Why isn’t this taught in schools?

This was the cry of Susanna Reid on Good Morning Britain yesterday. In a discussion on the worthy quest by Martin Lewis to improve the teaching of financial literacy in schools (a move for which I am broadly in support), the well-paid presenter explained that one of her own children was surprised, shocked and no doubt disappointed by the news that they would have to pay tax on their own earnings. Reid was incredulous. Yet instead of reflecting on her own parenting and wondering how she had managed to raise someone with such a poor grasp of how the world works, she wailed “why isn’t this taught in schools?!” The entire panel agreed with her, with nobody raising the fact that basic financial literacy is, in fact, currently taught in schools.

To quote a nauseating political turn of phrase, let me be clear: I support the teaching of financial literacy in schools and I agree with Martin Lewis that it could do with some improvement. I support it because there are a small handful of vulnerable children who will not experience any discussion at home when it comes to financial matters. They may have parents who struggle to understand such things for themselves, who lack the skills and the vocabulary to enlighten their own children in complex matters. All of that said, I cling to the fact that all parents have a responsibility to teach their children about the world and how they fit into it and to the fact that the overwhelming majority of parents are perfectly capable of doing so. It is parents who have a duty to give children a sense that money doesn’t grow on trees and has to be earned, as well as the basic principle that most of the things they see around them have to be paid for and that this money comes from all of us. These are the kinds of things that must be discussed constantly in order for a child to grasp them, not ticked off on a curriculum list.

When we’re talking about a parent as privileged as Reid (you can look up the latest best guess on her salary), I am pretty unimpressed by the apparent fact that she does not consider it her responsibility to discuss such matters with her own children. To give her the benefit of the doubt, some people find talking about money with their own children difficult. Some want to cushion their children against the harsh reality that things have to be bought and paid for. I’ll be honest and say that I have never understood this. I consider myself hugely fortunate to have had parents who laid their cards on the table. Who told me what we could and could not afford. Who pointed to schoolmates with more luxurious lifestyles and punctured the image by deliberating where that money might have come from, what sacrifices may have been made in order to get hold of it. I was told that I was lucky to have a father who came home in the evenings and at weekends, who turned down more lucrative opportunities because he had different values and preferred to be at home with his family. By the same turn, my parents got lucky that I happened to observe one or two things that supported their rhetoric. Perhaps the most poignant moment was during a pool party at the house of a particularly wealthy classmate. They had an amazing house and an incredible lifestyle, one which could easily have impressed a child of my age. But the birthday girl’s mother spent the entire proceedings lying on a sun-lounger while we were supervised by the au pair, which I found really weird. (I was too young to work out that the mother was drunk, but realised this in later years). What I did understand at the time was that the child’s father made a brief appearance at around 4.00pm and she burst into tears: he was wearing a suit, carrying a briefcase and was leaving his daughter on her birthday to go to work. I remember thinking there and then, “if this is what buys you a private pool, you can keep it.”

Of course, the debate about where the responsibility lies for financial literacy forms part of a wider discussion on what schools are and should be used for and to what extent we are now asking them to take on things which really should not be their responsibility. I have written before on Labour’s mind-boggling suggestion that schools should take on teaching children how to brush their teeth, and barely a day goes by when there isn’t a story of a child sent in to primary school incapable of buttoning up their own coat, doing up their own shoelaces or even the basics of toilet training. Schools are now the receptacle for every failure in social care and – let us not be afraid to say it – every failure in parenting. It simply is not sustainable.

When I mentioned Reid’s comment on Twitter I received a lot of replies, with plenty of people telling me whether they did or did not recall receiving any teaching about financial literacy when they were in school. As always, everyone thinks their own recollections of school reflect the reality then and now, and everyone labours under the illusion that their own recollections are 100% accurate. If I believed every tutee who claimed they’d “never been taught” something I’d be declaring a state of emergency in Latin teaching across some of the most prestigious schools in the country. The reality? Well, they have been taught it, they just didn’t take it in at the time and it’s my job to fix that. The teaching of financial literacy in schools does take place and Reid’s children will in all likelihood have been given some basic teaching on taxes. Could the teaching of financial literacy improved? Certainly. As Lewis pointed out in the discussion on GMB, it is a topic currently divided between Maths and Citizenship in state secondary schools, so it might be a good idea to have someone with overall responsibility for coordinating the curriculum on finances across the whole school. Great idea. I’m all in favour. However, there will still be kids who simply don’t take it on board and I come back again and again to the reality that nothing is so powerful as the messaging a child receives at home.

