Suffer the Little Children

“What happened to my childhood?”

“OFSTED stole it!”

It’s said that persistence is a good thing, a very good quality that can contribute a lot to success. However, this comes with a caveat – it’s not persistence but foolishness to keep taking the same actions over and over in the hope that eventually, at some point in time, the world around you will change and make your actions the right ones to succeed. There’s are two other aspects to this kind of foolishness – going back to old ways of doing things when they’ve already been revealed to be positively harmful (and lacking in positive merit) and ignoring fundamental changes in the world around you that necessitate new and revised perceptions about the best way to move forward.

In relation to the education of young children in the first, early years of schooling there are those in the world who are currently guilty on both these counts. It might be OK if their guilt only harmed them, but sadly it means harm to untold numbers of children.

In a number of countries, but particularly in England, we’re seeing a big swing back towards discredited ideas of the past about emphasising heavier amounts of academic content in early years education. The most recent evidence of this has emerged in a report published by the Office for Standards in Education (sic) OFSTED. It’s entitled “Bold beginnings: The Reception curriculum in a sample of good and outstanding primary schools.” Focusing on the Reception Year means that it relates directly to the educational experience of children in the age range 4-5.

The OFSTED report says many things, but the tone comes through loud and clear in the following key recommendation;

“All primary schools should:
■make sure that the teaching of reading, including
systematic synthetic phonics, is the core purpose
of the Reception Year

So, teaching reading is the core purpose of going to school for children aged 4 to 5. This is then backed up with further recommendations that suggest strongly that these children are in a race and the aim is to get as much as possible of a head start to be ahead of the game in terms of what has to be learned in Class 1. Also, there’s lots of talk about learning how to sit up straight, how to hold the pencil exactly right and how to obey orders.

Here’s the full report:

28933_Ofsted_-_Early_Years_Curriculum_Report_-_Accessible (1)

And here’s some commentary on it:
Huffingtom Post – Third of Kids ‘Failed’ In Reception

It all sounds like something out of the dark ages. Does it sound like we are creating an environment in which future leaders flourish? Or, are we perpetuating the education of the masses which was about developing obedient disciplined grunts – and maybe more important, making them economically productive as early as possible!

A cynic might look for the source of all this hurry up and haste in the political inconvenience and embarrassment of the PISA and TIMMS exams – tests that suggest that English 15 year old children don’t hold up very effectively compared to their peers in other countries. But then comes the massive error – a chronically misguided belief that if we can just give children a faster start, all the problems would be addressed and our children would go shooting up the world charts. Of course, the big inconvenience in all that is that Finland sits right at the top of the tables for these comparative examinations with children who barely start school before age seven, certainly in terms of heavy duty academic learning.

And a real cynic might look simply for sheer ignorance and myopia of ignorant politicians wedded to old orthodoxies like, “Well, it never did me any harm,” and who desperately base their political ideologies on a perception that if Britain could just get back to some mythical good old days, then everything in the world would be perfect.

However, as educators we have to be futurists, not regressionists. Our major task is to prepare young people for the world likely to exist tomorrow, not to hanker after bygone familiar days that will never come again.

Anyone who tells you that they know what children will need to know even ten years from now, let alone beyond that, is delusional. However, we can make some reasonable predictions about their lives. Firstly, advances in medical science mean that the majority of them will live to the age of 100 or beyond. That alone is massive. Barring bad lifestyle choices, more than 50% of these children will live to 100. In those circumstances, how long will a working life be? If we think of those who reach 100 today we think about the massive changes they’ve seen in the world, especially in technology.

These young people will need to be the most versatile, flexible and adaptable generation that has ever lived. They will have long working lives (you can’t retire at 60 if you’ve got another 40 years of life ahead!). They had better find meaning in the work they do and be ready for the likelihood of multiple careers, not just many jobs. In such circumstances they can’t be like today’s employees – where surveys consistently reveal engagement levels in the workplace well below 20%. These will need to be people who get a big buzz out of the work they do. When they stop getting a buzz they will have the skills, competencies and the flexibility to move on to do something new that does appeal to them.

