal?

Well, the NSPCC states that just under a third of 11-12-year olds have looked at porn online, and 7% of 11-16-year olds have sent indecent images of themselves to someone.  Those numbers aren't huge, granted, and the takeaway is that our children are, for the most part, doing the right thing.  So that's good.

And it's not my intention to sit here and say that the internet is a terrible, scary place.  It's mostly not.  But to say that these things don't happen; to turn a blind eye; to adopt an it'll never happen my child attitude, is irresponsible.  Plus, it's not only the indecent images and videos that are a problem.  Cyber-bullying is a very real thing.

The world is a crueller place that when you or I were in school.  You can now be bullied anywhere, at any time, from any country in the world.  Back when we were kids, if you did a stupid thing, or something embarrassing happened to you, you would be the subject of ridicule for around a month, then it would (for the most part) blow over.  

Now it's permanent.  Now kids have 4K video cameras in their pockets and the means to share those embarrassing moments with everyone.  In 2017, Ditch the Label conducted a survey that suggested some 60% of young people experienced bullying.  One in ten of all children questioned said that cyberbullying was the cause.  This ranged from abusive private messaging, to rumours being posted and spread online, to nasty comments on social media profiles.   All of which has led to the somewhat bleak statistic that 1 on 4 children have reported having suicidal thoughts, and as many again are self-harming as a coping mechanism.  

This is horrible.  Why are you talking about this?

Because for every 20 children who are bullied online, or cutting themselves, or considering ending their life, only 3 tell anyone about it.  

So... what do we do?

Schools have an obligation to teach e-safety and safeguarding but schools are closed at the moment.  And anyway, recent studies suggest that children don't pay much attention to grown-ups when it comes to online advice anyway (handy, huh?).  So here's what I suggest.

CEOP (the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command) is a wonderful organisation (woefully underfunded and sort-of reliant on charitable donations from companies like NSPCC, Google and Microsoft) and they run a website called  To help parents deliver the message of e-safety and safeguarding during the school closures, they have put together some fantastically helpful packs.  They are adding new activities every other Tuesday for the duration of the school closures.  Oh, and they're free.

The packs (downloadable from their website, or just click here) are split into EYFS and Primary, and Secondary and each consist of several 15-minute activities.  They are designed around discussion with your child, so it is not a case of sitting them down and letting them get on with it.  One of the most important things parents can do to encourage strong e-safety is talk with their children!  You might even learn a thing or two yourself!

It's not just CEOP that have good e-safety activities though.  Google has a who digital world for children to explore and learn.  Interland (here) invites children to 'be internet legends' by completing games based around internet security (passwords and the like); digital citizenship; website truth analysis (no, really - check it out, it's awesome); and e-responsibility (thinking about what you share etc.).  

This is a sit them down and let them get on with it situation (in the same room as you, or at least with a direct line of sight) BUT!!! I recommend you set some family time aside.  Heck, stream it to the TV and make a night of it.  Seriously, these games are fun and, though the answers to the questions can be obvious, the options will throw up some discussions that will be worth having.  You also get certificates for completing the levels.  

I am internet alert!

I'm going to leave it there this week.  Short and... well, not sweet given the content, but important.  Everyone is doing their best to stay sane, earn money and look after their children, I know that.  All the same, it never hurts to do a quick e-safety audit on your younglings and their digital life.  

Hang in there, people, only one more month (potentially...)!

stay safe

Carl Headley-Morris  

Tuesday, 28 April 2020

Bully for you...

Hello everyone and congratulations for surviving another week of lockdown madness!  If you've been following me on twitter (@Mr_M-Musings), you'll know that I recently began a campaign to raise some money for the Little Princess Trust.  Not only do these guys help to support childhood cancer research; they also provide wigs for children who have lost their hair through chemotherapy.  I know there are lots of good causes out there, and I know Coronavirus funding has been asking people for donations, so I'm not going to pester you.  Having said that, I am 1/3 of the way to achieving my donation goal, so if you have a couple of pounds, dollars, yen, anything at all to spare, you can donate here.  Oh, and as a direct result of this campaign, my hair is now blue.

Donate here!

