Reading Nicky Morgan’s message to the teaching community the other day, I was struck by a phrase she used in the final paragraph.
She uses a lovely pattern of three (very persuasive!) to thank us all for the work we do “to get the best out of every young person, to truly help them reach their full potential and to ensure that the next generation enter adulthood prepared to succeed in modern Britain”. Setting aside the worrying mental image that my daft brain immediately conjured of some sort of ‘potential-extracting utensil’ (ouch!), it was the third aspect of this that spoke to me themost. How do we “ensure that the next generation enter adulthood prepared to succeed in modern Britain”? With the swiftness of advances in technology, what will modern Britain even look like when our children enter adulthood? How do we measure their ‘preparedness’ in any kind of meaningful way?
There are some intriguing challenges there and I am not going to even pretend to be able to answer them all. These are complex issues, which, I am sure, will be the subject of discussions for many years. However, any solution will, naturally, have to factor in a way for us, as teachers, to allow children the opportunity to experience what it means to succeed (or even exist!) in modern Britain. We can’t expect children to be successful and productive members of our community (whether local, national or global) if they are equipped solely with abstract tools, i.e. they have the procedural efficiency to know the sum of five plus five, but no conceptual understanding of how that applies to working out the cost of two bootleg DVDs (to take an example at random!).
In fact, on the subject of bootleg DVDs, I’m also going to throw the word ‘success’ out there as a question. What does it mean to be successful? Do we measure success by standards of finance? Should it be measured on their own levels of content with their situation? Or do we measure it by an individual’s contribution to society? Therefore, when we are looking at children’s ‘preparedness’ for adulthood, do we look at their exam grades, their psychological wellbeing or their extra-curricular activities? I know Ofsted would probably cite SMSC as of huge importance, whereas the DfE might put more emphasis on exam results. I’m not going to even attempt to answer the question myself, but it’s an interesting one!
With all of these issues in mind, I am reminded of a conversation I had in a classroom recently. Let me set the scene….
*tinkly music, swirly transition to Year 1 classroom in TD Primary School*
Small person 1: Mrs M, Mrs M, it’s not fair!
Mrs M: *inwardly suppressing a sigh (is there any more irritating phrase on this earth than “it’s not fair”?)* Oh no, what’s wrong?
SP1: Miss J, I only have two money and she’s got a lot of money! *indicating Small Person 2* She’s not sharing nicely!
Mrs M: SP2, could you come here for a minute please?
SP2: *runs over, already loudly protesting* Mrs M, SP1 is being so silly! We have the same money! It’s just the same! But she is just being silly.
Mrs M: Now now, SP2, that’s not a kind way to speak about someone. Can you each please show me the money you’re playing with and let’s try to sort this out kindly, using friendly words.
*SP1 and SP2 clatter their play money onto the table. SP1 has a five pence piece and a ten pence piece. SP2 has six pennies, a five pence piece, and two two-pences *
Mrs M: Ah. I see. Hmm.
*tinkly music, swirly transition back to present day*
And therein lay the issue. Now, those of you who are super dooper maths whizzes will already have spotted the confusion. SP1, a lovely little summer-born girl who tells me long, complicated stories about the circus fairies who live in her garden, was very upset at what she saw as the injustice of SP2 having additional coins. SP2, a very high ability girl with a wickedly cheeky grin and a real aptitude for maths, couldn’t empathise with her friend’s plight, because, as far as she could see, if the monetary value was the same, she was playing fairly and sharing nicely. We therefore had reached a temporary impasse, wherein neither child was willing to back down on what they saw as the ‘unfairness’ of the situation.
Luckily, before we reached the name-calling and hair-pulling stage, I was able to intervene and provide the children with an experience to help clear up the issue for them both. Being able to find different combinations of coins that equal the same amount is a difficult skill, which the National Curriculum puts into the statutory requirements for Year 2. However, knowing the two children as I did, I knew that neither one of them would struggle counting up the value of the numbers. However, recognizing, conceptually, that the two very different-sized piles of coins were ‘worth’ the same is a higher skill. Therefore, I decided to focus initially on conflict resolution skills, with a mathematical bent, and follow up with a rich mathematical experience to ensure that both children (and the rest of the class) were fully aware of why the issue had arisen.
Therefore, my immediate action was to set up a table in the classroom with a box of multi-coloured beads. I asked SP1 and SP2 to each become teachers for the hour. I set out the beads in piles and asked each of them to look at the piles and consider different ways of counting them and jointly decide on the best way. They were each asked to use their friendly words, starting sentences with ‘I feel’ (conflict resolution at its finest!) and I asked the wonderful TA to supervise and to use open questions to help the children’s discussion flow.
However, I felt like more was needed – not only for the pair of small people I had identified, but also for the rest of the class. Therefore, my homework that evening was to write a maths story. I love using story-telling with my small people. They naturally respond to stories and find it easier to remember the mathematical facts and vocabulary thanks to the repetitive nature of age-appropriate stories. Therefore, I whipped up a narrative delight for their eager little ears and, the next day, I read it with them. We did all kinds of wonderful activities with it, including orally rehearsing it, designing actions to remind us of the key elements, story-mapping, story-boarding, hot-seating and playing all sorts of other games.
Additionally, in order to allow SP1 and SP2 some ownership over the activities (after all, it was their conversation and questions that sparked the idea in the first place) I gave them the roles of Maths Explorers. They were in charge of collecting maths information from the rest of the class; listening to their conversations and collecting the great ideas that were arising from the brilliant discussions all the children were having, as well as thinking about different ways of counting things based on their discussion of the previous day. They absolutely loved being explorers (I gave them magnifying glasses, hats and badges – nothing like a bit of dressing up!) and they prepared mini-presentations about the maths they had experienced.
Now, I am in no way suggesting that, in one fell swoop, I have solved all the issues that modern education is facing. Much as I’d love to, I’m not that good (or not quite, anyway). However, in an ever-changing cultural, technological and educational climate, the best weapon we have in our arsenal is always going to be rich, multi-faceted experiences, which allow the children ownership of a topic and have real-world application. I do hope Ms. Morgan approves!
Published on 05 June 2015