So, Susanna: if you truly wanted your children to understand about paying taxes, then maybe you should have talked to them about such things on a regular basis to prepare them for the world they will be inhabiting. Your children have grown up in a household with a fair bit more money than the average person, so I hope very much that this was discussed. I hope you told them when times were tight, or explained to them how lucky they were that this was never the case, since mummy does a job that is considered worthy of a salary that most people in equally worthy professions could only dream about. I hope you talked to them about how much prices have gone up in the last couple of years. Do they know why most supermarkets now have a donation point for local food banks? Do they know the answer to the classic question that MPs are so frequently challenged with: do they know the price of a pint of milk these days? Do you? You see, your children’s teachers were not responsible for explaining the basics of how the world works. That job, I’m afraid, was yours.

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How did it go?

With the first Latin GCSE done and dusted, “how did it go?” is probably a question that every candidate has been asked and answered multiple times. This week, I have found myself wondering to what extent their self-evaluations are accurate.

Curious to discover an answer, I turned to the internet without much hope of finding one, yet came across a psychology study reported by The Learning Scientists, a group of cognitive scientists who focus on research in education. What’s particularly interesting about the study is that it attempts to evaluate students’ success at making what they call “predictions”, which the psychologists define as a student’s projection of their likely performance prior to a test, as well as their “postdictions”, by which they mean a student’s evaluation of their performance afterwards. The study attempted to make an intervention in that process, in other words they tried to improve students’ ability to make both “predictions” and “postdictions” about their own performance. The results are interesting.

The study was performed with a group of undergraduates, and the psychologists made several interventions in an attempt to improve their students’ ability to self-evaluate. They taught them specific techniques for making the most of feedback and they ensured that they took a practice test one week before each of the three exams that they sat, inviting students to self-score the practice test and reflect on any errors. The undergraduates were then encouraged to examine reasons why their “predictions” and their “postdictions” may have been inaccurate on the first two exams, and make adjustments. All of this was with the aim of improving their ability to self-evaluate.

The study found that while the undergraduates’ “postdictions” (i.e. their report on their own performance after the test) remained slightly more accurate than their own “predictions” (their projection of their likely performance), the above interventions resulted in no improvement in the accuracy of students’ “postdictions” over time. While the accuracy of some students’ “predictions” did improve somewhat, none of the undergraduates showed any significant improvement in their ability to make “postdictions”. The students’ ability to evaluate their own performance after each test remained as varied as they had been prior to the interventions.

As the authors conclude, “this study demonstrates … that improving the accuracy of students’ self-evaluations is very difficult.” This is genuinely interesting and certainly fits with my own anecdotal experience of my own ability to assess how I have performed after an examination, as well as the huge number of students that I have worked with over the years. A student’s own feelings after a test may be affected by a myriad of compounding factors and if I had a £1 for every student who felt that an examination had gone dismally who then turned out a perfectly respectable grade, I’d be a wealthy woman. In my experience, some students may over-estimate their “predictions” but most students underestimate their “postdictions”. It is interesting that those “postdictions” appear to be elusive when it comes to intervention and that the cognitive scientists have not – as yet – found a method of helping students to assess their own performance more accurately. I suspect that is because it is too emotive.

It is not obvious from the study how high-stakes the tests were – the psychologists do not make clear, for example, whether the test results contributed significantly (or indeed at all) to the assessment of the undergraduates’ own degree. This to me is something of an oversight, as an obvious compounding factor in any student’s ability to assess their own performance has to be their emotional response to it. Low-stakes testing as part of an experiment is a very different ball-game to the high-stakes testing of an examination that counts towards a GCSE, an A level or a degree class.

My conclusion for now, especially for my highest-achieving students, is to remain unconvinced that they know how well they have done. I could name countless students who have been deeply distressed after an examination, only to discover that they achieved a mark well above 90%. Even in the most seemingly disastrous of circumstances this can be the case. I know of students who missed out a whole question or indeed even a whole page of questions and still achieved an excellent grade overall, so solid was their performance on the rest of the paper and the other papers which counted towards their grade.

Much as it remains an important emotional connection to engage with every student about how they feel their exam went, they’re not a good barometer for what will be on the slip of paper when they open their envelope in August.

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Thoughtless examiners

While I am the last person who would advocate for whitewashing the ancient world, I do sometimes wonder at the sheer lack of sensitivity shown by examiners when it comes to the selection of the material that Latin GCSE candidates are faced with on the day.

The ancient world abounds with a plethora of stories fit for adaptation. The possibilities are endless. Given this fact, I fail to see the necessity of including stories that even prior to the #metoo era would unquestioningly be classified by all but Andrew Tate’s very worst acolytes as a story of sexual assault. The ancient world abounds with these stories too, and I am not suggesting that we should remove them from the corpus, nor that we should hide the truth of them from students who elect to study this material; it is profoundly important not only that we address these accounts but that we examine what they have to tell us about attitudes towards women and towards consent in the ancient world. But this is an examination I am talking about. Let us remember that there will be a range of students sitting each and every paper, some of whom may (or – according to the statistical reality – will) have experienced sexual assault for themselves. For some of them, the abuse will be ongoing. I’m sorry if this is upsetting news to anyone reading this, but if you work with young people and have undertaken any kind of safeguarding training then it should emphatically not be news to you that this is the case. So, to write an examination that includes a story of sexual assault is either to feign ignorance of the fact that some of our students will have suffered in this way, or is to declare that one simply does not care about the impact that the examination’s contents may have on some of our most vulnerable children, on what amounts to a very important day for them: a day on which their knowledge and hard work is being put to the test.

