Monday, 22 February 2016

Nature Study for Infants

In the long ago every infant classroom had a nature table.  'Nature walks' were a thing.  We went on them most weeks through the school grounds, looking for signs of Spring, or Autumn.  Most of the old teaching guides I possess are full of images from the natural world.  I would be very happy if my children had this kind of lesson at school, and I'd also be happy if they saw illustrations of this quality instead of endless clip-art.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Sesame - a number game for young children

This is the title of a maths game devised by Zoltan P Dienes.  He thought up a lot of games.  This one is a way of gradually familiarising children with the ideas underlying place value.  To play, you need Duplo or Lego, though you could use any construction toy, and you need a dice marked with only the numbers 1, 2, and 0.  The players throw the dice in turn and collect bricks according to the number they throw.  When they have enough to stick 3 bricks together they must do so and shout SESAME!  If they don't, another player can say SESAME, claim their three bricks and make their own SESAME with them.

With very young children the winner is the first to make a SESAME.  Later on they can carry on playing until they have 3 sets of three when they must shout SUPER SESAME!

In the same way, the game can be played with money.  Using a dice marked, say, with numbers from 0 to 4, a player who has enough for 5p must shout SWAP! and change their 5 pennies for a 5p coin.  Once they have enough for 10p they shout SWAP! again.  And so on.

Using Dienes blocks you can play another similar game, this time with an ordinary 1-6 dice.  The first to collect 10 cubes shouts TEN! and trades them for a ten rod.  And so on up to a hundred (if you have plenty of time to spare.)  Or you can set a time limit and have fun working out who has the most at the end.  Is one TEN worth more than nine ones?

To quote Dr John Olive, and there's a link to his article below, "One of the key aspects of the Dienes’ mathematics program was the notion of “multi-embodiments” of the same mathematical structure (Dienes, 1960, 1971; Seaborne, 1975)."  Dienes advocated working/playing with different number bases with very young children, and this game demonstrates a very practical advantage of doing so.  The mathematically inclined among you will have noticed that SESAME is a base 3 game, and because of this you can play it quickly.  It doesn't take too long to get three bricks and put them together to make this new thing, the SESAME, and even a SUPER SESAME doesn't take an impossible length of time.  Thirty years ago most schools had a beautiful wooden set of Dienes Multibase equipment.  I would love to have one now.  More about Zoltan Dienes to come, but I'd recommend this article about one educator's experience.  (You'll have to download the pdf.)

Monday, 8 February 2016

Twenty Pence Giveaway

I love really simple ideas and simple activities for teaching.  I often see worksheets used in the classroom where more time is spent explaining the activity than in teaching and learning.  So, here is the Twenty Pence Giveaway game.  It is a powerful tool for teaching the concepts of exchange and place value, as well as providing lots of practice in counting and mental calculation.  It has the great virtue of needing very little equipment - a dice, a few 20p pieces and an assortment of 1p, 2p, 5p and 10p coins.

Each player starts with a 20p coin.  The object of the game is to get rid of your 20p.  The bank in the middle contains all the change, and that's where you put the money you give away.

The first player throws the dice.  Say they throw a 4.  They change their 20p into any combination of coins that will allow them to put 4p into the bank.  Beginners may well want to change the 20p into 20 1p coins.  They should be allowed to do this.  It takes ages and often other players will suggest simpler ways to do it.  I often find that even children who have appeared to understand the way coins work are not absolutely sure about how to make these exchanges, and the game gives them valuable, confidence-building experience.

The game continues until someone manages to give all their money away.  Sooner or later someone will say, as they start to change their 20p into ones in order to give away 4p - "Hey, I don't need to take 20 ones and give back 4.  I can just take 16 and it's done."  It can take a long time for children to get to this stage, but until they do you can be sure that they do not really understand the idea of 'change'.

As children get better at playing they can try playing Fifty Pence Giveaway, or £1 Giveaway.  And if you have access to some place value equipment - cubes, tens rods, hundred squares as invented by Z P Dienes you can play exactly the same game with them.  One Hundred Giveaway takes quite a while, but if you run out of time the person with the least amount left is the winner.

Once children know the rules they can play in pairs or small groups on their own.

Monday, 1 February 2016

A Tin of Words

The tin of words is a symbol of the innate conservatism of the infant teacher.  When I was training as a teacher I studied plenty of different methods of teaching reading, but no one told me that I would need to start collecting two-ounce tobacco tins.   I'm not suggesting that the 'inventor' of the Look and Say method, the late Fred Schonell, specified an old tobacco tin for the transportation of words to and from home, but when I started teaching they were to be found in most infant classrooms.  Children in the real world learnt to read using a reading scheme and a tin of words.

The system worked like this:  using a graded scheme like Sheila McCullough's '1, 2, 3 and Away' featuring Roger Red-hat, Jennifer Yellow-hat et al teachers simply gave the children the new words from the next book to learn as flash cards at home.  Next day, all being well, the child returned to school, read the book to the teacher, and took the new one away with a few more words in the tin.  The Ladybird 'Key Words' reading scheme could also be used like this, and there were many others, including Schonell's own 'Happy Venture' scheme, written with his wife, Eleanor.  I learnt to read with that one.   It was cutting edge back in the fifties, and Schonell's book, 'The Psychology and Teaching of Reading' was a staple of teacher-training courses, but even when natural language schemes like Oxford Reading Tree came along teachers still used the same method.

When I started teaching in the nineteen-seventies the tobacco tins were still going.  They were still in use in the eighties and nineties when my children were at school, despite the advent of Guided Reading and Paired Reading and Apprenticeship Reading and Real Books and even despite the resurrection of Phonics.  I bet they are lurking in the back of long-serving teachers' cupboards even now, hoarded against the day when Phonics goes out of fashion and Look and Say makes its inevitable comeback.  

The funny thing is, the system worked quite well.  It was simple to administer and most children learnt to read.  If they got stuck and couldn't learn the new words then teachers would try something different - another scheme, some phonics input, some extra help.  It's worth remembering that infant teachers used to be expected to hear every child read every day.  It could be done, but it required teachers to resort to the kind of approach I once saw my mother using.  She sat at her desk with a child reading on either side of her while she marked books at the same time and kept an eye on the rest of the class.

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!