To prepare young people for such a life what we don’t need is to be in a tearing hurry to shove all the knowledge we think appropriate in to them as quickly and early as possible. In these circumstances we need to lose the conventional ideas of certain mileposts being based entirely on the age of the child. Instead, we need models of learning based on competency, passion and interest. When the child is ready to pursue particular learning, educators support them until they can achieve and prove consistent mastery. Then, the educators help them to make choices about where to go next in their learning journey.

So, that’s the first reason I have issues with the Ofsted focus and direction reflected through their report. Worse, what Ofsted dictates, most teachers do, either because they want to get positive affirmation through Ofsted school inspections (or, at least, their Principals and Heads do). This kind of rushing like a bull at a gate is shown up in so many places. We only need to see this headline and article from The guardian some days ago:

The Guardian – Education – Children as Young as Two Grouped By Ability

This acts as a convenient lead to the second major reason why this approach angers me and why I believe it’s doing a massive disservice to children and blighting their lives in the future. At this point it’s useful to remind ourselves that, despite relatively rich budgets for spending on education for every child, Britain has at least 10% functional illiteracy. There are vast numbers of people who have gone through the UK schools education system and yet do not have adequate literacy ability to be able to achieve the levels necessary to carry out basic and common life functions. Clearly, the methods used in the country until now have been failing some people. Yet, this Ofsted approach and the trend of rushing to do more and more at an earlier age is going to make this worse, not better.

To understand why, we need to take on board the new knowledge that’s become available to us over the last 10-20 years through the field of Neurology. techniques such as functional MRI scanning have enabled scientists to build up new knowledge (and to jettison some old ideas) about how people learn, and particularly about the maturation and development of the infant brain.

On this, I share here the link to an excellent recent webinar that charts out in reasonably simple terms the latest understanding from neurology as it pertains to the acquisition of skills and competence in reading:

Neuron Learning – New Science of Learning for Struggling Readers
(You might need to open an account in order to see the video of this webinar, but there’s no cost and it’s worthwhile)

For particular types of learning to happen naturally, a given level or complexity of neural network needs to exist for the child that is ‘ready’ for the acquisition of that skill. This applies to everything from holding a spoon, to self-feeding, to crawling then walking, to reading and writing and basic concepts of number. Each child doesn’t reach the point of having a suitable network at exactly the same time. However, when we take the example of walking, except where there’s some significant mental impairment, every child walks. However, what we don’t see is late-walking children put in remedial classes for walking, given extra homework and subjected to the experience of hearing their peers praised for diligent walking (by implication condemning them as failures and let-downs for not making the walking teacher happy!)

However, when schools start pushing three and four year olds with reading that’s exactly what is happening. in those circumstances it’s inevitable that some will take longer than others. And in return for taking longer they will receive all sorts of subliminal messages that condemn them to low expectations – of themselves and on the part of parents and other care-givers. In those circumstances, some children will take on board certain negative beliefs about themselves. “I’m a slow learner,” “I’m never going to be good at this school stuff,” “Others are more intelligent than me,” “I can’t learn well.”

When education was seen as a massive filtering mechanism, children were seen as distributed across a standard bell curve. While some would flourish, some would inevitably be the floundering ones at the wrong end of the curve. Educators didn’t stop to consider that their own actions might be what was condemning those children to languish at that end of the curve. Nobody was willing to contemplate that their practices actually caused failure.

An education system for the Twenty First Century has to be built on principles of enabling each and every child to fulfill their potential. To achieve this, aspects of implied competition with each other or that learning and getting schooled is some sort of race are completely counter-productive. It also needs to be built on the principles that learning is fun, exciting and something that anyone would want to do for themselves – not something that others force us to do against our will.

Here’s further evidence that the priorities have to change and a plea from the World Economic Forum to apply the right priorities for education today, to enable tomorrow’s society;

World Economic Forum on Twitter

Here’s the link to the fuller article from the World Economic Forum that takes on this issue in more detail:

World Economic Forum – All Work and No Play Needs to Change for Kindergarteners – and Here’s Why

To conclude – in a changed world, there’s really no need for haste or rush for young people starting out on a long life, especially when all our new knowledge of brain sciences tells us that the rushing causes great harm and hurt to some children, thereby undermining their potential for the rest of their lives.