This week's podcast has been inspired by a couple of things.  Firstly, by a conversation my wife and I were having at the breakfast bar this morning and secondly by a post from user, SMSA.

SMSA write about a recent situation where her child had been involved in an accident involving outside toys and resulting in another child receiving a bit of a bump.  Everyone was okay and the school seemed to acknowledge that this was indeed an accident.  So far so good.  However, when SMSA picked up her other child, they discovered that the event had been discussed with children outside of the immediate situation.  Delving a little deeper, it turns out that the incident had been called into question by no fewer than four teachers and a member of senior management. On top of this, the school had told other children than SMSA's child was 'naughty.'  

The post (here for context) concludes with SMSA failing to find any of this procedure in the school's behaviour policy.  Understandably (her Year 1 child was in tears),  SMSA is not impressed  What grabbed my attention was the post being nested under a label entitled BullyingSMSA hasn't suggested that her child is being bullied, and is merely questioning the school's professionalism, but it made me think.  What do you do as a parent if you feel your child is being bullied, either by other children or by an adult?

Well, I've had some experience with this sort of thing, so I figured I would throw my hat into the ring!

Bully for you...

Bitmoji Image
Make sure your child tells their teacher if they're being bullied
Don't be afraid to go beyond the school if you think you're not being heard
once your child is happy... stop!

What does a school consider bullying?
Bullying might seem like a rather subjective term but it actually has a very definite and objective definition in school.  An action is considered bullying if it meets these criteria:

  1. It is targeted at one child or group
  2. It is chronic (happens over time)
  3. It is deliberate
  4. It is intended to cause emotional or physical harm
I've had a lot of conversations with concerned parents who unintentionally label a one-off incident as bullying.  It's not.  Obviously, it would still need to be dealt with but it isn't bullying.  Mislabelling it can be very problematic.

Scenario 1:
Let's say a child in the class above takes a dislike to your kid.  One day during playtime, they go over, call them a poo-poo head and push them over.  Your kid is hurt, embarrassed and upset.  This is not okay.  The child in question needs to be spoken to and the behaviour addressed.

But is it bullying?


But the kid is older than my kid.  That's bullying! 

No, it isn't.  This is a one-off event and needs to be handled as such.  Exactly how it should be handled is a matter for another blog post but it is not bullying.

Scenario 2:

There is a child in your kid's class who calls them a nickname every day.  Let's say they call your kid Monster Munch (kids do weird things).  They do it every day and after a week or so, your kid comes home very upset and explains what has been going on.  That's bullying, right?


Bitmoji Image

It is targeted, chronic and deliberate, but whether or not it is intended to cause harm is a sticking point.  Sometimes it is obvious (if it is a clearly offensive name, for instance).  Other times, it can be open to interpretation.  This is why one of the first things a teacher will probably ask is: Have you told them to stop?  

I can totally understand why this might be infuriating for a parent to witness.  Arguments about how the victim shouldn't have to tell the perpetrator to stop abound.  It is important to ascertain the intent behind the behaviour though.  By letting the supposed bully know that your child doesn't like the name, they have the opportunity to stop and even apologise.  I've had children in tears because they had no idea they were upsetting their friend and honestly thought they were just using a nickname.  

If the name-calling (pushing, kicking, biting, spitting - yes, these are all deplorable actions but the 'victim' must make it clear that they don't like it) doesn't stop, then we're on to something.  

Scenario 3:
That same child has been told that your kid doesn't like being called Monster Munch (if it were my class, I would make it clear that this applies any name other than your kid's actual name - this rules out them being called Hula Hoop instead).  After a day or two, they start up again.  Maybe a slightly different name.  Maybe this time they've got a couple of other kids joining in.  That's bullying, right?  I mean, right???

Yes.  That's bullying. 

The school should step in and do something at this point. For what it's worth, I'll tell you what I have done in the past.

Firstly, I make sure that I am dealing with all the children involved.  Any hangers-on or on-lookers are sent away.  Next, I get everyone involved to write down exactly what happened.  They don't have to worry about spelling or swear words; I need the whole truth.  I'll then read each of the accounts.  This can take some time, so I will make sure the children know that it is being dealt with.  If necessary (and it has been), I'll deal with it after school and make sure I let the parents of the children know what's going on.  

