Sorry, Folks. Teaching Grammar Doesn’t Stifle Creativity

The idea that teaching grammar stifles creativity is a damaging myth, made all too believable by the DfE’s daft testing regime.

“Teaching grammar stifles children’s creativity.”

“Instead of teaching grammar, we should teach children to write imaginatively and creatively.”

The truth of these two statements is accepted by many people, both inside and outside of the current British primary education system. I’ve come dangerously close to expressing such views myself in the past. However, I have come to believe that the first statement is flat-out wrong and, because the first statement is wrong, the second statement is illogical.

What teachers too often mean when they say “teaching grammar stifles children’s creativity” is “I don’t know how to make teaching grammar fun” or possibly even “I don’t know how to teach grammar at all.” Understanding how our language works equips children to use it in a richer variety of ways. It enables them to rearrange and reword sentences to create different effects and suit different registers. It encourages them to play with the conventions of language to give their writing precision and nuance. It empowers them, when communicating their ideas and sharing the contents of their imaginations, to do so in vivid technicolour. Of course, teaching children about grammar in this way is not the same as simply preparing them for the Year 6 Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling Test and here an important distinction must be made. The testing regime in primary schools has impoverished the English curriculum and it continues to do so but that is not a valid argument against teaching children about grammar.

If you don’t believe me, ask yourself this question: when teachers tell us that teaching grammar stifles creativity, what do they generally advocate doing instead? Often, the answer is a genre-focused writing task based on a book they’ve read, e.g. write a diary entry for the Big Bad Wolf, write a news report about the events of The Highwayman, write in role as Jim Jarvis from Street Child. Now, please don’t misunderstand me: there is absolutely a time and a place for these sorts of activities…but do they really represent a gold standard in fostering creativity and encouraging children to be imaginative? To be done well, they usually require extensive modelling from the teacher and clear success criteria that set out the “correct” way to achieve the objective. Yes, they often require the children to engage initially with a well-written text but a well-taught grammar lesson would do this too. In fact, these tasks often require more creativity and imagination on the part of the teacher than they do from the pupil and here I think there is an awkward truth to confront. When some teachers suggest that genre-focused writing tasks are more enjoyable and creative for the children than well-delivered grammar activities, what they actually mean is that they’re more enjoyable and creative for them. The two things are not always the same.

Compare these genre-focused tasks to a very simple grammar starter activity: writing a main clause on the board and asking children to suggest a subordinate clause that could be added to it. This is boring, right? It stifles creativity and makes school dull, surely? Try it and watch what happens. The children will want to make their sentences funny. They’ll want to write sentences about the topics that interest them. They’ll make the task their own and they’ll express themselves because that’s what children do. In fact, they’ll express themselves far more thoroughly than they ever could by writing a report about The Highwayman. The sentences they write will be theirs- from them and by them.

Teaching grammar properly means teaching children how to say exactly what they want to say- it gives them the tools to communicate what’s on their minds and express what’s in their hearts. Because most of us were taught little to no grammar when we were at school ourselves, it requires us as teachers to demonstrate the sort of open-minded engagement with new learning that we expect of our pupils every day. It requires a shift in mindset and, yes, it can be quite difficult. However, none of that is altered by pretending that teaching grammar stifles creativity. When we continue to peddle this myth, we merely betray the limits of our own imaginations.

Doors of Perception: how our approach to lesson observations is harmed by our childish attitudes to classroom doors

One of the biggest dilemmas facing school leaders surrounds how best to scrutinise the teaching in their school. Some prefer to conduct long but infreqeuent scheduled observations. This means that teachers are forewarned that someone will be coming to watch their lesson and they’re able to “pull out all the stops.” The potential drawbacks here are obvious: teachers who are able to “put on a show” for one hour a year may come out of such a process looking better than those who continue at their usual reliable but steady level of effectiveness throughout the process. It may tell observers little about what “normally happens” in that classroom and potentially rewards the wrong things. At the other end of the scale, some school leaders prefer a policy of regular unannounced drop-ins. Each visit feels less individually significant but it can create a strange workplace culture- making teachers feel like naughty children who might have their antics checked by the “grown-ups” in SLT at any moment. In most schools I’ve encountered during my career, getting this balance right has proved a challenge.

