Author Archives: Iorek Byrnisson

Carl Bereiter

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“If the only justification for an activity is that it is supposed to encourage thinking, drop it and replace it with an activity that advances students’ understanding that increases their mastery of a useful tool.”

I suspect that this may be the most sensible piece of wisdom that I shall come across today. Note, please, the important word “only”!

Bereiter is a new figure to me, but clearly worth the effort of investigating further.

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12 out of 13 people aren’t on Facebook

With thanks and apologies to Polly Short…

Here’s the tweet:

1 in every 13 people are on Facebook worldwide. Wow. #eict202

That led me to reply:

12 in every 13 people aren’t on Facebook worldwide. Wow. #eict202

Which probably sounded snarky, though it wasn’t intended to, because what Polly had done was provide a beautiful example of how we could be teaching children to look for the story that you’re not being told, the story that lies beneath the headline. I, for one, want to know how 12 out 13 people on this planet can get through the day without updating anyone at all on their FarmVille progress.

So you could have your class dissect the papers, the adverts, the claims of pollsters, and expose the harsh truths. Reveal that two out of ten cats really do not care for cat food named after their own highly specialised facial hairs. It’s also an opportunity to go a bit cross-curricular and get some maths into your English lessons.

Plus, I get to keep the reassuringly warm glow that I have now that I know that a shade over 92% of the world aren’t on Facebook. It makes me a little happier.

No more child-speak

Recently, I saw something very interesting modelled in an article by E.D. Hirsch, whereby the reader was ‘taught’ a new word. The teaching was entirely through accurate, contextual use of that unfamiliar word. It was sublimely done; to fully grasp the meaning from the first use, the reader would have needed a certain level of familiarity with the knowledge domain of the engineer or scientist. Progressively, the reader was re-exposed to the new word in contexts that required less and less specialist background knowledge. The final use grounded the word in an everyday and familiar context. There was a distinct aggregation of understanding.

The first thing that struck me was that in a truly naturalistic model, exposure to unfamiliar words rarely happens in such a structured way. So I tried to forget what I had just learned, and set about reading the sentences in reverse order. My sense was that even in the most familiar of the contexts, my understanding would have been incomplete. In other words, complete understanding was enhanced by exposure to the word in the less familiar contexts.

This strikes me as being rather similar to the way that we construct jigsaws in the real world. Rather than patiently building it up row by row, jigsaws build slowly, coalescing around multiple nuclei, with edges developing gradually to frame and define positions for these nuclei. Some pieces are harder to place than others, often pieces are found as much by chance as deliberate action. Assuming all the pieces are in the box, it should be possible to complete the jigsaw.

No metaphor is perfect, but I quite liked the overall fit of this one, because it presupposes that the component pieces are made available. More simply, if some unkind person were to remove and hide some of the pieces, completing the jigsaw becomes impossible.

Which is why I haver never approved of child-speak. If children understand the specifics of every word we say to them and every word they encounter in text, we are hiding some of the jigsaw pieces from them. We are actively holding them back. At this point, I’d like to focus on talk and put aside text; reading has its own set of preconditions and challenges.

Most people, most of the time, use a relatively narrow core vocabulary. This serves us fairly well in most circumstances. It also makes it likely that most of what you say, if expressed clearly, will be understood by others who speak the same language. Anyone with children or dogs will perhaps agree that failures of understanding, as often as not, have their roots in failed listening!

The promotion of child-speak, viewed in this context, has unfortunate shades of Orwell’s Newspeak, however well-intentioned the conception or implementation. The negative impact must be felt most keenly by those lacking ‘contextual compensation’ – shorthand for the kids who don’t live in a domain of literacy immersion, and they’re probably quite easy to identify.

Proponents of child-speak also ignore something very important. When we match our words to their spoken vocabulary, we fail to provide additional context for those unfamiliar words they have previously heard. Child speak militates against potential.

