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Thursday, 20 February 2020

A little something different...

Ever wondered if it might be fun to embark on an MA? I decided that this week I would share an essay with you that I had to write recently. We weren't given a lot of time; we were given even less support! This isn't me complaining about the course, it's me explaining that I had no idea about the level my academic writing had to be. My undergrad degree is in English Literature and Creative Writing, where we could pretty much read a bunch of books then write whatever we felt we could prove.

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This is a whole different ball game.

Anyway, I'm not expecting you to read it all, although it is interesting. I'm putting here to show what is expected (this particular piece was not formally marked - it was a jolly practice piece. A compulsory, jolly practice piece. It's also only 1000 words, so it's pretty much nothing as far as FE is concerned. I am currently polishing a couple of 4000-word essays so that I can get cracking on a 2000-, 3000- and 5000-word set of papers. Then it's just the 20,000 words for the dissertation.

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I'm going to say my usual thank-you up here because it'll just look weird after the references. So thanks for clicking on the link and reading this far. Kudos if you read further. I've been contacted by a couple of people on Twitter about appearing on their blog soon, so look out for that. And have a great week!
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Can a Legacy be Compete?  Questioning Wells’ Trinity 

Lave and Wenger said that learning was ‘not a separate and independent activity, but an integral aspect of participation in any “community of practice.”’(Lave and Wenger, 1991).  They were talking about children but this neatly summarises how Wells’s paper treats the work of Piaget, Vygotsky and Dewey.  Indeed, it is because of this paper that I find myself with a newfound appreciation of Piaget’s influence on education as a whole and in particular on the psychology of Vygotsky (and Dewey for that matter).  Each theorist built on the ideas of the previous and as Wells said, ‘there is no expert’ (Wells et al., 2000).  

What is striking about Vygostkian ideas is how neatly they fit within contemporary education even all these decades later.  For Vygotsky, language ‘was the defining human tool, the one that supported the intersubjectivity that made abstract reflection itself possible’ (Wertsch, 1985), that is to say (by my interpretation at least) talking about something is essential if we are to learn about it.  In the paper, we read about Vygotsky’s ‘Community of Inquiry’ (2000: 13); ‘dialogic knowledge-building’ (p.24); and ‘inquiry-oriented curriculum’ (p.14), all of which are ideas from the early 20th century, and we could just as easily be reading a modern CPD document about Talk for Writing (Corbett and Strong, 2011) and the Creative Curriculum (Eisner, 1990).  Alas, in his paper, Wells cites another startling similarity between the two eras, that being that the education system we currently have is (largely) still reminiscent of the one ‘that we inherited from the industrial age’ (2000: 2).  I suppose this is why the Vygotskian and Deweyian, and even Piagetian ideas seem so relevant today - they are yet to be fully realised!

Wells picks up on this and recognises that:

change necessarily starts within the activity systems currently in place, in particular classrooms, schools and school districts, it is just as important to encourage the participants in these local communities to become agents of change through trying to improve the activity systems in which their development takes place (2000: 7).

‘Be the change you want to see happen’(Lorrance, 1978) seems to be the rallying cry for Vygotsky and those who came after him, like Dewey.   In discussing pedagogical evolution, Wells suggests that ‘it would be difficult to improve on [Dewey’s] ideas’ (Wells et al., 2000: 10).  It is true that Dewey took Vygotsky’s ideas and opened them up to the wider scope of society.  As Susan Mayer points out:

[Dewey] held that the children of democracies must be apprenticed into collaborative meaning-making processes; they must be allowed to appropriate and reinvent, in terms that they can understand, the practical methods and processes currently in use within their wider society. (Mayer, 2008: 7)

However, Wells’ treatment of Dewey implies that the progression of pedagogy ended there.  While this may be appropriate within the context of a paper discussing only Piaget, Vygotsky and Dewey, it seems to be ignoring a further key player in the eponymous ‘legacy’ of which Wells writes.  Just as Vygotsky built on Piaget, and Dewey built on Vygotsky, so Dewey was built upon by Bruner. 

Wells barely mentions Bruner. This is a bit of a misstep, not least because Dewey was a contemporary of Vygotsky’s and therefore can hardly be said to be ‘building on the legacy.’  Indeed, I think it is difficult to fully appreciate Vygotsky (or Dewey) unless you look at Bruner (in much the same way that I learned to appreciate Piaget through reading about Vygotsky).  Vygotsky took Piaget’s understanding of cognitive development stages and went on to lay the groundwork for a dynamic, creative, didactic learning environment. Dewey expanded upon this by introducing a more pragmatic approach and introducing the idea of social learning beyond the classroom.  But it is Bruner who brings it all together.  

