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, gov.uk 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