This isn’t a call for tautology, nor is it a call for the unnecessary over ornamentation of spoken language. It is a call for us to act with a little more ambition, a little less condescension, and embed challenge in the very words we use. The child who doesn’t understand all of the words they’ve heard always has the option to ask for clarication, but even if they don’t, exposure gives them a fighting chance of understanding it the next time.

My favourite joke

Two Alaskans are out at the edge of town when they come across a polar bear. Quickly surveying the situation, they realise they’ve inadvertently backed the bear into a corner, and that the bear has seen them.

“No sudden moves. Back away reaaaallly slowly…” whispers Jeff, to his buddy Trent.
Trent, has other ideas, though. He turns quickly on his heels and makes a break in the direction of the nearest buildings.
“‘Heck you think you’re doing, Trent? You can’t outrun a polar bear!” Jeff shouts at his friend.
“Don’t have to, Jeff. Just have t’outrun you!”

Dear Michael Rosen

Michael Rosen doesn’t like synthetic phonics; http://www.nurseryworld.co.uk/news/bulletin/nurseryworldupdate/article/1168285/?DCMP=EMC-CONNurseryWorldUpdate

As it happens, I do. It has structure, it provides the tools. The big issue that I see leaping out of this article seems to be a complete muddle about what goes on in actual schools with actual children. I’m writing this, because I’m a parent. A parent who might be a little alarmed at the nasty sounding ‘synthetic phonics’ sucking all the joy out of reading.

Let’s first clarify one issue. Many vocal opponents of the recommendation that reading should be taught exclusively by synthetic phonics, seem to be labouring under a misapprehension (I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt, and assuming that they aren’t being mischievous). They would have you believe that the ‘phonics lesson’ is the only thing going on as far as reading is concerned. They misunderstand or misrepresent the maxim ‘first, fast & only’.

‘Love of books’ is term I hate, but I’m going to go with it. You don’t need to be able to read in order to enjoy books. Books are often appealing objects that generate their own play value. Long before they learn to read, long before they speak, children will engage with books. Alongside this play, many children will also be read to. Children benefit from all of these ‘proto reading’ activities. They form part of the complex set of linguistic activities through which children ‘acquire’ language. Your child will be doing all of these things at school. Phonics-loving teachers still chat about the lovely pictures of chicks; encourage kids to share a book with a friend; read and talk about great stories and poems. Almost certainly including those by Michael Rosen. This forms the background for what was termed ‘reading readiness’ when I trained in the mid 1990’s, but the activities described above are not then supplanted by synthetic phonics in some terrifying ‘first, fast and only’ dystopia.

At this point, I’d like to sidestep and briefly tackle the issue of comprehension. I think comprehension is a red herring in the debate. In language acquisition, every aspect of development directly and indirectly affects every other. This is a key difficulty in reading research; isolating key variables, and seperating cause and effect are huge challenges. This is one reason why I’m fond of E. D. Hirsch’s proposition that we should focus on more upon children’s acquisition of vocabulary. A child’s development of what we term ‘comprehension’ begins long before any kind of schooling, but develops as we become more adept at language. To all intents and purposes vocabulary building is a pretty decent proxy for improved comprehension…

Then comes learning to read. At this point, a debate on synthetic phonics usually goes ‘THWUUUMMP!’ and all of a sudden it becomes a debate about ‘reading’ being ‘much more than just decoding’. At this point, seasoned hacks know that someone will pop up and inform the world that they can ‘decode German, but that is not the same as reading for meaning’. Having thus claimed comprehension for the side of righteousness, what could have been a sensible discussion descends into the sort of unproductive squabble that can make for a great read, but ultimately does no one any favours. (Responsibility for the squabble lies with all; this isn’t intended to be plucky rebel alliance vs. evil galactic empire…)

Personal anecdote time. The thing about the German passage. I was there. It happened to me as well, during my introductory sessions on the teaching of reading, in my first year as a trainee primary teacher. I probably wasn’t the only German speaker in the room, but no-one asked, no-one told. As we nodded along to the assertion that we have to teach meaning as much as word recognition, I wonder if my suppositional fellow German speaker had the same thought that I did? ‘I can speak German at least as well as a four year old.’