Bruner’s views on the importance of culture enhance Vygotsky’s (and Piaget’s, and Dewey’s) ideas in a way that takes them one step further.  He could not see ‘how a psychological theory of cognitive development’(Bruner and University Professor Jerome Bruner, 1966) dealt with the impact that a child’s culture had on them and their learning.  He agreed with Dewey in his ‘criticism against a mechanistic view of the human mind’ (Takaya, 2008: 5) but also believed that people ‘become what they are [...] by internalizing culture.’ (2008: 5)  This internalization, he argued, only happened through social interaction and discursive practices (through a ‘toolkit of culture’(2008: 5)) at school. 

In the years following 1980, Bruner began to move beyond Dewey, and ideas of what education can achieve, or should be, evolved yet further.  

Education must [...] seek to develop [...] so that the individual is capable of going beyond the cultural ways of [their] social world. (Bruner, 1979: 116) 

Bruner’s theory expands to four key areas:

  1. predisposition towards learning
  2. the ways in which a body of knowledge can be structured so that it can be most readily grasped by the learner
  3. the most effective sequences in which to present material
  4. the nature and pacing of rewards and punishments. Good methods for structuring knowledge should result in simplifying, generating new propositions, and increasing the manipulation of information. (, n.d.)

All of which could be found in a successful, modern classroom where learning is active and the children’s participation in their own progression is at the forefront (see the research into ‘flipped classrooms’ by Zainuddin and Perera, who found that ‘students in the flipped learning environment were more competent’; ‘were able to control their learning outcomes’ and ‘fostered better peer interaction and autonomous learning skills’ (Zainuddin and Perera, 2019).

Legacies grow.  By their very nature, they must either remain incomplete or fade into obsolescence.  It is for this reason that I think discussions and critiques of the originators of the ‘community of practice’ would be incomplete without perhaps a little more focus on a theorist who at least lived to see collaborative approaches to education in a world where communities of practice can include colleagues literally half the world away via Skype calls and Google Docs.  To side-bar Bruner (as Wells seems to have done) seems short-sighted. Particularly as he offers that Vygotsky’s ‘most important legacy’ (Wells et al., 2000: 24) was that classrooms and schools should be environments ‘in which teachers and students participate together’(2000: 24).  

Wertsch JV (1985) Vygotsky and the Social Formation of Mind. Harvard University Press.

Zainuddin Z and Perera CJ (2019) Exploring students’ competence, autonomy and
relatedness in the flipped classroom pedagogical model. Journal of Further and Higher
Education 43(1). Routledge: 115–126.

You Da Best
You read the whole thing!  Go you!!

Saturday, 15 February 2020

Top 5 podcasts

Since most of the UK are either just finishing a half-term or just starting one, this week's post is going to be a little more concise than usual.  No, really.  Even for me!

I was once at a CPD event (career progression for those of you outside the UK) that centred around social media.  It was very interesting.  The host was suggesting such radical things as not paying for a school website in favour of having a Facebook page instead (which makes a lot of sense).  It was where I was first introduced to Tweetdeck (if you're on Twitter and you haven't used Tweetdeck, you have to check it out -

Anyway, it was at this event that a lady spoke up and said, in a rather defeated way:

"I barely have time to do my actual job.  How am I supposed to keep up with social media as well?  It's not fair."

And that got me thinking about how I keep up with educational things outside of the classroom (admittedly this year it's been a lot easier!).  And that led to the podcasts I listen to.  So this week, I am sharing 

My Top 
Podcasts for Teachers!

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Seriously?  It's a top 5, people!  Scroll down!

These are not exclusively education podcasts because, honestly, I find them dull.  They are the podcasts I listen to that spark joy and renew my enthusiasm for teaching.  They are presented in no particular order.

1. No Such Thing as a Fish
(~45 minutes)
NSTaaF is a weekly podcast where the hosts (all researchers for BBC2's QI) explore fascinating facts.  Each episode is crammed with so much humour and information that you will want to amaze your class with.  Unfortunately, there is a little bit of language so it would not be appropriate to play for younger children, which is a shame because it would make excellent Friday afternoon listening.  

2. Something Rhymes with Purple
(~30 minutes)
If you're a fan of words then this weekly podcast is a must.  Suzie Dent, of  Countdown fame, and Gyles Brandreth delve into the origins of words and phrases.  It's an etymologist's dream and it's very funny.  Again, it would be so good to play in class but Gyles is a bit of a potty-mouth and they have dedicated episodes to swearing and certain body parts that would be very inappropriate.  Best keep it to the car on the way in!

3. Inside Exams
(~35 minutes)
This actually is an academic one... but don't let that put you off!  Each week, Secondary maths teacher Craig Barton takes an exam-related question and heads off to AQA to interview the relevant person.  Topics covered have ranged from creating grade boundaries, to deciding what questions will feature on exams, to the decisions on vocabulary... It's better than I'm making it sound.  Granted, it's more Secondary than Primary but the insight into the examination and policy procedure is useful and enlightening.