I think the solution is very simple. Studies in transactional analysis suggest that healthy workplace relationships involve colleagues interacting with one another on an “adult to adult” basis. Whenever these relationships start to resemble a “parent to child” dynamic, the seeds of resentment, defiance and alienation are sewn. Because most school leaders start out as teachers, they can sometimes get this very wrong when they become managers- I certainly didn’t always get it right when I was a deputy head. I’m now back in middle leadership as an English subject leader so I’m a class teacher myself but I also have a responsibility to know what’s going on in all the other classes in the school. This means I have an interest in enabling a strong culture of peer-to-peer observation, as well as enabling those with leadership roles to gather evidence about their area of responsibility. However, I also have a rank-and-file class teacher’s perspective on things. Pondering these different priorities has led me to what I think is quite a good idea. Here goes.

Imagine that a school adopted this simple five-point policy on classroom observations:

1.) Observations of teaching are short but frequent
2.) All teachers are encouraged to watch one another (including those with less experience and seniority watching those with more.)
3.) Anyone can drop in unannounced and watch what’s going on in a lesson if the door is open.
4.) Whenever a teacher doesn’t wish to be observed, they can close their classroom door.
5.) Teachers are encouraged to keep their classroom doors open more often than not.

Why does it need to be any more complicated than that? The first of my five points will discourage set-piece firework display lessons designed only to an impress an observer. The second point emphasises that lesson observations are primarily a stimulus for dialogue between teaching professionals for their mutual benefit and development. The third and fourth points ensure that if a teacher is trying to deal with a sensitive problem or wants to try out a new idea without knowing how it will go or is even just having a an unusually bad day, they’re given the space and professional respect they need. The fifth point ensures that teachers can’t use the fourth point to take the piss.

I guarantee that the vast majority of teachers would respond to this policy by keeping their doors open the vast majority of the time, yet the culture of fear that stalks many schools in many teachers’ minds would be neutralised by the reassurance that they can close the door whenever they need to. Not just senior leaders and subject leaders, but all teachers could drop in and out of each other’s classrooms and discussions about learning would become more authentic. Pedagogical conversations would be based on what everyone knew was really happening in the school, not on teachers trying to make themselves sound impressive or avoid being “found out.” Of course, there might be the odd teacher every now and then who would keep their door resolutely shut and a conversation might have to be had about that. Schools would probably also need a more robust policy when it came to teachers who were clearly underperforming. However, the goal for most of the teachers in a school should surely  be to create a collegiate “adult-to-adult” culture of shared professional support and dialogue.

I don’t think this issue is as difficult as many school leaders think. We just need to open our minds and, at least for a majority of the time, our doors.

Play’s the Thing – Even in Key Stage 2

Tim Paramour

In October 2013 around 400 pupils arrived at their primary school in North London to find that a UFO had crashed into their playground. The object, which appeared to be some sort of spacecraft marked with what looked like an alien language, had ripped up pieces of tarmac and was now wedged firmly in the ground. The whole area was cordoned off and a local police officer guarded the scene with a grave look on his face. A man dressed in a radiation suit was apparently searching for evidence. Astonished, the pupils were led inside the building and asked to write what they thought the best explanation for what was happening.

For some of the children, well-versed in the conventions of science-fiction and fantasy, this was an opportunity for their imaginations to let rip: to bring the excitement and drama that had hitherto existed only in stories into the…

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The Mr Spock Fallacy

There is nothing illogical about fun, humour and forming good human relationships- and there’s nothing cool about being bad at maths.

