The girl who broke into lessons

Although anecdotal accounts need to be treated with caution, they can be very powerful in explaining and illuminating issues. This article features one such anecdotal account published on his website by ‘Disappointed Idealist’ in his last article as a teacher. I do hope his site remains accessible as ‘disidealist’ has published some excellent articles.

His piece, entitled ‘11 Years a teacher‘, comprises a frank and illuminating account of a number of experiences and incidents that many teachers will recognise and warm to. This article concerns Number 4, in his list. For the sake of clarity the quotations from his website are in italics, and everything else is my work. I will refer to ‘disidealist’ as DI.

Helen was a “different” child when I began teaching her at the beginning of Year 10 for GCSE history. She was on the school’s SEN register, although there seemed to be a lack of clarity as to whether the issue was autism, or Asperger’s, or both. Her target grade was an “E”, and to be honest, this was optimistic. She liked history because, in her mind, History was essentially the classroom equivalent of watching Horrible Histories – a succession of facts, preferably gory or shocking, to be recounted irrespective of the question in front of her. She would interrupt a lesson on Renaissance medicine with a factoid about Roman emperors, or illustrate a discussion on the Freikorps in Weimar Germany with a list of Henry VIII’s wives and how they died.

Every teacher in an all ability comprehensive school will have met students like Helen. Helen may indeed have been on the ‘autistic spectrum’, but had this been the case there should have been a clear and specific diagnosis by a Educational Pshychologist and Helen should have had a Statement of Special Educational Needs. It looks as if she did not have a Statement and was on the school’s SEN Register classified as having, ‘Moderate Learning Difficulties’. If the school had Cognitive Ability Test (CATs) data then the Local Authority would have defined MLD as having a score below a specific threshold. This would commonly be one Standard Deviation below the mean (-1SD), which is a CATs score of less than 85 (16th percentile). In the absence of a Statement the school would be expected to fund appropriate SEN support for Helen from its Delegated Budget. Had Helen been assessed by an Educational Psychologist then she would have an IQ score on the same standard scale as the CATs score. I retired in 2003 from the headship of a school with a very high proportion of SEN students. The way schools manage Special Needs may have changed since then.

Why is this important? It is because of the fact of continuous human variation. Any large nationally representative sample of students who take CATs tests (a form of IQ test) will produce test scores that fit the Normal Distribution (bell curve). In the absence of a Specific Learning Difficulty (eg dyslexia) every student on the distribution is as ‘normal’ as every other in terms of natural variation. In other words there is nothing ‘special’ or abnormal about Helen. About 70% of students in a nationally representative comprehensive school population will have scores between -1SD and +1SD.

This is a vast range of ability. If you believe in Piagetian stages, as I do, then any nationally representative all-ability Y10 year group will have high proportions of students at the ‘Concrete’ and the ‘Formal’ stages with perhaps a handful at the ‘pre-concrete’ stage, depending on the size of the school. Y10 students at the ‘Formal’ stage will be more likely to have above average CATs scores (101+) and students at the ‘Concrete’ stage will be more likely to have below average CATs scores (99-).

This is the point at which the reader now needs to read my articles about ‘Learning from Mistakes‘ and ‘Plastic Intelligence‘. If you want more then you need to read my book, ‘Learning Matters‘.

If your brain is now hurting and you think all this is rather heavy, then I am not going to apologise. Education really is both very complicated and profoundly counter-intuitive. ‘Common Sense’ actually leads to false conclusions, which is why our education system, run by people that know nothing about education, and who ignore the advice of experts are making such a mess of it. Now some more from DI about Helen.

In practise GCSE questions, if I told her exactly which question we were going to attempt, and then also told her, step by step, exactly how to answer that question, so that she was effectively trying to reproduce notes she was given by me just minutes before the task, then she was occasionally able to reproduce enough of the previously spoon-fed information to scrape a C, if I marked generously, squinting through rose-tinted glasses. However, left to her own devices, or without advanced specific instructions in how to answer a known question, her answers would be a random collection of facts which rarely had anything to do with the question at hand. Recognising this, after the first term of Year 10, the school decided to withdraw her from History lessons, in order to give her more time for maths and English.