Here's the first place where SMSA's school slipped up (in my opinion): they talked about it with other children.  Nobody else needs to know.  That's why I send all other children away.  If any child or parent who is not directly concerned knows about how the situation is being handled; you have a right to complain.  

Once I've gone through the written accounts, I call children up individually and ask them to tell me verbally what happened (to spot inconsistencies).  Then I'll have the bully and the victim both together and discuss the situation with them.  

I calmly go through the rules about gossiping (a blog post for which is on the way) and being respectful.  This is key because being respectful is one of every school's Golden Rules.  Go and check your school's website, it'll be there in some form or another: I respect people.  The reason this is key is because calling someone a name, despite being told to stop, is disrespectful and no-one can object to the child being disciplined for not following the school rules.  I have been in many a situation where the bully's parents suddenly spot several places where their child is, in fact, the victim.  If they've broken a school rule, then it is cut and dried.

So... what next?

Next is what you do about it.  As a parent, it can be very tempting to become the avenging angel and swear to never stop until the bully is sent home crying every night.  Don't do this.  In most cases, it is much, much better to let the school handle it.

Bitmoji Image

In the past, I have always started the school year by agreeing as a class what sanctions should be imposed when people break the rules.  The children are usually very sensible and often come up with the same three steps: 

  • Remind the person of the rule
  • Miss a playtime
  • Miss a lunchtime
However, in this case I tend to add a fourth measure.  I make the child write a letter.  In the letter, they have to explain why they have been asked to miss some playtimes (or whatever the punishment is), leaving out no detail.  But I never ask them to write an apology letter: apologies can be insincere.  I give them a lovely piece of paper with the words:

Dear mum, I...  

For some reason, the reality of explaining their actions to their own mother is far more impactful than writing apologies to anyone else.  

Then you leave it.  It has been dealt with.  That child has made their mistake and they've had the consequence.  You don't call back to it.  You don't judge them negatively for it.  You don't use it against them if they become a victim of someone else.  I have never and will never use the phrase 'well, it serves you right.'  That's not fair, we are, after all, dealing with children who are learning.  Not just English and maths, but social rules as well.  Obviously, if they continue to do the same thing, then that's a different matter, but I would argue that continual bullying is a symptom of something much deeper.  And you don't discover causes by dealing with symptoms.

Also, it is key that, at all times, you separate the behaviour from the child.  They have chosen to act in a certain way.  They have made a bad choice to behave maliciously; they are not a malicious child.  Please don't label children!  Not even positively.  Label behaviours or actions; not people.

That's great, Mr M, but what if the school is rubbish?

This can happen.  In fact, a school can be so bad that the victim ends up having to apologise to the bully!  I've seen it happen!  Worse still, the child might be being bullied by an adult.  If either of these is the case, there are a couple of things you can do as a parent.

You can go to a teacher you trust and ask for their advice.  It might be that things are going on behind the scenes that you don't know about and this teacher might be able to ease situations a little bit.  At the very least, they could offer a different perspective or reassurance that procedures are being followed.

I once had a child who's parents were horrified to learn that they were being asked to apologise to a bully, only to find out that it had actually been their own child who started the whole thing off.  It happens; children don't always tell you the truth!

If this is not an option, however, and sometimes it isn't, then you have a few avenues to explore.  The following should only be used after you have tried the class teacher and the Headteacher and gotten nowhere with either.  

You can contact the school governors (their details should be on the school's website; if not, contact the office and ask.  They are obliged to provide you with an email address.  Tell the governor, as calmly as you can, what is going on and request a reply.

If that doesn't work, or you still feel that you are not being heard, then you can go straight through the local council.  State schools and academies are publicly funded - your taxes pay their bills - go to the source.  Again, be very clear and state the measures you have already taken.  If it is a problem with an adult, and other parents have similar grievances, try to get a few names together.  The results might not be pretty but they will be worth it.  I know of a Headteacher who was bullying everyone who wasn't in her clique, children and adults alike.  It took three years, a lot of emails and rallying support of affected teachers, but she was eventually asked to resign her post.  Don't suffer in silence!

Before I close off this week, I have one more thing to add.