In an examination, a student who is already in a potentially stressful situation is forced to sit with the material in front of them and process it alone. If they are translating a passage, that means sitting with the material for some considerable period of time. It is clear that the examiners gave no thought to this and I refuse to accept that one has to be some kind of super-woke convert to the concept of trauma-informed education to raise an eyebrow at their monumentally insensitive decision to include this material. Personally, I have some concerns about the spread of trauma-informed practice into education, often pushed by advocates who know nothing about the realities of classroom teaching; I consider some of its most lethal mutations potentially harmful when it interferes with a school’s basic need to provide a robust disciplinary framework for all students to thrive within. Yet humanity and frankly common sense surely teaches us that one should think carefully about the impact that the content of our lessons may have on students, and even more so about the content of an examination that will be sat by thousands of them, on their own, without support.

During my teaching career I worked with the OCR specification, so have come to the WJEC specification in recent years as demand from tutees has increased. I am now at the point where I am looking closely at individual past papers and last week I worked through the contents of the 2020 WJEC GCSE language paper. I was frankly appalled. I have spoken to a couple of contacts who have far more influential voices in the field than I possess and they confirmed to me that they have already raised concerns in the past, to no avail.

So let’s see what everyone else thinks of the content, shall we? The first passage on the 2020 paper consists of Jupiter disguising himself in order to have his wicked way with an innocent young nymph named Callisto. So far, so typical Jupiter and perhaps euphemistic enough for most of us to be broadly okay with the story’s use. However, things do not remain euphemistic. In this particular retelling, Jupiter disguises himself as the virgin goddess Diana, a close companion of Callisto, so that he can enter Callisto’s bed, and the story continues as follows – below is my version of what the students were asked to translate; I have not quoted the Latin extensively, in case they come at me with copyright complaints, but you can view the paper freely here on their own website:

Callisto, when she saw the goddess, was happy; but as soon as Jupiter lay down next to her and gave her a kiss, Callisto realised that she was not a woman but the god. She was terrified. For she had avoided men her whole life, just like Diana. Although she tried to escape, Jupiter held her down easily.

The passing mention that she had “avoided men her whole life, just like Diana” may (one hopes) have gone over the head of most students, but the truth is that it is spelling it out for readers that Callisto is still a virgin. This, plus the clear implication that Jupiter forced himself upon Callisto and physically held her down, is bad enough, but the disturbing content continues:

Having entered the woods with her other companions, Diana greeted Callisto, who was again so terrified that she wanted to run away: she thought that the god was coming back for her. But after she saw the companions, she hurried towards them, crying. “Why are you crying?” they asked. “What happened?” “Nothing,” the unhappy girl replied. After a few days, however, they persuaded Callisto to tell them what had happened.

She thought that the god was coming back for her?! Who thought that line was a great one to include? The Latin is deum ad se redire putavit, a marvellous opportunity to test candidates on the indirect statement with a past tense main verb and a present tense infinitive, well done chaps! Didn’t think about what the statement actually meant, though, did you? I really do despair. (I know I shouldn’t assume that they’re all men but really … what else can one assume? That a woman thought this was okay? I do hope not).

Perhaps worst of all, in a final turn of events, Callisto’s friend and protector Diana turns on her and blames her for her own assault, as does the ever-jealous wife of Jupiter:

Callisto’s companions, shocked by such serious news, hurried to Diana to report the matter to her. Diana, who was very angry, ordered Callisto to leave at once. “You are not blameless” she said. “Do not ever return to us.” Callisto left, very unhappy. She was forced to live in the woods for many months. Meanwhile Juno was watching her. Juno was the wife of Jupiter. Although Jupiter was always trying to deceive her, Juno had found out what he had done. “That very bad nympth will pay for this” she said.

The word (glossed on the exam paper and translated as per the examiner’s instructions as) “blameless” is casta. The phrase could be translated “you are not innocent”, “you are not pure”, “you are not chaste” (our closest equivalent as a direct derivative) or indeed “you are not a virgin”.

The messaging here is clear. A girl is sexually assaulted, is deeply distressed by the assault, is terrified that it will be repeated and finally is told by others that the assault is her fault and that she is sullied goods. How on earth is it possible that this material made it past the huge number of eyes that one presumes (hopes?) get to look at it before it makes it onto the final draft of an examination paper? Did not one of them think to ask whether the content was appropriate or frankly even necessary? Was there no other single story that would have sufficed, from all of the other thousands of ancient stories that are in our possesion? One can only imagine that every single examiner involved was so blissfully ignorant as to the realities of life for some of our young people that they simply did not consider the fact that the material might be unfit for purpose. All I can say is lucky for those who live their own lives knowing so little about other peeople’s pain and distress.