Books For Success

I’m always receptive for good lists of books, especially when like this list, I’ve only read two of the recommended books already – and they are both good ones and among my favourites.

Success – 13 Must-Read Books on Success and Being Successful

Incidentally, the ones I’ve already read are the ones by Adam Grant and Tim Ferriss.

Reading Pays Off For Life

The benefits of being a reader and developing a reading habit for children are very well documented. I’m interested to see this news from a study carried out at Yale University – being a reader is associated with living a longer life;

Times of India report – People Who Read Books May Live Longer

I’m guessing that the link is to do with the fact that those who practice sufficient self discipline to incorporate reading in to their busy lives also have that bit more self discipline when it comes to other aspects that impact on longevity (such as sleep, diet etc.) I also suspect that these are people who, on average, live more purposeful lives, whether driven by goals or less tangible ideas flowing out of the fact that they are continually exposing themselves to new ideas of others though their reading.

Whatever the reasons for the association ……. I’m off to enjoy a good book now.

Educators Sharing Best Practices Around The World

There really isn’t a need, today, for any educator to feel isolated, or to believe that he/ she must reinvent the wheel. Of course, educators can be just as guilty as any other profession of falling foul of NIH (Not Invented Here!). This is the idea that a ‘solution’ may work in one place, but wouldn’t work in OUR place, because it doesn’t comply to ‘the way we do things around here.’

As i said, every profession can fall guilty of this. However, strong introspection and a willingness to challenge ourselves and our assumptions can address the issue. When we see an idea that’s working somewhere else, we need to come at it from the other direction – is there a possibility that I could make that work in our environment? This enables a greater degree of ‘possibility thinking’ and openness, rather than shutting down on ideas and innovations before they’ve been tried.

Here is a brilliant example of this at work. Throughout my three years working in UAE I was very aware that one of the weak or vulnerable areas is considered to be the way that the Arabic language is taught. The methods have tended to be very conventional, very traditional and rote based and are considered incompatible with the approaches of most progressive schools and educators. As a result, all sorts of issues arise for children who are being taught all their other subjects in more advanced learner-centric ways, but are confronted in the language classroom by teachers who haven’t changed their pedagogy adequately. They feel it to a far greater extent because of the contrast. Also, student motivation gets severely strained by the strong early emphasis on writing and character production.

Over the last month I have been confronted with evidence here that similar issues are talked about for the teaching of the Malaysian language and Chinese in the International schools. So, I was delighted to see this article – evidence of the UAE teachers coming out of their shells, ready to open up to new possibilities and new ways of approaching the craft of language teaching;

The National – UAE – Arabic teachers Told Children Learn Languages Better With Hand Signals

The article concerns a conference that took place in Dubai, where teachers of the Arabic language were exposed to evidence and examples of what teachers are doing in other parts of the world when teaching languages. The obvious implication being that what was working in one place, in relation to one language, can be adapted and made to work elsewhere for another language.

As with so many things, there are way more things that make us similar than make us different. This acknowledgement of our innate ‘sameness’ can lead to greater learning from elsewhere about the most effective ways to teach languages and this can only benefit young learners.

Make Reading Cool For Boys

There comes an age at which boys today seem to decide that books and reading are not ‘cool enough’ and even the most enthusiastic reader may just switch off completely – with all the implications that go with that. I’ve seen this myself, both with my own son, but also with many other boys. Somehow, the perception is that books and magazines (or even online text, e-books etc) can’t compete with the ultra-stimulation of games, video and other choices for how time is spent.

In my son’s experience one of the issues was that he moved very quickly through all the good quality reading material that appealed to him, but by the time he reached around age 13 there was very little left that attracted him. How many times can you read the same Harry Potter books over and over again? As a parent, to watch someone who was streets ahead of his peers at a skill as valuable as reading then basically spinning his wheels as they all slowly caught him up – an advantage turned in to nothing special.