I have used a word I don't like very much: victim.  In my class, we don't have victims.  Or rather, we don't let ourselves become victims.  It is so important to reassure your child that they are allowed to speak up.  If someone is doing something they don't like, they have to tell them to stop.  Say it clearly and with purpose.  Stop calling me Monster Munch, I don't like itLoudly and publically.  So that when teachers ask did you tell them to stop? your kid can say yes.  Yes, they did, and there are several witnesses to it.  You have no idea how many times teachers are the last to know!

The other thing is this: teach your child (I used to go over it at least once every half-term) that they cannot change what they can't control, and that they cannot control other people.  They can change how they react to other people by asking or telling them to stop, or by walking away, or by telling an adult.  It's worth remembering for yourselves as well.  You can't change other people's children.  You can't force them to feel sorry or to be better behaved.  You don't know them; you don't know their life.  So, at all times, act in the interests of your child.  Don't concern yourself with how the bully will be dealt with; worry about whether or not your child has stopped being bullied.  Be the change you want to see.

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Thanks for reading all the way to the end!  I had a look at my stats for the past few days and I'm always flattered that anyone reads this blog!  If there is something in particular you would like me to write about, let me know about it in the comments below or on twitter or via email.  All links below are active.

Look after yourselves and enjoy this government-enforced time with your children!

Carl Headley-Morris

Tuesday, 21 April 2020

Unlocking the Key Stages: A quick and dirty guide for Parents and Carers!

Hello and welcome to the third and final (for now) part of my 'for the parents and carers' blog posts.  I promised last week that I would explore the world of Education Philosophy and why we have Key Stages.  So hopefully, that's why you're here!

While I aim to give you a decent amount of knowledge, this is going to be something of a  whistle-stop tour (there is so much theory and buckets of information already available if you want to go deeper down this particular rabbit hole). 

Before we begin though, a couple of shameless self-promotions:

Last week I was declared True Education Partnerships' EDUBLOG of the WEEK!  So that was nice.  If any of you clicked on to my humble as a result of that little accolade, welcome and I hope you had a look around and liked what you saw.  I'm always open to new ideas and improvements, so please leave a comment below and I'll get right on it.

Secondly, I am letting my wife cut and dye my hair for The Little Princess Trust, a wonderful charity that raises money for research into childhood cancer and creates human-hair wigs for children who have lost their own due to cancer treatment.  You can vote for my new hair colour and donate some money here.  Hurry though, the poll closes Friday 24th!

Okay, one we go!

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Almost everyone agrees that we learn best by doing
Key Stages have existed in one form or another for over 100 years
If you want to help children learn, give them things to play with

If you are around the same age as me, then you might just remember Play School, Infants, Juniors and Secondary.  These suited us just fine.  They are phases of compulsory education that are separated by ages and very roughly align with stages of cognitive development ('ability to learn').  Then, in 1988, there was an Education Reform (in the UK) and they became Key Stages:

  • Key Stage 1 is the infants
  • Key Stage 2 is the juniors
  • Key Stage 3 is Secondary (up to Year 9 - anyone remember the Year 9 SATs?  They were End of Key Stage 3 tests)
  • Key Stage 4 is the GSCE years
  • Key Stage 5 is A. Levels.

There are tests at the end of every Key Stage of educational development.  Or at least, there were.  The Key Stage 1 SATs are no longer as formal as they once were, and they have now been scrapped altogether.  This means that from September this year (2020), children will be tested at the end of Reception!  That's the year before Year 1.  When the children are 5.  That's 60 months old.  No word of a lie, I have t-shirts that are older than that!

However, have made it clear that these benchmark assessments (the word 'test' is never used) will be one-to-one exercises, lasting 20 minutes, with a teacher in an informal setting.  Last week I said to be wary of what might replace Key Stage 2 SATs.  This is what's replacing Key Stage 1 SATs.  

To be fair, it doesn't seem that bad for the children.  My personal concern is that these assessments, taken at the very beginning of formal schooling, will form the predicted grades and expectations for the results at the end of Key Stage 2.  So a cynical person might think that, if you want your child to be recognised as needing additional support as they near the end of Primary school, you'd better hope they don't score too highly at the beginning.