In the past I have written about the content of the text book Suburani and consider some of it inappropriate for younger students, but at least in a text book the material can (and indeed should) be managed by the classroom teacher, who can skip out that section altogether should they decide – as I would – that it is simply not appropriate for their class. If they do decide to tackle the material, they can manage how this is done and provide guidance and a supportive atmosphere for students to respond to it. In an examination, students are left completely exposed, with no gatekeepers to protect them and no safety net to catch them if they end up in freefall. For me, that is simply and emphatically not acceptable and a clear betrayal of our duty of care.

Photo by Zhivko Minkov on Unsplash

They didn’t (always) behave for me

A conversation with one of my younger tutees this week reminded me just how toxic classroom disruption can be. While rueing his poor performance in a recent test, the boy expressed real frustration about the situation in his Latin class. “Some kids just see it as their job to mess around” he said. He even reported that the situation had brought his teacher to tears in the past.

At even its most minor level, any form of classroom disruption is an issue for all learners. Children who may be struggling with the material go unsupported because their teacher’s attention is taken by the disruptors in the class (who may, of course, be struggling themselves). Schools which have not yet faced up to the inescapable fact that impeccable behaviour is the central, non-negotiable foundation on which all teaching and learning is built, those schools will continue to let young learners down.

One of the things I find most puzzling about the teaching profession is that we cannot seem to agree on how to manage behaviour. Debates continue to rage about schools which set the bar high, with cries from numerous educators claiming that vulnerable students and/or SEND students cannot handle such a high bar and that clear boundaries such as the use of SLANT in classrooms and the insistence on silent corridors are oppressive and stifling. I find this baffling, not to mention an insult to the children with those needs. As someone who has worked in schools rated Good or Outstanding for behaviour, I can tell you that there were times when I was frightened in the corridors. There were times when I felt pushed around and intimidated by some students. There were times when I felt humiliated. What this all translates to in schools with behaviour that ends up being classified below Good I cannot even begin to imagine. Moreover, if I as a middle-aged adult felt like this in the school corridor, how did our most vulnerable students feel?

A recent survey on Teacher Tapp, a daily survey app for classroom teachers, highlighted the ever-increasing use of ear defenders by some students in our schools. As I pointed out in response to the discussion, I find their necessity deeply depressing. How did we get to the point where we simply accept that some school environments are too noisy and overwhelming for some of our students? Like that’s ok? And like noisy, boisterous environments aren’t actually a negative for all learners? How on earth did we end up in a situation in which the kind of equipment required by men on building sites using machines to break up concrete becomes a necessity to protect our students from the environment in our schools?

Let me tell you about my one of my own experiences in the classroom. I was sent to an expensive girls’ boarding school (although I didn’t board, I was one of a small percentage of day pupils). In Year 9 (or the Upper Fourth, as it was called would you believe) I was part of a Classical Civilisation class run by a young female teacher whom I shall call Miss Jones. Poor Miss Jones was a sweet, kind and well-meaning woman, who no doubt went into teaching because she cared about her subject and wanted to share it with the world. I suspect she had no training, because in a private school in the 1980s teacher training was considered very much optional and barely even desirable. The school was tiny, consisting of 400 girls in total and had a pretty strict regime – for example, silent corridors. The Head was terrifying – genuinely so. But poor Miss Jones, with her reticent nature, her lack of training and her lack of experience, had no control over our class. One girl was particularly disruptive. I shall call her Millie. Millie was taller and looked older than most of us. She terrified many of us and was a merciless bully to some. That included Miss Jones. Millie refused to cooperate with the class, to the extent that she would not sit where she was told, she would not participate in the class in any way, she would not even unpack her bag. She would lay her head on the desk in a flagrant show of disdain. Miss Jones’s methodology was to ignore her and try to teach around her, but behaviour in general was so poor that we all learnt very little. She never received any support or help with the situation and did not last long in the job.

I share this to illustrate the fact that issues with poor behaviour occur in all schools. Another recent survey from Teacher Tapp, carried out just this week, indicates that student behaviour, alongside workload, is now the overwhelming reason why teachers are leaving the profession in their thousands. There is much talk about “challenging” schools and understandably so, because getting behaviour right in such places has very real safeguarding issues, as explained in this brilliant blog post which I have cited many times before. Yet I would like to highlight the fact that behaviour that is disruptive enough to impact on teaching and learning goes on everywhere – in schools rated Good or Outstanding, in grammar schools and in private schools. Some of what I hear from my tutees would not be out of place in a chapter of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies – and these are the sorts of schools with Latin on their timetable.