4. Conversations with People Who Hate Me (~50 minutes)
I was pleasantly surprised with this one.  Each week, Dylan (a YouTuber of whom I had never heard) introduces a vitriolic comment he has received from someone in relation to content he has created.  The comments are quite harsh, often personal, and usually cruel.  He then has a phone conversation with these people to explore why they felt the need to leave such a comment.  What I like about it is that it is a very open conversation where neither side is trying to educate or convert the other, they are simply trying to understand.  I have not heard an episode yet where common ground has not been found.  This podcast would be fantastic for school... where it not for some of the language used.  Perhaps for older children with a warning at the beginning.  It is so good for conflict resolution ideas and PSHCe and honestly, just to hear some reasonable discussions in this time of such diametrically opposed opinions.

5. Start with This
(30 minutes)
This one is interesting.  It's from the writers of Welcome to Night Vale, another very good, but rather niche, podcast (I suggested it to my wife and she managed to get through about five minutes before turning it off completely!).  However, unlike Night Vale, SWT has the two writers discuss their creative processes.  Each month they discuss a different area of writing and end with two activities: something to consume and something to create.  I have used these ideas when teaching and even for my own personal writing.  They can be a bit hit and miss because the chief focus is writing for podcasts but everything is adaptable.  While I wouldn't use it for whole-class projects, I think it is easily recommendable as a deeper-learning activity for your more able writers.

Honourable mentions
Only on BBC Sounds, this is where I get all my news for the week.  It's less depressing than the actual bulletins!
Niche.  Quirky.  Lovecraftian.  I really enjoy WtNV.  It's a bi-monthly narrative podcast that makes you think about what you saw out of the corner of your eye...
Another BBC Sounds exclusive, this one is very hit-and-miss.  Radio 4 comedy can be laugh-out-loud funny... at times.  This is a convenient way to sample a little bit of everything.
I found this one quite by chance and I became a little bit hooked.  It's just four people with paper and some pens who create escape room puzzles.  Some are ingenious; some are obvious.  I think it's a great idea though and could easily be transferred into a very rewarding term of narrative work in the classroom.

That's it!  I promised brevity and gosh darn it, I will deliver on that promise this week.

Have a wonderful and deserved week off (if you have a week off this week; if not, treat yourself to an early hometime) and thanks for reading!  Please do share the blog with everyone you think will enjoy it and do contact me if there is anything you want me to write about.
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Carl Headley-Morris


Friday, 7 February 2020

Anybody struggling to get children reading?

An examination of inclusion in UK state schools. This is the title of the paper I am supposed to be writing at the moment. Apparently, I am a little distracted. Too distracted to write with academic criticality. So instead...

Getting Children to Read!

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Download my reading chain template here (Google Doc)
Download the pdf here
Every book a child reads, they add a link to their chain
Include an incentive for completion goals

I love reading but... primary school, it was kind of killed for me because I had to read the set texts (lots of Biff and Chips - my poor brother had to trudge through Roger Red-hat - his enthusiasm was killed forever).  I was lucky enough to speed through them all in year 3, giving me free rein over the school library for the remaining three years of school.  In that time I read five books.

Don't get me wrong - I really enjoyed reading; I just, sort of, didn't see the point.  I enjoyed The Demon Headmaster (way before it was an awesome TV series) and the movie novelizations of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Hook.  I just didn't like the forced nature of primary school reading.  Also, I remember being very disappointed that the school librarian had never heard of The Neverending Story, insisting that I was being 'silly'.  Grrrr....

Anyway, since I knew I wanted to be a teacher from the age of 7 (I know, I'm a loser, @ me), I vowed that I would change the way children were allowed to read in class.

This isn't rocket science...
... it really isn't.  I'm sure you're already letting children read wherever they feel comfortable - on chairs; the wrong way on chairs; under the table; outside (weather permitting)... We've all been in that awkward situation when an important visitor comes into the room just after lunch to find the entire class, adults included, strewn about the place like they have just been tossed in by a gigantic petulant child. 

So I'm not going to write about the way we let children read.  Instead, I am going to write about how I recorded what they read.  Partly because I found myself re-reading old Ofsted reports recently (I'm not a total loser, I'm really not - it was for my MA, I swear!) and my approach was mentioned specifically as something that had 'improved attitudes to reading across the school', but mostly because it is so easy to implement and the benefits are vast.

Reading Chains!
At its simplest, the concept is this:

Children read a book.  Children review the book (no more than 50 words).  Children get a reward for every five books read.  