Helen is therefore a student who fails to understand ‘hard stuff’ however much she tries, or however well DI explains it. This is because her cognitive development has not yet reached the level that enables her to make personal sense of all the facts and information she is being fed. As DI so clearly recognises, Helen cannot assemble these facts into any kind of personal mental framework that makes sense to her. She takes out of lessons a muddle of facts. There is little understanding. This does not mean she does not enjoy her History lessons as the facts clearly fascinate her. Vygotsky explains her situation with great clarity.

“As we know from investigations of concept formation, a concept is more than the sum of certain associative bonds formed by memory, more than a mere mental habit; it is a genuine and complex act of thought that cannot be taught by drilling, but can only be accomplished when the child’s mental development has itself reached the requisite level”

 However, the school management now takes an interest in Helen’s curriculum. They rightly suspect that in DI’s academic GCSE History class, where DI tries hard to develop knowledge of historical facts into understanding historical issues in relation to arguments and evidence, as well as ‘what happened when’, Helen will struggle and be unlikely to get a ‘C’ grade at GCSE. Her exam result in History will therefore be of no use to the school, where all sub ‘C’ grades are useless in OfSTED and League Table terms.

If I told her exactly which question we were going to attempt, and then also told her, step by step, exactly how to answer that question, so that she was effectively trying to reproduce notes she was given by me just minutes before the task, then she was occasionally able to reproduce enough of the previously spoon-fed information to scrape a C.

Had DI been prepared to modify his teaching of the whole class along those lines he might have ‘trained’ her and the rest of the class to get a ‘C’, but at the expense of deep and lasting understanding.

 In some schools, especially those in ‘high performing’ Multi Academy Trusts, DI and every other KS4 teacher would have been instructed very clearly by the senior management to do just this. The instruction would have been to adopt the knowledge-based, ‘mastery approaches’ that have been shown to maximise ‘C’ grade performance. This is because schools need ‘C’ grade passes and failure to achieve this is very high stakes for the school and especially for the head (or ‘Executive Principal’ as he/she is now more likely to be called).

You now need to read my article about ‘Behaviourism‘ to understand what this implies.

Clearly it is best for DI’s school for Helen to have a curriculum that maximises ‘C’ grade passes by her attending extra English and maths classes for more intensive teaching to the test, cramming and revision. The fact that her resulting understanding of these subjects will be no better than her understanding of History matters not a bit. DI makes clear that while his school is subject to the same OfSTED and market pressures as every other, the interests of individual students are still respected.

The problem for students like Helen in other schools forced to undertake such behaviourist cramming is that it is a deeply boring and unpleasant experience. This is likely to result in disinterest that may morph into disruption and insurrection unless a harsh disciplinary regime is imposed. This is the social dimension of behaviourism that always goes with the pedagogic dimension. It does nothing to improve enjoyment of school.

Helen yearned for the humane, interactive, relationship-focussed teaching of DI, regardless of her difficulty in making sense of what he taught her. So she rebelled.

So I was more than a little surprised when Helen turned up in my next lesson. I spoke to her gently and told her she needed to be elsewhere. She looked glum, but gathered her things and left. Then, a couple of days later, she turned up to the next lesson. This time, when I told her where she had to be, she seemed almost tearful. She looked at me pleadingly as I escorted her to the door. She still turned up to the next lesson. This time a Deputy Head appeared in the classroom looking for her. Apparently, Helen was running away from her extra maths and English lessons to come to History. I delved deeper, talking to the SEN support, and discovered that Helen said she “loved” history. She liked hearing the facts. She felt comfortable in that classroom.

In addition to her academic problems, Helen suffered from the worst affliction any teenager can suffer in a secondary school. She was “The Other”. She was socially isolated. Nobody would choose to sit with her unless compelled. If I ever wanted students to work in groups, none would ever voluntarily include her, so I ensured that I directed her into the safe company of the nicest kids in the class who would, at best, benignly ignore her, but would at least avoid looking too uncomfortable. At breaktimes and lunchtimes I would see her walking or sitting around the site, always alone. Every school has such children, and it is one of the most intractable problems of secondary school. There may be parents out there who don’t care about such social isolation as long as their child’s academic results are high (indeed, much Govian discourse seems to assume that hierarchy of priorities) but I’ve never yet met such a parent.