While I do not wish to promote panic or cause any pearl-clutching, I do believe that disruptive behaviour in our schools is an issue that nobody wants to face up to. Nobody – whether they are a parent or a teacher – wants to believe that our children’s education is being hampered by disruption in the classroom. It is hard for all of us to accept. While writing this blog post, a memory from close to a decade ago came back to me with a jolt. It is a comment made by a boy in one of my past Forms, a boy who was one of the most disruptive members of the class (and indeed the school). “Your PSHE lessons are like watching a YouTube video with crap internet, Miss: you keep buffering.” I recall being somewhat non-plussed by this rude remark, one which was called out across the class and interrupted the flow of the lesson in exactly the way he was describing. Out of the mouths of our not-so-innocent babes can come the real truth: my ability to share information was being constantly put on pause, meaning that the flow of explanation was consistently and endlessly interrupted. This was painfully obvious, even to the members of the class who were causing most of the interruptions, a fact we should perhaps give some thought. I remember being further stunned when an out-of-control student expressed his desire to join the army; as I picked my jaw up off the floor and used it to point out to him that he would have to behave in the army, he said “yeah. That’s the point.” I’ve never forgotten the fact that he knew he needed more discipline than we were providing for him. We let him down. Badly.

So, back to my tutee, who was complaining about the behaviour in his Latin class. He described exactly the kind of intermittment “buffering” that the lovely Liam pointed out to me a decade ago, so it sounded all-too familiar, but this week it really hit me just how truly appalling the situation is for so many young learners and just how many of them have come to accept it as part of their school experience. “Just as I think I’m starting to get something,” he said, “the teacher has to stop and then I’ve lost it all over again.” That’s when my heart broke a little.

It’s hard to know who needs to hear this but I suspect it’s all of us: classroom teachers, parents and senior leaders all need to face up to the problem for what it is and reassert our right and our responsibility to be the adults in the room. Disruption – low-level or otherwise – is kryptonite to every child’s understanding and progress. To ignore this is to let all of our children down.

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Nobody said it would be this hard

Why does Latin have the reputation of being so difficult? Everybody thinks that it’s difficult and to some extent it is – but so is any language, once you get past, “Bonjour, je m’appelle Emma”.

Grammar is tricky and it’s still not taught in our own language to the degree that it is in most other countries. To listen to educators, writers and commentators report on the increased level of rigour in the teaching of literacy in primary schools, you’d think that the problem was solved. In truth, the level to which grammar is taught discretely in English schools is still woeful by comparison with schools in other countries. To a certain extent, this is a self-perpetuating problem caused by failures in the system over the last couple of generations. Many current teachers admit that they struggle to teach concepts that they themselves were never taught in school, and if I had a £1 for every English teacher that has come to me for help with basic English grammar, I’d have enough for a slap-up meal.

Let’s take a closer look at why some children struggle so much with Latin over and above their other subjects and – specifically – more than any other language they might be learning in school. One obvious reason, I think, is the unfamiliar territory which this dead language presents to family and friends. Many parents and guardians feel able to offer support to their children in other subjects, certainly in the early years. I work with many families who are really involved with their children’s homework and study and children certainly do benefit from this kind of proactive and interested support at home. Lots of families employ me because they care about their children’s studies but they themselves feel ill-equipped to support them in Latin due to their own lack of knowledge; with only around 2.5% of state schools currently offering Latin on their timetable, I don’t anticipate that situation changing in a hurry. As a result of the fact that so few people have experience of Latin as a subject, it maintains a kind of mystique, and that all feeds into its reputation as an inaccessible and challenging subject.

Furthermore, and at the risk of stating the obvious, Latin is an ancient lanaguage and a dead one. What does it mean that the language is dead? Quite simply, that nobody speaks it any more. As a result, the content of what children are asked to translate will often seem very obscure. The ancient world was very different from ours and much of what went on – even in the most mundane aspects of daily life – can seem unfamiliar or even bizarre. Add to this the fact that a lot of the time students will be looking at stories from ancient myths or founding legends and we’re then into a whole new world of weirdness. The thing is, children generally like the weirdness – and indeed the darkness – of these ancient tales; if you think that children don’t appreciate the darkness of the world then explain the thundering success of a children’s author such as Patrick Ness. Children are not necessarily put off by the puzzling nature of what they are translating, but it can certainly contribute to their belief that the material is obscure.

The realities of learning an ancient language compared to a modern one are summed up by this absolutely hilarious snippet which has been doing the rounds on the internet for donkey’s years:

So, we’ve dealt with Latin’s reputation and we’ve explored the inherent fact of it being an ancient, dead language that may make it potentially difficult to access. On top of that lies the truth that Latin as a language is very different from our own and indeed from any others we are likely to be taught in UK schools.