So many of us do this anyway.  Heck, I did this for years before I stumbled across an idea on Pinterest and decided to run with it and make it my own.  So what do I do differently?
(Mine are similar to this, but they incorporate written reviews)

... the reviews are written on slips of paper (see the links in my TL;DR), not in a book.  These slips of paper come in 10 different varieties and my rule was that the children can never do the same one twice in a row.  These range from a lot of writing to very little but they are all based on the National Curriculum reading criteria.  

... the slips need to be checked for accuracy.  In all honesty, I was only concerned with how legitimate the responses were.  There was no realistic way to check that the whole book had been read.  But it didn't matter.  I'll explain why later.  

I was working in Year 5 at the time of this particular Ofsted report, so I had some very willing volunteers mark the slips for basic grammar errors (any that weren't unacceptable were forwarded to me for final vetting - this was how I differentiated; it was enough that particular children at all; I didn't want to put them off with grammar).  

... the slips were stapled together to form a paper chain, which was displayed on a wall under a sticker that the children had decorated with their own name.

That's it.  That's the whole thing.

Oh, and also...
... incentives.  For every five successful links in the chain (review slips would be unsuccessful if they were badly written; had no name; or simply weren't full enough.  Again, all suspect slips were forwarded to me by my helpers), the child got to take a prize from my BAG OF CRAP!!!  They only got 5 seconds, to preserve the prestige and mystery of the bag's contents.  This was enough.

The Bag of Crap has had its detractors.  I have heard people say 'you shouldn't have to bribe children into reading' and the like.  To these people I say: you're right.  But no-one does something for nothing.  I don't see it as bribery, I see as encouragement.  My end goal is to get these children, even the reluctant ones, to read.  This works.

Terms and Conditions apply...
... for upper KS2 (9-11 yrs), I insisted that the books had to be either ten chapters long or at least 100 pages.  They were welcome to read anything else (Dr Suess book were very popular) and could even approach me with a deal (five mini-books, totalling 100 pages gained them one reading slip - I'm not a monster!) but if they wanted to earn a link their chain, thems were the rules.

I also insisted on a minimum number of links per 6-week term.  I figured that, with the expected 20 minutes of reading every night for homework, and an average of one hour of dedicated reading time in school, they should get through at least one full book every two weeks.  

Did this help me as a teacher?
You bet it did.  I had a visual record of my class's reading achievement.  I could tell, at a glance, who was excelling and who was falling behind.  If I suspected some inconsistencies, I would ask for the child to read to me to five minutes to assess the level of books they were reading.  If children were eating up books from the school library, I brought in more challenging books from home.  And it worked.  Everybody was reading more than they ever had.  Best of all, when it came to the end of the school year, the children wanted to wear their reading chains as scarves.

Full disclosure...
... I coupled this with a very strict home-reading regimen.  Every day I would expect to see that the children had read at home.  I would need pages from and to, coupled with an adult's signature.  If this was missing for more than two days in a week, there were consequences.  There were also times when I had to speak with parents about the importance of listening to their child read.  I was pretty lenient, I accepted reading to a sibling as independent reading.  For this to work, I needed to rely on my amazing TA.  Luckily, she was fully on board and asked for her own reading chain to be displayed!

Whole school?
Yup.  I established it in my class for a term, to ensure that I had ambassadors who could go to other classes and show them how to do things, even do the checking and stapling for a few weeks.

After my class, I went for the most enthusiastic teacher, who was in Year 2 (6-7 yr olds).  It's a scheme that takes a bit of effort so there is no point going after nay-sayers right away; you need some traction first.  The combination of the Y2 teacher's enthusiasm, my ambassadors, and the novelty of coming to my classroom to receive their prize (I was responsible for prizes for the whole school - this way I could keep an informal track on which year groups were reading and which weren't!) meant that by the end of the Spring Term, Reading Chains were established in Years 2 and 5.  I then introduced it to Year 4.  This was a slightly resistant class for various reasons but since my class was running itself by now, I could co-run it in Year 4.  

This worked out great because it meant that the following school year, the classes I had missed would inherit children who were already invested in the scheme.  It really didn't take long for it to become second-nature to every child.  And, like I said, Ofsted loved it.

The links for my templates are above - feel free to download and adapt as you see fit.  Thanks for reading this - now I really have to go and write that paper.  Sigh.  I hope you're all having a great time - the evenings are getting a little brighter bit by bit!  I would like to leave you with a poem that one of my 9-year-olds wrote last week:

The moon is a stubborn dog,
Grabbing, gripping, grappling,
Tearing apart the light
Day by day
There's nothing.
But then,
Bit by bit,
Bite by bite,
The light... comes back.

I love teaching poetry.  Maybe that'll be next week's focus?  Have fun, y'all!

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Carl Headley-Morris


Update on resources for home-learning!

Hello everyone!  I hope we are all okay and healthy.  If you, or anyone you know, is affected by COVID-19 then you have my sympathies and I...