Here’s an interesting article that explores ways that can be tried to get boys to want to engage with reading:

Early to Rise – How To Get Boys To Read
(Click on the link to read the article. Incidentally, the Early to Rise newsletter emails are well worth signing up for – I’ve been reading them for quite a few years and they’re amongst the best around)

It tends to be the case that the vast majority of school libraries have female librarians. I think, at times, they need to have a greater variety of approaches if they are to make libraries and reading appeal to the boys. I agree very strongly with the article that we need a much broader acceptability of what kids are reading and to meet boys’ needs with material that they find stimulating and will want to read. It doesn’t pay to get too judgmental about what they choose to read!

Finally, I think the article’s spot on – if there’s cool status associated with reading, then there’s a much better chance that more boys will stay with it – with all the benefits that flow out of that. I know how much reading has benefited my life. I cannot ever envisage being anything other than a reader. But, I also know that’s no great advert to a 14 year old boy! However, meeting them where they are, we can do a much better job for them.

Leaders are Readers

I truly believe that in an ever faster changing world, the readers are destined to be the winners. Further, I think it’s vitally important to reinforce that the real knowledge we need to access doesn’t come through popular daily mass media; newspapers, magazines etc. or from TV.

So, as educators I believe we really need to be doing all in our power to ensure that children develop reading books as a natural pattern of their regular daily actions. For this, they need to develop great reading habits and the earlier they start these the better the chances that they will maintain those habits in their adult life. Sadly, a bit too often for comfort I hear parents who put the onus on schools to devel the reading habit in their children, or who bemoan the fact that the child isn’t a stronger reader, but who admit that they don’t read on a regular basis themselves. The excuse, nvariably, is @I don’t have the time.”

So, I was interested to come across this article looking at adult reading habits, triggered by recent pronouncements from the likes of Mark Zuckerberg (who’s certainly way busier than you or me!) It makes clear – this is a habit we can build in to our adult lives if we just acknowledge its importance and put in the effort. However, I don’t think we should underestimate how challenging it would be for anyone who doesn’t naturally have the habit.

Here’s the article:
Fast Company – Why You Should Read 50 Books This Year

Which is why I am really keen to see more students in schools developing the habit early. part of this, I believe, is to encourage them to read for pleasure as much as for learning. Fiction opens up the mind in different ways to non fiction that tends to expand one’s knowledge. Books in the home are a valuable investment. We now know, or at least suspect according to recent research I’ve highlighted in other articles, that sleep patterns get disturbed by watching screens in the last hour before bed. So, what better alternative than to get your child to switch off the TV/ iPad/ computer an hour before bed and pick up a book?

When your child has been reading, it’s great for their thinking and language development to ask questions about the reading, how it made them feel, the messages nderlying the story etc. It also brings a sense of togetherness and bonding.

I have long had a habit that at any particular time I have two books I’m reading simultaneously – one fiction and one non fiction. Right now I’m reading “A strangeness in my mind”, the latest novel from Nobel Literature Prize winner Orhan Pamuk – a deep and thoughtful read. The non fiction is “Creative Schools” by educator, Sir Ken Robinson – I’ll maybe write more on that when I finish it.

Happy Reading !!!!


The MBA as a qualification is in serious trouble. The best ones cost a fortune to obtain whilst the weaker ones really aren’t worth the cost of the print on the certificate. I’m always interested in good book/ reading lists, so was very happy when I came across this one – a list of alternative books to read over a year that will give you everything an MBA could give, at a fraction of the cost.

The Hustle – Read These Books Instead of an MBA

Three of the books on the list I’ve already read (though one such a long time ago it’s due a re-read). Two others were already on my ‘to be read soon’ list, so now a few more get added.

I think, though the article doesn’t say it specifically, the value compared to doing an MBA from reading these books won’t come from just simply a passive skimmed read. I think it needs to be a far more engaged, active process, probably involving making notes after each chapter – especially where the ideas generated can be linked to direct experiences professionally.

We all get a bit of free time around this time of year – a good idea to spend at least a bit of it reading to enrich our minds.

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