The point of this is not that I had enough presence of mind to not show-off, but that I was able to ‘read for meaning’. German kids don’t begin reading their beautiful language with empty heads. Neither do those learning to read English.

Proponents of synthetic phonics are not making false claims for it as a means to understand what is read. Nor should we worry unduly about whether there are other methods by which some children can be shown to learn to read. I could here cite a couple of instances where I have seen evidence that whole word recognition exists, or of children who learned to read without formal phonics instruction. It doesn’t matter that there are other methods. It’s about working with what mounting evidence suggests is the best method for the largest number of children. Rather, we need to be focussed upon ensuring that we properly teach SSP (systematic, synthetic phonics) and resist the temptation to dilute an efficient method with less efficient. That can only dilute the impact of the more efficient method. We have the rest of the school day to work on the activities which enhance understanding. The burden of proof really now lies with the opponents of SSP approaches.

Michael. I love your writing. Your Sad Book is one of the most touching things that I have ever read. I don’t believe you to be anything other than a person with honest concerns about education in this country, which is to be applauded. I don’t think the teaching of language in school should be sterile. I do everything in my power to encourage the children I teach to read and to love reading. I am evangelical. Synthetic phonics is just a small part of what I do.

Teachers who tweet #bringateachertotwitter

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Picture courtesy of @sparkyteaching

A great blog here where Phil Parker shares some findings and thoughts on UK teachers’ use of Twitter. It’s not pretty reading, either!

Those of us who are part of the education community on Twitter get to experience the vibrancy and dynamic exchange of thoughts, and clearly many of us are hooked. The fact that significant groups such as The Heads’ Roundtable seem to have exploited the momentum that Twitter can lend to an idea should give us all pause for thought. Yet, we are, apparently, the tiny minority. It’s easy to forget this massive disengaged ‘other’.

Yesterday, I came across the hashtag #bringateachertotwitter, courtesy of @batttuk . What a good idea. If we could all just get one other colleague to engage… we’ll still be a tiny minority, albeit twice as big. Time to put on our digital leader hats and offer your colleagues a little bit of social media CPD training? Remember, you only need to net one enthusiast!

What Twitter has taught me

I’m an unapologetic fan of Twitter, with all the zeal of the new convert.

My habit developed under my real name, a rich mix of news, journals, science, music, tech. I’m an eclecticist, and Twitter slowly, but completely supplanted my other social networks.

I made the switch to almost entirely professional use about 2 weeks ago, at the same time that this blog started. This has been a revelation. Finding that there are others, articulating many of my own thoughts, my frustrations. And doing it it more eloquently than I could.

Among the people that I follow are many who represent what I would once have considered the ‘enemy’. However, I have grown to believe that bipartisan approaches along dogmatic political lines do everyone a disservice. My values are firmly based on concepts of fairness, equality of opportunity, but I think the present calls for a dramatic overhaul of how we ‘do’ democracy. I’m learning to accept that there will always be ‘enemies’, but we still have to coexist and the obfusquation that passes for the decision making process is a waste of everyone’s time and energy.

I’m no intereb noob, though. In the old days, I loved a forum flame war as much as the next person. Ultimately, though, forums are generally closed communities. I have come to love Twitter because of the sheer mass of potential – one person tweets and that tweet could end up pretty much anywhere. I get a buzz from that.

Twitter has taught me to approach my words with due caution to impact, but it has also taught me to be less precious about my words. Each tweet is a seed in the wind, that may or may not plant. I have no idea whether the majority of my tweets are even consciously registered. but despite the high wastage (for those of us with ‘normal’ numbers of followers, distinctly not hanging on our every word), the seeds that do land can be pretty high yield.

This post is tagged ‘blather’. I’ve had a very relaxed Friday evening, and I’m feeling fired up and ready to change the world. I’d like to say thanks to everyone who has dropped by for a read over the past couple of weeks. I’m vain enough to be interested in my blog stats, so I know there are people reading, in places as diverse as Britain, Bahrain and Brunei. That’s pretty cool.

Humbly, Iorek