The end of Key Stage 2 SATs are still with us... for now.  Who knows what will happen this time next year.  COVID-19 has thrown a real curveball to everyone and we are suddenly putting theories into place that were never supposed to be made practical.  I seriously doubt the SATs will be replaced though.  But we covered this last week.

The end of Key Stage 3 used to be marked with another round of SATs but these were abolished in 2008 and have not been replaced by anything...

... except the compulsory addition of two extra years of school.  Key Stage 4 is still assessed largely on GCSEs or NVQs (which became QFCs and are now RFCs... although there is talk about swapping them again for T.Levels from September 2020.  Keep up!)

You used to able to leave school after you failed all your GCSEs but now you have to stay on for two more years and complete Key Stage 5.  These can be A.Levels, T.Levels or some other form of accredited qualification.

Okay, great.  But what do we have Key Stages?

That comes down to the psychologists...
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We start with Jean Piaget (pee-AH-shay), a Swiss psychologist.  He was a big believer that children developed their brains and learning abilities in phases and would not move on to the next one before they had achieved a degree of competence.

Simply put, up until a child is 2, they have a keen desire to use all of their senses (this is why babies put things in their mouths, simply touching it is not enough).  They have no object permanence (this is why Peek-a-boo is probably terrifying for them; they actually think you have disappeared) and they are incredibly ego-centric (their entire world is them.  Nothing else).  

From 2-7, they start to realise that certain things can be represented by certain symbols (they learn how to read; what the maths symbols mean; that a picture of fire sometimes means danger...).  They are still very ego-centric though.  There is a fun test you can do on children of this age called the Sally-Anne test, which highlights this ego-centricity beautifully.

From 7-11 Piaget argues that the child enters the 'concrete operational' stage.  This means that they should now be able to use reasoning and logic to work things out without necessarily having to practically do them.  

I'll leave Piaget there for now because that's the end of Primary school.  But can we see how the Key Stages developed?  They fall roughly in-line with Piaget's own development stages.  The thing is, this approach implies that children can only learn given things at a given stage.  But what if they advance more quickly?  More slowly?  What then?

Enter Len Vygotsky - a Russian psychologist.

Vygotsky (vie-GOT-skee) argued that children can develop purely based on social interaction.  He suggested that children who are offered some assistance will pick up a skill more quickly.    He called this the Zone of Proximal Development, which, if nothing else, sounds pretty cool.

Now, I'm nutshell-ing this a bit for time but imagine learning to ride a bike.  On your own, you'd get there eventually.  Vygotsky argued that, through social interaction (someone helping you by holding your bike and giving you tips and encouragement), you would achieve your goal sooner.

The Zone of Proximal Development is kind of used in schools.  Sort of.  If you have a school that differentiates through support or outcome, then that's kind of it.  Ish.  If you quint.  I always used the mantra of low threshold; high ceiling.  I would set a task that anybody could complete but also had an open-ended challenge to it to push children that little bit further. Basically, I with the birds of the world.  If you want to learn to fly, you have to leave the nest. Sometimes a gentle push is required.  Learning doesn't happen unless you leave your comfort zone.  

Vygotsky also (sort of) agreed with Piaget when it came to moving from the concrete to the abstract.  He labelled the stages as attention (I see something happen), sensation (I use things to imitate that thing happening), perception (I understand the theory behind why that thing happened) and memory (I can apply the logic behind that thing happening to other things).  If that's confusing, don't worry, I'll explain a bit later...

So far so similar.  Enter Jerome Bruner who picked up the baton and ran another lap (I'm not sporty, apologies for the metaphor).

Bruner is the most up to date educational psychologist but that really only means that he was the last in the room (everyone else has died).  He's not saying anything revolutionary, just, sort of adding to what's already there.  He took Vygotsky's idea of social constructivism (building on your own understanding by learning from others) and added an extra element of society, arguing that the people we learned from taught us different things depending on their experiences... which makes sense.

Again, he went suggested different names for the same stages of learning: Enacting, Iconic and Symbolic.  They all mean the same thing.  

