Language, the choice of words and the attention we choose to give them shapes response*. Recently I’ve been thinking about the language we use to introduce very young children to classroom learning. I’m particularly interested in the notion of rules, how they signify classroom culture and how they are used to direct behaviour.
It seems every school classroom I’ve ever been in has had protocols formal or informal, stated or unspoken, to shape norms. On occasion a quick glance at the classroom rules tells you what no interview would. Here for example is a photograph – taken last Thursday by a colleague – of a set of class rules from a secondary school in Tennessee,
Notice rule number four on attentiveness – ‘head off table, no snoring.’
I’m struck how quickly a school can socialize very young children. The teachers’ choice of the Golden Rules for classes 5 and 6 year olds quickly seems to become lodged in their minds as what is necessary for learning. I worry that what we do when we stick up this sort of sign – Listen and Silent are spelled with the same letters – is that we create passivity in our learners. This may have its place when children arrive at school with few social skills and little experience of interacting with others but, over time, it makes the task of developing independent learners and thinkers more and more difficult.
So we set out to put this theory to the test and to explore better alternatives. My colleague John Turner and I set up some interviews with very young children. We spoke to six children from KS1. They were very bright and personable, able to relate to what we were asking and for the most part stay focussed on the questions asked.
We started by asking what sorts of words came to mind when they thought of school: which words would they use if describing their school to an adult. – fun, learning, awesome, good games, amazing, fun (again) and fantastic. They were amused by the question and enjoyed thinking about their answers!
We next asked what sorts of words came to mind when they thoughts of a good teacher. we asked this question so that we could begin to obtain a view on what they thought about themselves as learners and what the relationship with the teacher might be. We asked which words they’d used if describing a really good teacher to an adult. The words used were nice, helpful, intelligent, kind, fantastic, very good, special, really good person and then kind and nice again! This was interesting because it was entirely bound up in the relationship and in being an open, friendly and accessible adult.
The next question was about them as learners: what do you have to do to be really good at learning? This was perhaps the most useful part of the interview process and was as interesting for what was not said as for what was said. The responses were:
- be nice to others
- help others
- be good at listening
- don’t copy other people
- if someone falls over help them up
- help if someone’s stuck
- do what your told
- don’t be naughty
We then went on to ask about what was their favourite sort of learning. We were told:
- Maths: because it helps you learn quicker
- Art: they teach you how to make stuff and you get even better and your drawing and writing gets really nice and neat
- Literacy: you get neat handwriting and be a good story teller. More people like your story and you might be a famous writer
- PE: its really fun and it gets you exercised up and my mum really likes it makes me tired
- Football: at sports day because I’m really good at scoring goals and saving
- Talking about famous people: everyone likes it and it gets you talking
- Everything : I have so much fun at the end of the day I’m so tired when I get home I have to go to bed straight away
We also asked about the hardest lessons and what was most difficult to learn. The responses included:
- Maths: Year 2 expect us to do better and sometimes its too hard
- PE: its really tiring and it really hurts your back and stomach
- Maths: sometimes there’s really big numbers, that’s hard and counting
Finally we asked their views on why they had to come to school and learn. We asked specifically why they had to learn. Their responses included:
- You have to learn because you just have to
- So that when you are older you are clever
- So that you can be a clever clogs
- All the numbers and things
- You learn things in the past and in the future
- To be good at listening
- To do GCSE’s
- So that when you go to year 2 your teachers think you are intelligent
What caught our attention was that the children were very clear on what was expected and most of the behaviours they described were associated with being ‘good’ rather than being ‘good at learning.’ This offered an opportunity for the school to begin its work on creating independent learners early in their school lives!
On the premise that you will get more of what you reinforce we looked again at creating a positive classroom culture with a new set of rules. John and I asked staff to look at the class protocols already used with a view to revising them in favour of learning behaviours. The learning behaviours included learning together to be even better at:
- Explaining things
- Asking good questions
- Learning something new
- Practising hard till you get it right
- Thinking carefully
- Listening carefully
- Trying different ways of doing things
- Being a learning friend who helps others learn
- Making someone else happy
- Becoming better at sharing
- Reading every day
Within hours of the teachers discussing and using the new learning behaviours children responded. Teachers too had an emerging vocabulary – one which shifted them away from talking about doing towards describing the learning which emerged from the doing.
It remains to be seen whether the higher energy levels, increased persistence and improved engagement noticeable in many of the children remain but it has to be better than passive bidability which, long-term, will switch them away from understanding and enjoying their learning.
The most absurd rules are always the ones promoted by misguided adults. How would you as a six year-old respond to this one placed on a door in the main hall? “No pupil allowed in this cupboard – this is an adult cupboard”.
*Thanks to Geoff Barton for pointing me to the video!