The most important thing to understand is that Latin is a heavily inflected language. What that means is that word-formation matters: we’re not just talking about spelling here, because if you look at a word that is wrongly spelled in English, you will still more than likely be able to recognise it in context and thus understand the sentence. However, in inflected languages, words are modified to express different grammatical categories such as tense, voice, number, gender and mood. The inflection of verbs is called conjugation and this will be familiar to students of all languages, but in Latin (and in other heavily-inflected languages such as German) nouns are inflected too (as are adjectives, participles, pronouns and some numerals). So, words change and therefore become difficult to recognise. What blows students’ minds most in my experience is how this inflection translates into English and how the rendering of that translation can be confusing. For example, ad feminam in Latin means “to the woman” in the sense of “towards the woman”, so I might use the phrase in a sentence such as “the boy ran over to the woman”. However, as well as ad feminam, the word feminae, with that different ending and no preposition, can also mean “to the woman”, but this time in the sense of “giving something to”. I would therefore use feminae in a sentence such as “I gave a gift to the woman”. Using ad feminam in that context would be completely wrong. Trying to unpick why two grammatically different phrases sound the same in English is just one tiny example of myriad of misconceptions and misunderstandings that children can acquire and that can cause problems later down the line. What’s great about one-to-one tutoring, of course, is that these kinds of misconceptions can be uncovered, unpicked and rectified.

Due to its inflection, many Latin words become extremely difficult to recognise as they decline or conjugate. This brings us to what many students find the most disheartening thing about the subject, which is vocabulary learning. If a student has worked hard to learn the meaning of a list of words, imagine their disappointment and frustration when this effort bears no fruit for them when it comes to translating. A child may have learned that do means “give” but will they recognise dant, dabamus or dederunt, which are all versions of that same verb? Well, without explicit instruction, lots of practice and a huge amount of support, probably not. This can be really depressing for students and can lead to them wanting to give up altogether, which is where a tutor comes in.

Another consequence of the fact that Latin is inflected is that a Latin sentence has to be decoded – you can’t just read it from left to right. Breaking the habit of reading from left to right is one of the biggest challenges that we face when trying to teach students how to succeed in Latin. Even when a child has worked hard to learn all of their noun endings and all of their verb endings, they still need a huge amount of support and scaffolding to show them how to process these and map them onto the sentences in front of them. Most Latin teachers really underestimate the amount of time, effort and repetition that it takes to help them to break this habit. Once again, this is where one-to-one tuition can be really powerful: working with a child to model the process is key.

The reluctant Luddite

I am anything but a Luddite. Technology is remarkable and wonderful and I could not be luckier to have been born in the late 20th century and have the privilege of seeing our access to the written word proliferate thanks to the digital world.

As someone cursed with poor (and increasingly deteriorating) eyesight, I thank my lucky stars on a daily basis for the advent of smart screens, giving me the power to choose the nature, size and resolution of fonts, not to mention the simply glorious dawn of the audiobook. The younger among you will not recall, but the reading options for people with poor eyesight even just 20 years ago were dismal: a vanishingly small number of books were put onto audio CD and very few places stocked them. These days, the best actors are squabbling over the reading rights to books. Not long ago, I listened to a simply perfect narration of The Dutch House by Ann Pratchett, read by some chap called Tom Hanks. In a world where current research seems to indicate a worrying downturn in children reading for pleasure, I support any and all routes for them to access stories and tales, by whatever means.

As a result of all this, I always feel slightly uncomfortable when I find myself making a case against digital technology. I am the last person to criticise for I acknowledge and appreciate the huge benefits that the advent of the internet and digital technology have brought to me. Not only could I not do my job without them, my life would be infinitely poorer and less diverse. Yet one must always be cautious of what one is throwing away, and when it comes to children’s development of literacy we should be particularly so. First and foremost, we should be hyper-focused on the best ways of helping children to learn to read and write.

In January, the Guardian highlighted that “a ground-breaking study shows kids learn better on paper than on screen,” but the truth is that this information has been out there for at least two decades. Modern cognitive science evidences that motor and sensory aspects of our behaviour have a far-reaching impact on our knowledge and recall. Of course it does. Our brain is an embodied phenomenon that makes sense of the world through the physical data it receives. In a study carried out way back in 2005, subjects were shown a series of words and asked to indicate whether each word was positive or negative by moving a joystick. Half of the subjects were told to indicate that a word was positive or “good” by pulling the joystick towards their bodies, while the other half were told to indicate “good” by pushing it away. A consistent correlation was observed between meaning and movement: the quickest, most accurate and most confident responses were produced by the subjects who were told to indicate “good” by pulling the joystick towards themselves, and to indicate “bad” by pushing it away. The hypothesis is that this relates to our natural embodied state – what’s “good” feels natural drawn physically towards us, what’s “bad” feels like something we should naturally push away. This direct and inherent involvement of the body and senses in our cognitive processes helps to explain how writing by hand (as opposed to on a keyboard or a tablet) helps us to learn letters and words most efficiently. The fact that forming letters by hand is superior to doing so with the use of technology is well accepted among cognitive scientists and literacy specialists.