There were others, of course, Dewey was in there around the same time as Vygotsky, and Bourdieu who gave us Cultural Capital.  There was also Skinner who did things with rats and pigeons.  You would be forgiven for thinking that educational psychologists were a dime a dozen!

So, I said I would come back to the learning processes.  

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All the psychologists agreed (in a roundabout way) that learning takes place over a series of processes.  And teachers (should) apply these processes to learning today.  Since you are all teachers at the moment, I'm going to give you a maths example below.

I taught Year 6 for 10 years.  For those of you who don't know, that's the last year of Primary school (10- 11-years old).  I always had things available.  Blocks, counters, Lego bricks, pencils... anything the children could hold and move around.  Yes, at 10-years old.

I never used the phrase 'who needs counters (or whatever)', I would only say 'there are counters (or whatever) if you want them' - children, as we have explored, have egos.  Anyway, the important thing is this:

The first stage of learning anything is the concrete stage.  You have to be able to see it happening or to make it happen.  If you want to understand 243 ÷ 32, you need to understand 10 ÷ 2 first.  And to properly understand that, you need to physically split ten things into two groups.  

When you've done that enough times (over a period of minutes or months - children develop at different speeds), you can switch over to symbolic representation.  Instead of using counters (or whatever), you can simply draw it out.  

The next stage, when you're really confident with symbols is the abstract - this is where drawings of circles and cars (or whatever) become numbers and algorithms and you have the cognitive ability to apply your learned logical pattern to these abstract things.

This is, essentially, the journey that every child has to make through the Key Stages.  However, it is also the journey they should be making through each year group, each term and even each lesson.

If you have a child who is struggling with a mathematical concept and you really want to help them, strip it right back to its Reception-level roots, give them something to hold and walk them through the stages.  Then let them practise.  Remember, mistakes are okay.  Mistakes help children learn.  

I'll leave it there - I've gone on long enough!

If it's been useful, or if you have any further questions, please get in touch.  My details are at the bottom and you can even book me for a free tutoring session every Monday via my Corona Home Leaning page.

Thanks for reading and look after yourselves.  May 11th... they might be going back by May 11th!

Carl Headley-Morris

Thursday, 16 April 2020

Another one for the parents and carers!

Good morning/afternoon/evening (I don't know when you're reading this)!  I have decided to focus another week's post on the parents and carers of our nation's children.  I decided to become a teacher when I was 7 and as such have spent most of my life either preparing for it or living it.  A lot of you guys out there... not so much!  Being a teacher/parent is tough so I want to reiterate my previous sentiment: you're doing fine!

The three most important things you can do right now are:

  • Tell your children you love them.
  • Let your children know you care.
  • Hug your children.

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The SATs are NOT happening this year
If you want to know how your child would have done, I can help
The intended outcome was never about testing the children

If you have lost your temper recently, that's okay (I mean, don't hit them or bellow unnecessarily or anything).  Explain the reasons.  This is different from justifying or pandering.  Kids are very understanding and if you explain the amount of pressure you're under and the reasons why you needed some space/peace and quiet/alone time, they'll get it.  They may even help and offer good suggestions.

There are many times when I have been in a bad mood at the beginning of the school day (usually because of another adult).  The kids come in, all smiles and eagerness, and my face is like thunder.  

I've tried different approaches to this situation.  The first one was to try to ignore my own emotional state (the old 'leave your feelings at the door' routine).  It did not work. Externally I was forcing smiles; internally I wanted to die.  That kind of stuff comes out eventually.

The second way was to tell the children, right off the bat before the register, that I was in a bad mood.  That it wasn't their fault and that they had my permission to remind me of that if I barked a little bit.  I reassured them that I would get over it and reminded them that it wasn't their fault.

That second way has never failed.  Usually, after 20 minutes of a lovely relaxed atmosphere, I'm happier than I was to begin with (before someone had... annoyed me). 

Even if it is their fault; just tell them.  Ideally do this in a calm, matter-of-fact way, and be sure to recognise that it is the behaviour that you are unimpressed with and not the child.  I know that sounds very hippy-ish and flouncy, but it is so important for a child to know.

Anyway, that's not what I wanted to talk to you about today.  Today I wanted to talk to you about...


