Ken Robinson, in a talk in March this year, reminded the audience at Learning without Frontiersthat education involves a teacher and a learner and nothing should be added to that without there being a need for it.
He said: “[the politics, architecture, trade union agreements, publishers, examination boards have] formed a kind of sclerosis around it”. And over the past few weeks of sitting with and listening to teachers and children across my school it strikes me how right this sentiment feels. The overriding sense I get from teachers, both new and experienced, seems to be one of policy and initiative fatigue, which have left teachers confused about what it is they should really be doing and consequently children as well. In other areas of my job – at the moment looking at how curricular targets are set for children in English – the amount of vague, sometimes nonsensical and very rarely clear guidance available, only served to confirm the suspicion.
I agree with Gove (and this is likely to be the only time I ever have the opportunity to write that…) about the need to strip back the curriculum and get back to basics. And the basics are? Well, teaching children to read, write, speak and listen effectively (and even with flair) seems as good a place as any to start.
To return to Robinson’s thought, of the few things I think should be added to the teacher/ learner equation are high quality children’s books. It’s necessary as a model for the children’s own writing, as the best model teachers can use to show how readers go about decoding a text, the behaviours they embody, the questions they ask of a text, the discussions they have around it and the sense they make. The more I’ve looked at my own reading history, the more I see the importance of enjoyment in my (continuing) development as a reader. I want to help put some of the pleasure back into the teaching of reading and writing, something that too easily gets pushed to the side when literacy initiatives pile on top of each other. And lots of the research I’ve been reading recently (including this), as well as common sense, tells me if children are motivated to read and write, they will achieve more highly and push themselves further. My own research with our current cohort of Year 4 children confirms this, showing children who report they do not enjoy reading tend also to be the children report reading less and also children who achieve lower in standard assessments.
The first step in this journey for me is to look at the books the children have access to at school, in their classrooms, reading schemes, libraries and other spaces around school (I’ve had fantastic fun today picking out 70 or so picturebooks, poetry anthologies and short story collections for the opening of our reading garden), and also increase the importance we place on reading for pleasure by developing our school libraries, pushing against the trend of library closures and cutbacks to ‘non-essential services’. It seems at a time when library services increasingly find themselves under pressure, we ought to be placing more and more importance on these services as providing an essential part of developing the people who will keep our knowledge economy strong and contribute to a happier and fairer society.
To paraphrase Ken Robinson again, education is a process of helping people engage with the world around them and understand themselves, and the best children’s books help them understand, explore and wonder at the world around them and engage with themselves and others.
Currently reading: The Hobbit, Dick King Smith’s Harry’s Mad, Polly Dunbar’s Penguin, Anthony Browne’s Dad and Adrian Chambers’ Tell Me.