Furthermore, it is not just the early-years essentials of learning to write that are supported by the process of hand-writing. A study in 2021 compared subjects’ recall of words learned either by typing or writing by hand and found that recall was better when words had been learned using a pen and paper. In another study, a small group of adults learned symbols from an unfamiliar language that they then had to reproduce with either a pen or a keyboard. When they had finished learning the symbols, there were no differences in recall between the two methods, but the keyboard users forgot a significant amount of what they had learned as time passed. In other words, the process of handwriting the symbols was much more effective for long-term recall. Evidence for the effectiveness of handwriting over typing when it comes to learning is now pretty overwhelming and neuroscientists suggest that learning with a pen and paper is better because it is more “embodied,” meaning that it involves more complex sensory-motor feedback for each letter as it is written down. This complexity leaves a more distinctive blueprint in our memories and hence makes things easier to memorise and recall.

I have written before on a methodology I teach to help students to learn their set texts off by heart. The process involves writing down the first letter of each word and works only if students do so by hand. The effectiveness of the method is increased hugely if the student can be persuaded to say the whole word aloud as they write the letter. So, to learn the opening line of Portia’s speech to Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, students would say out loud “The quality of mercy is not strained” while writing the letters “T q o m i n s” in time with their articulation of the words. The physicality of the process and the immersive nature of writing, saying and repeating is quite remarkably powerful and I have never had a student fail to learn the texts using this method.

The data and current research on the importance of physical texts and handwriting have not gone unnoticed. Sweden, a country often cited as superior to ours when it comes to education, experienced a downtrend in literacy levels from 2016 onwards and is back-peddling wildly on their roll-out of digital technology in schools, returning to a focus on physical books and handwriting. What’s worrying for me is that the trend may be going in the opposite direction in the UK. Perhaps most worrying of all, the major examination boards have all indicated their desire to move towards digital examinations, despite the overwhelming chorus of dismay from Headteachers across the country who know that they simply do not have the infrastructure to support such a move. It is unsurprising that examination boards want to push the digital model, as the current process of collecting and digitising examination scripts no doubt costs them a fortune; but beyond the logistical nightmare for schools that the digitisation of examinations will present, I genuinely fear for the impact on students’ literacy and understanding. A move towards digital examinations will push schools further down the road of letting students do everything on screen (many private schools and well-funded academies are already there) and the effect on their learning will be catastrophic. Some of the students I work with are already in this position and their grasp of the texts they are learning is woeful; their teachers allow them access to a simply overwhelming number of documents, all of which they are expected to have the skills to access and draw information from, when in reality they have little to no idea what’s actually in front of them and how that relates to what they need to commit to memory.

So I find myself a somewhat reluctant Luddite, telling my students to reach for a notepad and pen and encouraging them to form letters on a page by hand. The irony in the fact that I am doing so over Zoom is not lost on me, but here’s the thing: technology is incredible, it is life-changing, it is illuminating, it is wonderfully democratic and a great leveller for those of us with physical disabilities. We must, however, be circumspect with how we use it and thus ensure that we do not unwittingly lose more than we gain.

Pyramid schemes

For every dubious claim in education, there’s a pyramid. Educationalists love them. Whether it be Bloom’s taxonomy, Maslow’s hierarcy of need or Dale’s cone of experience (otherwise known as the learning pyramid) it’s got to be presented in that shape, preferably one with a rainbow of colours. A pyramid diagram means it must be true.

Quite how anyone could ever be convinced by statements such as “we recall only 10% of what we read” is fascinating to me. Think about it. We recall only 10% of what we read?! That’s demonstrably ridiculous. This is not the only verifiably false claim I have had presented to me during my 21-year career in the classroom. I’ve listened to countless dubious assertions about how the brain works, made by people who probably struggled to pass their biology O level. I’ve sat through demonstrations of “Brain Gym”, during which I was told that waggling your head back and forward “oxygenates your frontal cortex”. I’ve been told that mind-map diagrams are the best and only way to present information to students because they look a bit like the branch-like structure of brain cells under a microscope. I’ve been told that some children’s brains work better on the left than they do on the right, and that whether they are “left-brained or right-brained” will influence their learning outcomes. These are the kinds of mind-bogglingly ridiculous assertions that were made in schools all over the country while exhausted teachers sat on plastic chairs in draughty halls and listened to them. The insult to our intelligence, never mind the sorry waste of taxpayers’ money on this drivel, makes me feel quite ill.