Yes, those compulsory End of Key Stage 2 Standardised Assessment Tests that we all know and love.  Full disclosure: I actually quite like the SATs - not the way a lot of schools go about it, don't get me wrong.  I think teaching to the test is abysmal and damaging.  I think placing undue pressure on the children (you need to do well... or else) is abhorrent.  I think the misunderstood point of the tests is shameful.  But the tests themselves are fine.

The maths tests have been improved greatly since 2014 and the Punctuation, Grammar and spelling are easily done.  The reading comprehension test needs work (read more about my opinion on that one in my article for the TES, here) but I've been looking into these tests for a while now (they're forming the basis of my thesis at the moment) and they're not the monster people have painted them to be.

But hey, that doesn't even matter this year because THEY'RE NOT HAPPENING!

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Even if the schools do reopen in May, as the Government have suggested this morning (16th April), the STA (the people who write the tests) have cancelled all compulsory testing.  That means no Reading Comprehension, no maths, no SPaG, not even any teacher-assessment!  Result!  Or is it?  What does no final outcome mean for your child's transition into Secondary school?

Probably not very much.  

Seriously.  Most Secondary schools in the country test their new cohorts in September anyway (because a lot can happen over the 6-week Summer break).  A lot of the grammar and independent schools will have already tested and filtered their new intake as far back as January.  Realistically, the only impact your child not sitting their SATs will have is on their school's placement in the National League Table... which is not being published this year.

So... if it's that unimportant, why don't we just scrap them permanently?

I hear you.  It is a bit of a tough one to defend, to be fair, but I don't think they should be scrapped altogether.  I know the KS3 SATs were canned (because they were considered too close to the GCSEs... which look to be in danger themselves), and the KS1 SATs have been diluted down to a shadow of their former self (I don't have a problem with that)... but look at what's (gradually) replacing them: baseline tests for 5-year-olds.  Admittedly, nothing has replaced the KS3 SATs, but as I said, they have the GCSEs to act as an assessment to the end of a Key Stage of learning.

The Government need a way to justify the public money spent on schools.  The SATs are a way of doing that.  It's a shame but the official intended outcomes of the tests are to:

  • hold schools accountable for the attainment and progress made by their pupils
  • inform parents and secondary schools about the performance of individual pupils
  • enable benchmarking between schools, as well as monitoring performance locally and nationally

(Standards and Testing Agency, 2014)

That's it.  I shudder to think of the possible replacements (be under no illusion, if the SATs go, they will be replaced and it's rarely with something less onerous).  

The frustrating thing is that we do need to know what the children have learned by the end of Key Stage 2, and how well the schools are delivering the curriculum.  Whatever side of the political debate you're on, you can't deny that public money is spent on education (not enough, too much, just the right amount?  I'm not here to say) and as such, the public have a right to know how much value that money is getting.  How else can you ascribe value if not through performance and quantifiable results?

I'm actually asking!  I'd love to hear your thoughts on that one.  

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Having said that... the SATs don't have to stay as they are.  Too many schools place immense pressure on teachers and children (and parents, come to that) to outperform and excel.  I've always told my classes the truth: the SATs are a measure of progress for the school; not for them.  I've encouraged the children to do their best for themselves and to enjoy it.  

And believe or not... they do.  I've never had any tears or tantrums.  I've never had a child miss school for being ill through stress.  I've never treated the SATs as life-or-death, make-or-break monsters to conquer.  We've just had fun and ensured that, all year long, we are learning.

Anyway, all of that was to say that there are no Key Stage 2 SATs this year.  However, if you would like to know how your child would have done, I can help.  Get in touch for a free (depending on the level of feedback you're after) link to last year's SATs papers and some information on how to 'administer' your own assessment.  It won't be official but it will be as close as you can get for this academic year.

Just before I go...
I've used the phrase Key Stage a lot this week.  Now, I usually write for teachers, so they know what I'm talking about.  If you are wondering what Key Stages are; where they came from; what they actually mean, check out my post next week.  I'll be diving into the fun world of Education Philosophy and the origins of these phrases: Unlocking the Key Stages will be posted next Wednesday!

Look after yourselves and hug your children!

air hugs

Carl Headley-Morris

Are you sitting comfortably? Then move.

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