I haven’t watched Channel 4’s Countdown since it was presented by Richard Whiteley and Carol Vorderman. Apparently one of the presenters is now someone called Rachel Riley and all I know about her is that she wrote this rather marvelous article in this week’s TES. Maths has an image problem in British culture. Perpetuating this problem is a national sin many otherwise very clever people frequently end up committing usually, I suspect, without really thinking about it. For most of us, our own experiences of maths lessons at school were such that we see learning the subject as a totally different process to learning more creative or expressive skills such as speaking, writing, drawing or debating. Perhaps because of the way these other disciplines are traditionally tested (and the knock-on effect this has on the way they are taught), many people have come to commit what I call the “Mr Spock Fallacy” in their attitudes to maths and I will need to explain this in more detail.

In the original series of Star Trek, Captain James T. Kirk of the USS Enterprise had two main confidants: Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (an endearingly flawed, emotional character who for many people was the most relatable character on the show) and Mr Spock: an extra-terrestrial from the planet Vulcan. In Star Trek, one of the characteristics of Vulcans that distinguishes them from humans is their devotion to logic above all else. Yet the conclusions Star Trek drew about what prizing logic would mean are very strange. For  a start, Mr Spock is almost completely humourless. It’s repeatedly suggested that this is because humour is somehow “illogical.” Is it? Humour must have evolved for a reason, it seems to enhance the quality of our lives and many of the best jokes require clever sleights of logical thinking in order to be understood. Mr Spock rarely shows affection to other people, he rarely seems to want to have fun and often appears visibly annoyed by the frivolity of his crewmates when they engage in such things. Again, no convincing reason is ever offered as to why these dispositions should follow from a commitment to being logical.

This perception reflects a problematic bias many of us have if we grow up in the UK. You may have been familiar with the characters I’ve discussed for years and never thought to question those assumptions about Mr Spock before. I know I didn’t for a very long time, growing up watching Star Trek reruns avidly on BBC2. This is because the depiction of Mr Spock in Star Trek conforms to the story we have told ourselves repeatedly about being logical, mathematical or scientific and so no part of our brain usually feels the need to challenge it. We have come to instinctively associate being logical with being cold, unimaginative and serious and we have cast creativity, enjoyment and expression as being somehow illogical. To say you are “rubbish at maths” is like saying “I’m more like Dr McCoy than Mr Spock.” Of course all of this ignores the fact that Dr McCoy is a doctor and would have had to study maths and science extensively just to be accepted into Starfleet Medical! But the serious point is a significant one: creativity, imagination, making jokes, having fun and expressing our love for one another are entirely logical. To succeed in maths is merely to better-understand the world in which they rightly (and logically) flourish.

The challenge for educators is to break down the associations we’ve built up between maths and seriousness/coldness (as opposed to between arts subject and fun/imagination.) Some ways to do this are:

  • using role play in maths to demonstrate how it can support creative or imaginative enterprises such as starting a small business, measuring up and building something you’ve designed or planning a fundraising event.
  • encouraging pupils to have a debate in maths about a controversial topic using statistics in a rigorous, meaningful way to support their arguments.
  • Providing pupils with open-ended questions that lead them to aesthetically-pleasing mathematical conclusions such as producing a golden spiral, using geometry to create satisfying shapes or finding equations that can be plotted as lines on a four-quadrant coordinate grid to form a particular image.
  • Exploring the way maths occurs in nature (this is a fun place to start.)
  • Prioritising the sort of open-ended discussion that has sometimes been the preserve of arts subjects in the past by requiring pupils to explain their methods, assess one another’s conclusions, find a faster way to a given answer or testing the hypothesis of another learner.
  • Bringing more fun to maths lessons with resources about topics that interest pupils, competitive games and open-ended problem solving tasks.

There are many more examples and please feel free to leave your own suggestions in the comments. Of course, all of the above rely on the solid teaching of basic mathematical principles so they can be applied. This will often mean learning by rote, working independently and demonstrating understanding through measurable assessments with right and wrong answers. But if we want to create a generation of competent mathematicians and improve our national conversation about STEM subjects in general, we need to challenge some of our assumptions about how different types of subjects should be taught and assessed. Of course the problem affects both sexes but, in my experience, it is a bigger problems for girls than for boys. I believe addressing this problem effectively would be a great way to promote gender equality and yield more female scientists and engineers in the future.