Yesterday I attended an online presentation given by John Nichols, the President of The Tutors’ Association and someone I worked with when I was a member of the Board of Directors of that Association a few years ago. John is an intelligent man of great integrity and has an excellent working knowledge of educational theory in all its glorious mutations, not all of them for the good. He took us on a whistlestop tour of some enduring ideas from psychologists in the 1950s, through the persistent neuromyths that have been debunked a thousand times but just won’t die, right up to the useful stuff at last being brought to us by neuroscientists about working memory, cognitive load and schema theory. It is truly heartening to know that this kind of information is being shared with tutors who are members of the Association and with luck it will start to filter through and influence the way people work.

Teachers are a cynical bunch and it would be easy for those of us who have been drowning in the tsunami of nonsense we’ve been swept away by over the years to be cynical about the more recent developments in educational theory. I am not and here’s why: they’re applicable to learning at a practical level and they work. When you apply the key principles of retrieval practice and spaced learning, you see an immediate and dramatic improvement in learning outcomes for your students. When you bear in mind cognitive load and attempt to reduce the pressure on students’ working memory in the classroom, you likewise see results. None of this was true of the old stuff, which caused nothing but obfuscation and distraction in the classroom. Even when I first joined the profession as a rookie and was regretably at my most susceptible, there was a little voice in my head telling me that this stuff was – to borrow the phrase of my old Classics master – a load of old hooey.

A part of me wishes that I’d listened to that voice sooner, but I should not be too hard on my former self, I think: it is difficult to stand against a tidal wave of so-called information when your bosses are telling you it’s all real and are also telling you that you’ll be marked down as a bad teacher if you don’t dance to their tune. When I think about the wasted hours I spent in my career trying to apply principles that were clearly nonsense because I was told to, I could weep. All of that time could have been so much better spent.

Happily, nobody now dictates to me how I work. I apply the principles that are evidence-based and work for my students. The overwhelming majority of them respond readily. For some, the simplest of techniques can feel like a revelation or a miracle, which only serves to show how far some schools have yet to go in distilling this information to their frontline teachers. To be honest, I am sympathetic to schools who remain suspicious about advice on how children learn. You can only try and sell people so many pyramid schemes before they develop a pretty cynical attitude towards any kind of salesmen.

Photo by Gaurav D Lathiya on Unsplash

Post-mock post-mortem?

No matter how many years I spent at the chalkface, I remained unconvinced as to the value of dissecting children’s Mock papers in class. While there was always an urge to pore over mistakes and demonstrate to students exactly what they should have written, I never felt that the process added as much value as I would have liked. Now that I am separated from the classroom, it is perhaps easier to reflect on why that might be.

Even if students have already received their overall grades (my old school used to dish them out in enevelopes to give them the “full experience” of receiving their results), the class in which students first gain sight of their papers in the one where they see how they performed in the separate papers of each exam. In most schools, they may also have just been told their overall grade by the teacher. This, to me, is the problem. Ever since Black and Wiliam first published their seminal work on assessment for learning (a concept they now wish they had named “responsive teaching”), the authors observed that students take significantly less notice of feedback if there is a grade attached to it, rendering the process of feedback close to pointless. This should not surprise us greatly: it is a natural response to be fixated on how you performed overall rather than the minutiae of why that result has come to pass, especially when the overall performance grade is high-stakes. It is very difficult for students to let go of their emotional response to their grade (whether it be good or bad) and concentrate on the feedback offered. This goes especially for students who are shocked and/or upset by their result, and thus calls into question the wisdom of the entire process.

It is difficult for classroom teachers to know what to do for the best. Every instinct drives any good teacher to provide detailed feedback to individual students and to the class, but to do this effectively can be close to impossible for a variety of reasons. Imagine a class in which some students have performed superbly, others have truly bombed. The inevitable emotional response from students to their performance will make the class in which feedback takes place highly-charged and potentially difficult to manage. Moreover, students who perform most poorly will probably benefit the least from the process, which leads me to conclude that there is little point in doing it at all. To not do so, on the other hand, can feel like letting those students down and failing to explain to them where they went wrong. It would take an immense amount of self-belief and confidence.

Yet let us consider the point of feedback. If students are not shown explicitly how they can improve their grade next time round, it is inherently pointless. This may well mean that the traditional “going through the paper” is close to irrelavant to those students who performed badly in it, since they will gain little to nothing from the process of being shown the correct answers. With my own tutees I am giving them headline information about their performance by telling them the areas they need to focus on and/or the types of questions we need to practise. We will then practise other questions of the same type. This is much more effective than smoking over the smouldering embers of their cataclysmic performance under pressure – a process which is simply too threatening and disheartening to be of value.

I am more and more coming to the conclusion that Mock exams should be there to inform the teacher what the students don’t know, affording them the opportunity to focus their teaching time on those particular areas in the remaining weeks of the academic year. Mocks are not something which most students can successfully analyse or diagnose their own problems. The pressure on teachers to “go through” the Mocks at a granular level is huge, but really the process has limited – if any – value to students. We need to trust teachers to provide and guide the learning curve that students should go through, based on how they performed.

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash