Testing Tables

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It’s half term! Time for rest, recuperation and a government announcement about testing. By now, this pattern of releasing information, that the DfE suspects a lot of teachers will hate, during school holidays is so commonplace it’s hardly worth mustering up the energy to be annoyed. And yet…

I don’t think the Gibb has quite grasped how edu-Twitter works. If he was hoping he could slip a new idea under the radar without teachers noticing, announcing it at a time when every teacher is wasting time on Twitter, rather than catching up on their marking, seems rather foolish. It is exactly during these term-time breaks when teachers actually will have the time to learn what their paymasters are planning. He should have announced it the week before the Christmas play, then we definitely wouldn’t have heard about it, even by now.

Anyway, times tables tests for primary school children. Cut straight to the strong opinions of educationalists across the internet and it’s a predictable cacophony of opinions: broken childhoods, stressed teachers, narrowing curriculum, exactly what is needed, maths is important, it’s a cynical ploy to create artificial accountability measures for schools, it’s helping teachers know the gaps, it’s undermining the professional respect for teachers’ assessments, but I quite liked learning my times tables when I was young…I could go on.

Now, it may be because I’m currently sunning myself in the Canary Islands where San Miguel is safer to drink than the tap water, but I’m not that bothered about these new tests. I can’t really see their true value and therefore I feel a little apathetic towards the whole thing.

First up, times tables are already on the curriculum so technically the children’s mental recall of them should be sound. Unless, like the phonic test, sorry ‘screening’, they plan to give the children some nonsense times tables to grapple with (the product of 7 and 23 is phlob), it should just be an electronic extension of the weekly times tables tests most children currently suffer on a Friday afternoon.

Then, of course, there is the argument put forward by so many Year 6 teachers: too many children arrive in Year 6 not being fluent in their times tables so bring on a bit more accountability for the lower year group teachers. Again, why not?

The reason ‘why not’ comes mostly from the fact that a child being able to answer a set number times tables questions in Year 4 will not necessarily mean they are fluent. Anyone who thinks they will be is guilty of wishful thinking. Some children will learn them and retain the information. Some won’t. Some will be able to learn them off by heart and retain them for a brief period of time but their rapid recall will become increasingly less rapid. Take me, for example, despite my mother’s best efforts, I can still only confidently remember the answer to 8 x 8 and that is because the answer vaguely rhymes with ‘sick on the floor’. If I were a Year 4 child I would be able to learn them in order to pass a test but I guarantee that my Year 6 teacher would be lamenting the fact that when asked a quick-fire multiplication question I would freeze up faster than a cherry popsicle in a blizzard.

The answer to getting children to have deep-set fluency is a quality curriculum that is built upon each year by effective teaching. This is trickier to pull off than a 5-minute online test but, hey, this is Mr Gibb we’re talking about. (And don’t give me that nonsense about only after administering this test will teachers know if their pupils know their times-tables…that’s just guff.)

So, in summary: it’s a little tedious and it won’t really mean much (if your school is focused on effective teaching and learning), but, it probably won’t hurt much either (if your school is focused on effective teaching and learning) . Number bond testing for Early Years kiddies however…now you’re talking.

Confessions of a #nobserver

I like to enter the classroom seven minutes after I agreed I would arrive. That way if the teacher hasn’t started teaching, out of fear of me missing the start of their performance, I can downgrade them, or, if they have started teaching, I can downgrade them for being impertinent.

My preferred position during the input is in the direct eyeline of the teacher. That way they can see every eye-roll, every check of my watch, every baffled squint at their plan, every raised eyebrow and, most importantly, every scribble of my pen.

Over the years I have perfected the ‘click’ of my ball point pen. The ‘quick-click’ for when I simply must note down an inadequacy that has just occurred. The deliberate ‘click…click’ that allows the teacher to really feel my disappointment. Then there is the ‘click and put away’ which signals to the teacher that I have given up all hope of seeing anything else worth recording.

Of course, it’s always important to carefully select the lesson itself when observing. Don’t just pick a random week of the term for your observations, look at the programmes of study. You don’t want to watch a lesson on calculation…boring! All they have to do is follow the damn policy and not say ‘take-away’ too many times. Any HLTA can do that. You want to choose something like ‘telling the time’. I’ve never once seen a lesson on time that actually taught anybody how to tell the time. They all sit there, looking down at the children, holding an outward facing clock close to their chests. Then they start stammering with self-doubt, as they try to remember whether a reversed twist of the dial will make the big hand quarter-past or quarter-to. Meanwhile all the little kiddies have discarded their mini plastic clocks in favor of getting Siri to tell the time in Swahili from the convenience of their apple watch.

I will loathe your tedious progressive approach to teaching. I will barely be able to contain my rage as you trot out your traditional patter. I will walk out of the room if you put on a hat and I will deduct points for every time you use your real voice. Your getting them quiet techniques are appalling. You should be using lollypop sticks to select which children respond to your closed-open-ended questions whilst simultaneously reading out your prepared questions for each and every child. Your use of thumbs up get the thumbs down from me, and, the less we talk about your metacognition strategies the better although why you are not encouraging children to learn learning is beyond me. If you decide to teach anything in a way that I have not taught it myself, I will beat you to death with my laminated copy of the teaching standards. (Circa 1985, 2012, 2017, 2020: which ever version I deem appropriate.)

After the teaching input – which will be too long or too short but never just right, trust me – you get to talk to the children. You wonder how we always know which children to go and speak to? How we always manage to pick the children you least want to represent the impact of your teaching? It’s not some innate knowledge that observers pick up like a vegan smelling hummus at a festival. It’s not because we’ve studied your data. We’ve bribed them. Each round of observations we gather up the little darlings and ask them to learn absolutely nothing for three weeks in return for a week’s authorized holiday immediately after Christmas. So, it is no surprise that when we ask them the essential question: what are you learning? Their answer invariably sounds like something the love child of Stig-of-the-Dump and Piers Morgan would say after six pints of special brew and a fight.

Then there’s the work that is set for them. It will be too easy, too hard or too consolidating…depending on my mood at the time. The use of resources will either be too concrete, too pictorial or too abstract or none of the above…depending on how I feel at that particular moment. The children will be making no progress or not enough progress, or, just enough progress which will not be enough progress because I need progress to be accelerated.

The thrill of the hunt comes in the many different ways you can kill the beast. The NQT is the cleanest kill. A few comments about subject knowledge and behaviour management normally do the trick. If they try and tell you that behaviour has improved, a withering comment about low expectations normally finishes them off nicely. The more experienced a teacher, the bloodier it gets. But, as my mother always said, if there isn’t blood on your apron you’re only cooking chips. I normally like to find out which modern trend in teaching is currently sending these old-timers into anaphylactic shock and use it to beat them into inadequate with. The reflective teachers are normally the messiest. They try and head you off at the pass by telling you what was wrong with the lesson. Insolent buggers. They try and roll with the punches in the hope that knowing it was a total disaster somehow makes it all better. Afraid not. And, before too long, I’ll have landed on something that even they didn’t see coming (normally something British Values) and that will be that.

If all goes well, it will be a completely limiting experience and one that will stay on your record for twice as long as it stays in your mind. But don’t worry, at least you know I’m not allowed to judge lessons anymore. At least, that’s what I tell you.

#nobservation

For the record, this isn’t how it should be done.

Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Reception life for me.

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So, I spent the day in Reception. After not spending an awful lot of time down there in the last two terms, I thought it was time to right that wrong. Plus, having read Bold Beginnings, I figured I should get down there quick before they’re forced to do anything else other than play.

Over the day my time was split between the four classes. The children were, I was told, incredibly excited about my visit due to some of them not even realizing they had a headteacher. I gave the Reception team carte blanche with my timetable just so long as they protected my hour’s lunchtime in order for me to catch up with my emails, check that the rest of the school was surviving without me, and, have my nap.

I had made sure I was dressed for the occasion. Gone were the Saville Row suits and silk ties…the thought of my herringbone weave being stained with snot, playdough, paint and glue was too much. Instead, chinos, jumper, sensible shoes and knee pads. I looked, and felt, every part the early years practitioner.

As I arrived so were the children entering the classroom. In they skipped, taking off their coats and tapping their name on the whiteboard register to confirm their attendance before selecting their lunch. Then, after dismissing their parents, and catching up with their friends, they promptly busied themselves with the range of activities already out at the tables. I crouched down next to a little girl who had picked up a felt tip and was writing an ‘X’ on the piece of paper that covered her entire table. Impressed that she was that far through the alphabet already, I thought I’d use this opportunity to get her to explain to me what she was learning. ‘What are you doing?’ I asked. She looked at me like I was an absolute buffoon for being unable to grasp such a simple act. ‘I’m marking my treasure on the map.’ She announced. I stood up and looked again at the giant piece of paper and, sure enough, it was a massive map onto which she was marking an ‘X’ just under a palm tree.

