Thursday, 12 March 2015


Here's another passage from Primary Education (1959):

"The 'Normal'

As children grow up, the differences between them increase in every way.  Even the youngest differ widely in their natural endowments, their upbringing and their experience, and these are influences which produce a great diversity of talents and temperaments among individuals and make each child a unique person.  These differences and the diversity to which they give rise are not always obvious; they can only be discovered through patient study of individual children.  Yet their discovery is supremely important for the teacher since they show how wide are the limits of normal development and how varied its forms. (...) It is quite normal for children of the same age to develop at different rates and for some children to develop quickly in some respects and more slowly in others.  A child may be more gifted in art or music than in other fields, slow in learning to talk and to read but precocious in learning to walk and in making friends.  Moreover, it is normal for a child to develop not at a steady rate from year to year, or even from month to month, but at an uneven pace.  An education which attempts to provide fully for such a diversity of aptitudes and abilities must develop practices to deal with these diversities."

All teachers know the truth of this.  Most human beings know the truth of this.  So why do we now say that all children have to reach a certain standard by a certain time?  They are even expected to move on by a certain number of 'sub-levels' each year, and some have their learning 'accelerated'.  It is normal for us all to be different.

Schools claim to celebrate difference.  My impression is that most of what they do - or is it what government wants them to do? - is aimed at making everyone the same.

The picture at the top is of a five-year-old attempting to make a bird's nest.  I posted about this some time ago, but only just found the photo.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Calm and Serenity

Here's another quote from 'Primary Education' (HMSO 1959):

'There is, in good schools, enough leisureliness to prevent the children or teachers feeling hurried.  Children of five are still slow in doing quite simple things, such as washing and going to the WC, or putting away their materials and preparing to move from one place to another.  From a sense of there being time to do what has to be done, comes a feeling of calm and serenity.  Without serenity no environment can be satisfying to a child; nor should he be forced beyond a pace at which he can go without confusion.'

When I started teaching it was just about OK to say things like that.  Nowadays people look at you as if you are crazy.  Once I taught a boy, let's call him 'A'.  He moved to the school where I was teaching from another one nearby and I met his previous teacher.  'Poor Andrew,' she said.  'He's just not very bright, I'm afraid.'  On his first day he said: 'I don't have much luck, Mr May.  My dad left, and then we had to move house and come here.  Now my dog's died.'  Then he settled down to make a model with cardboard and a roll of sellotape.

Every day after that he came to school and spent most of his time making things with cardboard and paper and sellotape.  His reading and writing weren't so hot, but if you wanted a good model 'A' was your boy.  A dozen years later I was passing through the village, stopped at the Post Office and there was 'A's mother.  'Guess what,' she said.  'He's doing engineering at 'A' level.  And he still gets through a couple of rolls of sellotape every week.'

'A' needed space and time and serenity and calm.  I'm not sure he would get them today, because he would need to progress through his levels and sub-levels on a termly and half-termly basis.

The picture is from 'The Practical Infant Teacher' (1929)  It's an example of a sentence to be used in 'the sentence method' of teaching children to read.  I am fond of the sentence method.  It is closely related to the 'look and say' method, which is how I learned to read.   More of this another time!

Friday, 13 February 2015

Suggestions for Teachers

I've given this blog a new title and a slightly new direction.  The new title is from a Norman MacCaig poem which I've written about before.  I want to share some of my favourite things from my collection of old education documents.  They remind me that English primary education used to be the envy of the world.  Occasionally I might write about other things too, like bikes or guitars or even writing.  But just now there will be regular posts about education.

In front of me now I have PRIMARY EDUCATION, subtitled "Suggestions for the consideration of teachers and others concerned with the work of Primary Schools." (1959)  How polite HMI used to be!

I read the pages of this book and find myself nodding in agreement with almost everything it says.  Don't be put off by the use of 'he' and 'his' for every child and teacher - this, from the introductory pages, still makes perfect sense to me.

The primary school should not (...) be regarded merely as a preparatory department for the subsequent stage, and the courses should be planned and conditioned, not mainly by the supposed requirements of the secondary stage, nor by the exigencies of an examination at the age of eleven, but by the needs of the child at that particular phase in his physical and mental development.

And this:

No good can come from teaching children things which have no immediate value for them, however highly their potential or prospective value may be estimated.

Handbooks of Suggestions for the Consideration of Teachers were published at intervals from 1905 until 1959.  The next passage was written in 1918, repeated in subsequent editions, and quoted again in 1959.

'The only uniformity of practice that the Board of Education desire to see in the teaching of Public Elementary Schools is that each teacher shall think for himself, and work out for himself such methods of teaching as may use his powers to the best advantage and be best suited to the particular needs and conditions of the school.  Uniformity in details of practice (except in the mere routine of school management) is not desirable even if it were attainable.  But freedom implies a corresponding responsibility in its use.

However, the teacher need not let the sense of his responsibility depress him or make him afraid to be his natural self in school.  Children are instinctively attracted by sincerity and cheerfulness; and the greatest teachers have been thoroughly human in their weakness as well as in their strength.' (Handbook 1918)

This is the heart of it.  It's why teaching was, and still can be, a great job.  But successive governments have made it far harder for a teacher to be their 'natural self'.  The principle that 'uniformity in detail is not desirable' has been ditched.  The teacher's world is dominated by the measurement of their efficiency in getting children to progress through defined benchmarks.  Instead of child-centred education we now have data-centred education.  Why did we let people tell us that child-centred education was a bad thing?   Here, to finish for this week, is the opening paragraph of Chapter 2 of the Plowden Report from 1967. The picture at the top is from the frontispiece of the report.  Not much uniformity there.

 'At the heart of the educational process lies the child. No advances in policy, no acquisitions of new equipment have their desired effect unless they are in harmony with the nature of the child, unless they are fundamentally acceptable to him.'

If you want more of this stuff, come back next week!

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Mazes (Part 3)

See Part 2 for basic maze instructions. When we did this as a class we spent a lot of time exploring the possibilities which result from the fact that, when you join two points together, as long as your line doesn't cross another line or touch it, your maze is topologically the same.  When you join those first two points you can take your line on as many diversions as you like as long as it doesn't cross or touch.  Like this:

When you enter the maze you can reach every part of it.  As long as your line doesn't touch the edge of the page you can reach every part of the page.

Mazes (Part 2)

Here's how to draw a maze.  Sorry it's taken so long!  When you have drawn the first two pictures in the sequence with the cross and the dots and the four right-angled pieces, pick two adjacent ends or dots and join them together with a bridge.  Then take the next pair of points to the right and left and join them with a bridge.  Continue as shown, but don't cross any lines, or let them touch.


Thursday, 10 January 2013

Mazes (Part 1)

As I remember it, a child came into school with one of those colouring books that have dot-to-dots and the occasional maze that you're meant to find the way through with your pencil.  We started talking about how hard it would be to design your own maze.  It ought to be easy, we thought.  Definitely easier than making a birds nest.  Though these were older children, and not the same ones.

The children quickly figured out that you needed one pathway through the maze to the objective, and lots of dead ends to fool the victim.  But it was hard to make the path through the maze un-obvious, and the dead ends were boring.  Plus, if you went wrong when you were drawing it was hard to put it right without making a mess.  So then we went out into the courtyard with every plastic and wooden brick we could borrow from other classes and made mazes using those.  They were more like winding pathways than mazes, but it was definitely fun to do and we spent a couple of afternoons outside in the sunshine doing it.

We were all thinking that a maze was something to get lost in, a place where it was hard to find your way out.  Then I came across a simple set of instructions for drawing the classical maze in the picture above.  The maze has a single pathway that goes all the way to the centre and the pathway occupies the whole of the space.  There are no dead ends and you can't get lost, but it's definitely a maze. 

So, I wondered how easy it would be to teach the children to draw one of these.  They were 6, 7 and 8 years old, so I figured the older ones could help the younger ones.  It took a couple of days, but eventually we could all do it.  It felt just like being able to do magic.  It's very like when I used to make rings and discovered that most people were completely baffled by the mystery of joining two pieces of gold together invisibly.  People would look at the mazes the children had drawn and not have a clue how they'd done it.

That was just the beginning.

(Instructions for drawing the maze coming up next time!).

Friday, 28 December 2012

BIrds' Nests

I was talking to some young teachers at school and they were asking me what it was like in the mythical times before the National Curriculum.  I started telling them about some of the things we did back then.  The funny thing is, you could still do these things today, although you would have to think of some Learning Objectives, write them up in big writing and nail them to the classroom wall before you began.  This might possibly remove a little of the fun.  You do not always know what you are going to learn when you start to do something!  So here is the first in a series of small adventures in Primary education.  Think of it as an antidote to Govism.

One morning a five-year-old turned up at school with a bird's nest.  I have no idea what kind of a bird made it, though I'm sure we looked it up at the time.  It was a perfect little bowl, made from fragments of woven straw and grass and beautifully lined with the softest moss and feathers. 'I wonder how hard it would be to make one of those?' I said, just thinking out loud really.
'Easy!' they all said.  'Let's try.'

So we spent a morning collecting materials and couldn't find everything we needed on the school field. At the weekend we collected a lot more, and some clever child (or their parents) discovered that mud might be a useful element in some kinds of nests, so we made some of that too.  Then we set to work.  It was wonderfully messy, and we didn't make a single habitable nest.  It turns out that making nests is just one of many things that birds do much better than us.  I guess that's what we learned - making birds' nests is very difficult if you are not a bird.

We didn't write about this activity.  I didn't carry out any assessments.  But I am fairly sure that those children will still remember the day they tried to make birds' nests, twenty-five years ago.