Just as learning to write well requires a rigorous body of knowledge about spelling, grammar and punctuation, learning to do maths well requires a body of knowledge about place value, calculation and mathematical notation. But just as learning to write then lends itself to poetry, persuasion and storytelling, maths lends itself to hypothesizing, debating and exploring possibilities. Being rubbish at maths is no more something to be proud of than being rubbish at writing. If you’re creative, imaginative and free-thinking, your ability to express those attributes can only be enhanced by being good at maths.

We must challenge the Mr Spock Fallacy in ourselves and others. Being bad at maths doesn’t make you more fun or more of a “people person.” It just makes you bad at maths. It’s highly illogical, Jim.

After the Flood: The Future of School Funding

I was recently asked why I hadn’t written anything on the school funding crisis, given that it is the biggest emergency currently facing Britain’s schools. I guess there are two reasons: the first is that even resolving that immediate emergency isn’t going to save our schools unless we solve the other problems too (most obviously the teacher exodus and an assessment system that simply doesn’t work.) The second is that it is almost too obvious to write about: it should go without saying that, if we want good schools for our children, we have to pay for them. I fear the time to avert crisis has passed so, rather than howling at the moon, I want to consider how best we should look to rebuild from here in the future.

Schools face a real terms cut in budgets of 8% on average by 2019-20. That may not sound like a lot until you understand that schools tend to spend upward of 80% of their budget on staffing alone. Unless you expect a school to cut its budget on absolutely everything else by 40%, this means staff redundancies at a time when many schools already feel understaffed in the face of some of the challenges they face. Cuts to other local authority services, especially in areas such as Childrens Services and family support, mean that schools are having to take on a wider range of functions to support their most vulnerable families. At the same time staff costs are increasing and added burdens like the apprenticeship levy are eating away even further at the budget.

Most schools cannot address these sorts of cuts without significantly reducing the strength of provision to their learners. The “low-hanging fruits” of efficiency savings are already picked. The government’s response is simply to deny that school’s budgets are being cut at all and point to their spending on wasteful vanity projects such as selective free schools as evidence that they are investing properly in education. By the time there is any realistic of a political sea change, schools will be standing in a landscape transformed. With such tremendous pressures on their budgets and the communities they serve, there is simply no way our schools can compete with more successful countries in the OECD’s international rankings in the way the government hoped. When the next set of PISA tables are published in 2019 it will be clear that the agenda begun by Gove and continued by Theresa May’s government has failed and that schools are deteriorating. At this point campaigners and opponents of government policy must be ready to take advantage of public demand for a new approach and new investment. The old world has fallen. We must now turn our attention to how we can best rebuild our education system when the flood waters start to subside.

Something we must acknowledge is that when education was more generously-funded a decade ago, money wasn’t always well-spent. ICT systems were often installed in schools without appropriate training or technical support needed for them to make a sustained impact. Additional adults were sometimes appointed as “solutions” to difficult pupils or groups and, while some of these individuals were worth their weight in gold, the contribution of others was sometimes more questionable. The government frequently published detailed, prescriptive documents that did little for schools than increase their administrative burden and which must have made someone a small fortune in printing costs. Teacher training in England and Wales was atrocious. The content of the PGCE course was concerned more with learning acronyms and the names of strategy documents than with pedagogy. Teachers with vast gaps in their subject knowledge or even a lack of proficient English were sometimes waved through with little additional support. In-service training was mostly composed of isolated courses completely disconnected from teachers’ classroom practice. There is so much that can cause disagreement in education: to what extent should children be segregated by ability? What should be the balance struck between different subjects? How much priority should be given to language and STEM subjects over sport, practical skills and creative arts? But there is surely one point on which almost everyone can agree: good education needs good teachers. In future, that’s where the investment needs to be.