A moment later and we were all sat in a circle counting pennies to buy a range of pirate merchandise. I was slightly concerned that the teacher had an unhealthy obsession with seafaring burglars but quickly realized that the term’s topic was pirates. So, when it was my time to buy an eye-patch, I turned to the child next to me and bellowed ‘Ahoy there me hearties, that patch there, it be worth 5 pennies now pay up or I’ll make ye walk the plank so I will!’ After the tears subsided I was put in charge of the till and told to simply collect the cash in exchange for the goods.

Hesitantly, at first, the children queued up to buy the merch. Some counted out their pennies as carefully as my old Mum counts out her coupons at Lidl. Some preferred to exchange their handful of pennies for fewer coins with the equivalent value. One child tried to exchange a cutlass for a compass, resulting in me throwing him out the shop saying that this wasn’t a pawn shop and if he thought those items were worth the same amount he was a ship’s fool. He seemed to find this hilarious and spent the next ten minutes trying to repeat this exchange, much to my annoyance and my other customers’ glee.

Then, it was to the next class where everyone was reading. We went through our phonics – with actions – and recognized some matching words. I took a smaller group of boys out to investigate some nonsense words using our blending skills. I’ve never seen children so delighted to put a collection of ‘real’ words inside a pirate’s treasure chest. I was a bit cross to have to put the word SEF in the dustbin. I tried to explain to them that this was a very important word and formed the backbone of the school’s development plan. But, they just laughed and said I was being a funny man.

When I returned to the class there was a little group of children exploring the icebergs at the back of the room that contained a pirate’s lost treasure. The group were delighted with the opportunity to play around with the icy blocks: slipping them out of their hand and back into the tub; smashing them together in attempt to release the treasure; rubbing them with their fingers to make little craters; holding them for as long as they could before their hands froze. And all the time they were talking to each other and sharing their thoughts:

‘Our teacher must have drilled little holes in them and pushed the treasure inside.’

‘It’s hard but it melts into water bits when you smash it.’

‘The ice is white because that’s the colour inside the freezer.’

‘You make the ice by putting bowls of water into the cold oven.’

I resisted the urge to ‘correct’ every little misconception they spouted. Instead, I kept asking follow-on questions that encouraged them to take their thinking to the next step, forcing them to evaluate the logic in what they were saying. And, when they could see it might not be logical at all, they happily changed their original conceits without a moment’s doubt. I was so proud I immediately made them sign life-long agreements to never sign up to edu-twitter.

After lunch I was back in class where it was super-fine-motor-time. How quickly can you fill a container using nothing but a bowlful of ink and a pipette? Some of these children will have knuckles the size of hams the way they were showing off their pincer skills. Then it was time for the special guest: Old Pirate Tom. A bit of hot-seating that would help the children use their question words. As I squeezed into one of their tiny chairs, waved my hook around and tried to remember what accent a pirate has, I was bombarded with ‘what’ ‘when’ ‘how’ ‘why’ and ‘who’ questions that put my improvisation skills to the test. Now, it’s not for me to tell you how convincing my portrayal of a pirate was, but, needless to say, there’s a group of children who, every time they go out to sea, will never forget the teachings of Old Pirate Tom: may Neptune bless his soul, and may he one day be reunited with his left hand, as the shark who took it be banished to the darkest depths of hell.

Finally, I was asked to support a group of children (who were far less tired than I was at this time of day) in preparing their pirate paper for their treasure map. It took a surprisingly long time to convince them to scrunch up their perfectly good piece of paper and tear along the edges. But, they got over any reservations once they began washing the paper in tea to make it well and truly aged. I used this time to chat to them about what they would put on their treasure map. The usual stuff: beaches, blue sea, palm trees, coconut trees, mountains, grass, a trail, an X, some dolphins, a turtle, a mermaid, a bottle of rum, a car, a treehouse and a collection of telegraph poles that could be connected to a satellite, so Mummy could still watch Emmerdale. (Didn’t think of that did you Robert Louis Stevenson?)

And so ended my day in Reception.

But what did I learn?

Well, I learnt that not a minute is wasted.  I had, after all, only experienced a mere fraction of the opportunities that are available to the children throughout the day. Every single activity that was planned (and there were lots) was grounded in their topic and designed to help them develop a practical skill or learn a little bit more about the world. The adults were focused, at all times, on capturing and stretching the children’s learning. Observations were being made continuously and were cross-referenced by the outcomes laid out in the EYFS framework and Development Matters. Specific needs were met. Children benefitted from direct teaching that explored the concepts and ideas that were then taken further as the day continued.

It was playful. It was purposeful. But, above all, it was bold piratey.