I couldn’t tell you exactly how, or why, but I found myself emailing the Deputy, and said that I wanted Helen back in History. Reminded that her result was likely to be a U, I agreed, but noted that her results in all her subjects were likely to be U’s, so where she was made little difference, and if she actually liked three of her lessons in a week, who were we to take that away from her? The Deputy agreed, generously noting that she wouldn’t hold Helen’s result against me when the figures were compiled. Helen was back in the class.

When I welcomed her back, the other kids exchanged glances in that knowing, eyebrows-raised way that all girls seem to have perfected by Year 10: arch and dismissive. They weren’t nasty kids – quite the reverse. They were just normal 14/15 Year-olds, and as such as prone to excluding “The Other” as all such adolescents. What they didn’t realise was that they were now my objective for Helen. I couldn’t make Helen get a top grade in History GCSE. I couldn’t “cure” her condition. I couldn’t force other kids to be her friend. But in that class, three times a week, I made the weather, and so I set myself two goals: firstly, she was going to have a good time in those lessons so that school wasn’t an unrelenting grind of failure and misery; and secondly – by Christ – she was going to be included in my classroom.

You will have to read DI’s account on his website as to precisely how DI went about this difficult task. I get the impression that like most teachers, his knowledge of Vygotsky may be quite limited. However DI instinctively understands the value of relationships and the essential role of social learning as the precursor to Helen internalising her developing understanding. DI was adopting a Vygotskian  pedagogy.

She’d been back in the class two lessons when I struck. Everyone was quiet, working on a question, so I knew the others were listening.

“So Helen…?”

She looked up. I could  feel the rest of the ears in the classroom turn in the direction of this welcome distraction.

“I feel I have to ask you this, as you’re the only student I’ve ever had who illegally runs into my lessons, as opposed to out of them.”

Heads swivelled towards Helen.

“But let me get this straight. You were offered three lessons a week in the inclusion suite. Comfy chairs, tea and biscuits, one-on-one attention from a highly-trained professional. And you threw all that away to come back here?”

Helen nodded, nervously.

“Why?”

“I don’t know.” She had a clipped, rapid-fire way of speaking, without the inflexions and cadences of her peers. “I just like it.”

I raised my eyebrows incredulously. “You like…” I held up the textbook on that day’s page “…how forceps use in medieval births could rip the heads off babies in the womb?”

“Well, not that. I just like history.”

I frowned. “Ah well, I understand that. Many students in this school never have the privilege of being taught by me.” Groans and eye-rolls from some of the class.

“But surely,” I go on “you should have realised that in returning to history, you were also going to have to share your class once more with this pointless rabble?” I gestured to the class with an expansive arm sweep. Howls of indignation and protest arose, which I quickly stilled.

“I don’t know”, she looked nervous, unused to the spotlight being on her.

“I thought you were better than them, to be honest, Helen. A bit more sensible. A bit more able to see which side your bread was buttered on. But you let me down. Given the chance to spread your wings and fly for freedom, you just dashed back into the cage and locked the door behind you. You muppet.”

Helen blinked. Inside, I was experiencing the sort of stomach gymnastics which usually accompany getting too close to a long drop with no barriers. On the outside, I was maintaining a mock-sneery face of head-shaking disappointment.

One of the other girls, a loud, brash future-landlady-of-a-rough-pub type, broke the breath-held silence. “Don’t worry Helen, he’s just taking the mickey. He’s like that with all of us.”

“Us”. “US“. I couldn’t have scripted it better. I could have leapt across the classroom and hugged that student. I wasn’t ready to end my career on the sex-offenders’ register though, so I remained impassive.

“Tsk. Carry on answering questions 1 to 4, while I continue to ponder the failings of humanity.”

“Mr C,” asked another girl “Do you really just hate all people?”

“Only the daft ones in my history classes. Now shut up and get on with it.”

Grumbles, mutterings, moans.