In Finland, that beacon of effective education in Europe, all teachers have the equivalent of a masters qualification. They pursue tailored programmes of professional development throughout their careers so they feel able to teach all the necessary aspects of a rich, varied curriculum- including using those expensive ICT systems in a way that will actually benefit learners. Finnish teachers are well-remunerated for their work and as a consequence their best and brightest young adults are often motivated to pursue a career in teaching.

This is an ideal we should all be able to get behind. This government isn’t spending enough on education and a rough couple of years lie ahead for our schools. The last Labour government spent more generously but not always on the right priorities. When the pendulum swings again and the debate on education moves into its next stage, let’s make sure the arguments we’re making are smarter than ever before. Public support for more investment in schools should be easily obtained, but we must ensure we argue for investment in the right priorities, and this time build a system that can’t be torn down so easily.

Inclusion Confusion

Should we stop talking about “behavioural needs” in primary schools?

Inclusion is something of a sacred cow in British education nowadays and this piece will divide opinion considerably. Before I begin, I think I need to state a few things clearly. The basic principle behind the Inclusion agenda is noble and good. When my parents were children, their peers with physical disabilities were often educated in separate institutions because many mainstream schools couldn’t meet their needs. A consensus has emerged since then that barriers to children attending mainstream schools should be removed and this is right. Huge progress has been made on making schools accessible to disabled people (though more work can and must be done.)

During my career I have had the privilege to help children with serious physical and other disabilities flourish at primary school. I fear for the future of the provision that facilitated this given the significant real-terms cuts to school funding currently being undertaken by the government. However, my experience has also convinced me that we have spread the “inclusion” net slightly too widely. At some point we have to distinguish between people’s needs and their choices- and that includes children.

I believe that it has been unhelpful to describe behavioural difficulties as “behavioural needs” because it has blurred the distinction between someone’s needs and their choices. Especially in primary school, when these issues can most easily be turned around, staff have been encouraged to use the language of Special Educational Needs to tackle these difficulties and this hasn’t always been appropriate. Parts of the Inclusion agenda, especially in the way it is applied to learners with behavioural difficulties, are used by the right to justify under-funding in education and by the left to avoid facing up to some difficult realities. This is causing some members of the public to lose faith in comprehensive education altogether. The alarming lack of resistance to new grammar schools we are currently seeing is one consequence. For the sake of our children, both sides of the political divide need to come to a realistic settlement.

Working in primary schools in and around London for eleven years was an enormous privilege. Even now, despite the awful assessments overshadowing Year 6, the experience children in an English state primary school have now is so much better than what most British adults were subjected to themselves: more rigorous, more fun and more effective. Most primary school teachers I have worked with are incredibly good at managing pupil behaviour. Imagine trying to keep control in a room full of the same 30 adults all day, every day for a year. Doing that with children isn’t easier- it’s actually considerably harder. But they do it. Day in, day out, your children’s teachers successfully command their domains, justly and benevolently for the most part.

Sometimes, however, a child arrives at school who routinely behaves in a way that undermines the learning of other pupils, even after all conventional means to address the problem have been exhausted. I’m not talking about children who are usually a bit cheeky or behave badly as part of a particular group. I’m talking about the tiny minority who simply can’t handle being in a mainstream school without resorting to violence or other equally disruptive behaviour. In eleven years in three schools I can think of thirteen such children out of well over a thousand and, if that’s representative, we’re talking about just over 1%. Often but not always as a consequence of their family background (addiction, cultural misunderstandings, poverty, domestic violence, you name it), turning them around in a mainstream school is an expensive, time-consuming, disruptive endeavour that is often, sadly, highly unlikely to succeed even for that child, let alone for the other children from whom the teacher’s energy is diverted. For the other learners in the school, it can be very damaging. The boundaries set by schools and parents are one of the most important things children have. If they see these being constantly undermined, it erodes their confidence and can have a detrimental impact on their behaviour. This is me, a waffly edu-blogger, describing what the guy down the pub calls a “bad influence.” It’s an awful thing to say, and it sounds like I’m writing children off (I’m not) but we must see the bigger picture. For public consent in an inclusive education agenda to be maintained, we have to convince the majority of helpful, supportive parents that it isn’t going to negatively impact their own children. This is something we have sometimes failed to do and the result is public opinion swinging towards the cruel crudity of selective education.

It’s not actually the fault of the schools. In some local authorities, a school, especially a primary school, is pretty much hung out to dry when it gets an unusually disruptive pupil. Permanent exclusions are often made almost impossible because there is simply nowhere else for the pupil to go. Academy chains are often much more willing and able to exclude, but then the pupils end up back in a local authority school and we’re back where we started. It can be extremely detrimental during an Ofsted inspection to have recent exclusions on your record. All of this means there is often, in reality, no ultimate sanction at all. We got nothing- and those troubled children know it. I’ve seen the moment some children in Key Stage 2 realise that the school’s rules are actually enforced by nothing but good will. At this point they systematically prod those boundaries, displaying their fragility for all the other children to see.

Draconian punishments and harsh discipline don’t help either. The vast majority of primary children thrive much better when the rules in their class are agreed with a friendly, approachable teacher who shows patience towards their mistakes. Anyone who worked with me knows that, despite the authoritarian tone of this piece, I always preferred gentle persuasion to scary strictness as a teacher. The problem is that sometimes a pupil comes along utterly committed to undermining this structure. They need to be given chances to change and adapt and the school should do everything it can to support that, involving its Special Educational Needs team for a period of time if appropriate. However, everyone in the school must know that, at some point, that child will be held accountable for their choices if they don’t change. Maybe one day we can find a utopian alternative to that inconvenient reality, but I think we need to park our ideals for a moment and get real: protecting the needs of the many matters more than accommodating the poor choices of one or two.

What am I proposing instead then? What should we be doing that we aren’t at present? Some local authorities, but an ever-decreasing number, operate Pupil Referral Units (PRUs.) These provide an education to the children in the area with the most challenging behaviour. They take only the most extreme cases (rightly) but usually only once they are at secondary school, by which time the problems are much harder to resolve. Pupils typically attend sessions at these institutions as visitors when problems are starting to spiral out of control in their mainstream school. If the problems persist they become permanent attendees, although in many cases they remain officially registered at the mainstream school they came from. Once effectively excluded and doing lessons at the PRU, these students are usually given targets and a roadmap back into mainstream education.

What is needed is at least one adequately-funded version of the PRU in every local authority. It needs to work with schools to identify problems quickly- even at the age of five if necessary. It needs to work hand in glove with social services to support the family and the child together. It needs to bring children in quickly but make it easy and appealing for its pupils to get back into mainstream education- so long as they start adhering to some very basic norms (respect for others, non-violence etc.) More than anything, it needs to be generously-funded and equipped to accommodate all the children who require it and to attract skilled leaders and staff. Most controversially, perhaps, referring a child to the unit must be possible without parental consent- the decision to exclude a disruptive pupil is about much more than that one child. Far from writing these children off, we should throw the kitchen sink at helping them out- all of society will benefit if we do. Meanwhile, the vast majority of children can feel safer and learn with fewer disruptions in mainstream schools. And let’s be honest here- once they’d seen one of their classmates packed off to the PRU, they might just have a renewed respect for the very reasonable boundaries in their classrooms and playgrounds.

Children value fairness more than anything else. When they see someone sabotaging their learning, they don’t think it’s fair. When they see someone getting away with doing horrible things they would never do, they rightly wonder why. Their parents wonder why as well. In order to rebuild public trust in the Inclusion Agenda, we must ensure children understand that they are ultimately accountable for their own choices. For the right, that is going to mean paying more than you might want to on supporting vulnerable families. For the left, it’s going to mean revisiting what we really mean when we talk about “Inclusion.” We can strive to accommodate every child’s needs in mainstream schools. That doesn’t mean we should tolerate all their choices.