I glanced up furtively at Helen. She was smiling. I’m not sure she understood exactly what the joke had been, but she knew that she had been involved in the joke. For once, she’d been on the same team as the other students in a human interaction, rather than just sitting separately in the same room.

After that, it was gentle progress. I can recall different milestones:

  • The first time Helen piped up with a random fact and one of the other students said “Helen, you’re so mad!”, but with a big smile on her face, and on Helen’s, as they engaged in rudimentary friendly banter of the kind which is second-nature to all students, but which she’d been excluded from for so many years.
  • The first time I asked them to get in groups of three, and two girls, without waiting to be asked simply shouted across the room “Helen, come join us”.
  • The first time I came into the classroom after lunch to find the girls in there as usual, but Helen sitting in – not near, but IN – a group on the desks, while they chatted about whatever the hell they were chatting about.
  • The first time Helen actually threw a barb back at me. I can’t recall what it was now. I doubt it was particularly sophisticated. But she used the limited latitude I grant the students to occasionally have a pop. And the class roared. They screamed with laughter. Helen had thrown one at Mr C. They turned around to congratulate her. One even high-fived her. She looked like she’d won the world championships. I felt like I had.
  • The first time I saw her talking to one of the girls in our class, outside at lunchtime. I don’t want to over-egg this – she didn’t become school captain, or win any popularity prizes from her peers. But she had a group of girls who, in many ways, adopted her as one of their own. And they said hello to her. And because they said hello to her, others did too.

For two years, for at least three lessons a week, she knew that she would be in a room where she was liked, included, treated as an equal, and could read about a few more historical facts while this was all happening. She smiled a lot.

She got an E in History GCSE. It was her joint best result. I don’t think it mattered a bugger.

This is where I beg to disagree with DI. It does matter that students like Helen get a proper education at secondary school. A proper education is not a handful of ‘C’ grades that generates the performance bonus of the ‘Executive Principal’, but which results in little lasting, deep understanding, zero cognitive development and a shameful misrepresentation of the value of her ‘C’ grades in avoiding a minimum wage job on a zero hours contract.

This is where it may help to look again at my article about ‘Plastic Intelligence‘ and the scope for schools helping their students to become cleverer, wiser and healthier throughout life.

DI has decided to leave the teaching profession after just 11 years. I can understand why from reading the articles on his website. They express deep frustration and anger at the way the English Education system is being degraded for ideological reasons. Unfortunately he is very far from alone. The rush to the door out of the profession seems to be accelerating. The government euphemism for this is, ‘retention issues’.

His last post has drawn a large number of positive comments, all in similar vein. This comment is both typical and true.

Stephen

July 18, 2016 at 2:19 pm

Thank you so much for this. I enjoyed reading it from beginning to end; so many memories and one day I hope to be able to look back and reflect in the same way.

It’s really refreshing (and right) to see someone espousing the virtues of relationships – not data, or teaching styles, or fads, but the core thing that will be there for all teachers, no matter what. It’s sad that some people seem to think relationships don’t matter – this blog shows they do.

Good luck in your future endeavours.

DI’s reply is also spot on.

disidealist

July 18, 2016 at 6:46 pm

Since my first days training, I’ve always believed relationships to be absolutely central to the whole concept of school and learning. After all, without relationships, all teachers are simply boring audio-books at the front of a classroom.

What I have in common with DI, is that I too left early from the teaching profession. In my case it was after 32 years in a number of excellent schools. The difference is that I started in 1971 and have known life before the 1988 Education Reform Act and the disastrous Blairite turbo-marketisation and Academisation of the school system that followed.

I was also lucky enough to be seconded in 1981/82 by the Leicestershire LEA, fees paid, full time, onto the Leicester University Master of Educational Studies course where I Iearned all this Piaget, Vygotsky, Shayer & Adey stuff that I believe to be of vitally important continuing relevance.

I retired from all employment on a decent pension giving me the opportunity to continue to oppose the marketisation and degradation of the English education system. If you too agree with me, DI and all his website supporters, then please join the struggle to rescue our children from our increasingly privatised, factory system of education. Read my book and spread the word. You don’t have to buy it. You can use the ‘look inside’ function on Amazon or order it from your Public Library (if you still have one).

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