“Comic Sans. Use Comic Sans for everything. It’s the easiest font to read.”
“Righto. Will do.”
Up until a couple of years ago, I used to car share with Paul. Very sadly, Paul isn’t with us anymore. Paul was a real intellectual, the sort of chap you don’t seem to find very often in education. Strangely, for a teacher, he was genuinely interested in education. He wanted to talk through and work out what it was for, how it worked and why we did it. We’d sit and specualate on how teaching had arrived in its current form, imagining the informal institutions of the early pre-Roman Britains, through Greek symposia and mediaeval court tutors. We’d reflect on the impact of various Education Acts and the non-impact of the latest government initiative. If he’d still been here, we’d have had a field day spending 45 minutes each morning and evening dismantling Gove’s daily updates. But he wasn’t only interested in education; our conversations would move from Anthropology to Zoology, via English Literature and Computer Science. The man was a rare find indeed – he knew something about everything and lots about most of it.
I remember one particular conversation where we both became particulalry irrate. It was following our school becoming “dyslexia friendly”. We kept getting emails about making sure displays were “dyslexia friendly” and to ensure that all worskheets were in “dyslexia friendly font”. Poor old Paul used to get furious about this, and I could see his point. “How are we helping these people by making everything easy for them?!” he used to howl in derision, “how is this preparing them for the real world?” He was absolutely right. You can’t turn up to an interview or a presentation or even a football match and suddenly demand that all fonts are changed to make them easier to read. Anyone with even the tiniest knowledge of typography understands that fonts are chosen for a reason. Every font we see is a conscious design choice to create an effect on the audience. So by encouraging people with poor literacy skills (“dyslexia” as they call it these days) we are simply cultivating a selfish belief that things should be tailored to their own individual needs and denying them the rich experience of cultural literacy.
The final straw came one day when they decided that all the door signs should replaced. The new sign specification demanded that all door signs should be in Century Gothic font (it has a “dyslexic friendly” ‘a’ font you see) in blue on a cream background with an accompanying image to depict what subject was taught in the room. Paul was furious. To him, and to me too, this was the absolute height of farce. By purporting to help these people with poor literacy skills, all we were doing was creating a culture of dependency whereby if the text wasn’t tailored to the individual then it wasn’t worth considering. We had nightmare visions of a dyslexia-friendly future where government directives were cascaded to the local authorities demanding homogeneity in sign design. All houses would have door signs written in blue Comic Sans on cream backgrounds with a little picture to depict the meaning of those inaccessible fonts. If your house was Apple Tree Cottage you were laughing, but what about housenames with Anglo-Saxon roots (Duncombe Terrace, for example) or, heaven forbid, plain old numbers. Would the rep from the executive pop round with his clipboard to ensure number 143 clearly depicted 143 things on it, so as not to confuse dyslexic delivery drivers? We spent a whole 45 minute car journey speculating on the horrors of this Naive New World.
The whole irony of this is that Paul himself was a self-confessed possessor of what he felt were “poor literacy skills”. He used to muse that if he had been at school now they’d have labelled him as dyslexic. They’d have modified work sheets for him so that he could read them (in his day, worksheets were handwritten and photo-statted. Heaven help the dyslexic whose teacher had dodgy handwriting). But his point was if they’d made it easy for him he’d probably be sat at a conveyor belt somewhere pushing buttons for a living. As it was, he had a degree in engineering and spent nearly all of his working life as Head of ICT or the county advisor on ICT in schools. But, for a self-confessed “dyslexic”, his knowledge of literature was amazing. He could cite passages from Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He had read, and could quote, the most obscure mediaeval poetry. He enjoyed The Canterbury Tales in their original Middle English. He gleaned complete pleasure and satisfaction from immersing himself in literature and as a result his life experience was a whole lot richer for it. But, as he pointed out, if they’d told him he was dyslexic and pandered to his “needs” all this would have been closed off for him.
So what about football. Why are Brazil so damn good at football? Is it because they’re just gifted? Is it because they’re naturally better than the rest of the world? No. I’ll tell you why it is. It’s because they practise with tiny little balls on the beach (obviously not all Brazilians live on the coast, but stay with me here). Playing football on the beach is a damn site harder than it is on grass or a hard surface. And it becomes even harder when you do it with a ball less than half the size of an ordinary football. Consequently, when they play with a full size ball on grass, it seems a doddle in comparison. So if we apply this analogy to reading, the more you practise with difficult fonts, the easier it gets to decipher all the other tricky fonts. And, guess what? The easy fonts become an absolute doddle.
So, my point is, don’t make it easier for those with weak literacy skills by modifying fonts and worksheets. Instead, support them and chivvy them along to work hard at reading the tricky stuff. They’ll thank you for it in the end.
A few weeks ago I wrote a blog entitled “Why we’ve got differentiation wrong”. In it, I argued that over the last few years the way that teachers have understood and implemented differentiation has led to a culture of failure and underachievement, and that rather than differentiating by task or outcome, we should, in fact, be differentiating by pedagogical methodology. In this blog I want to dig a bit deeper into some of the causes of unerachievement and think about how we can improve our approach to differentiation to counter this.
Almost without fail, the students in my classes that have poor literacy skills also have very low self-perceptions and self-expectations. They see themselves as destined to fail, a view that has been reinforced by years of academic failure and labelling; they are walking, talking, pitiful, self-fulfilling prophecies, tumbling from one classroom to the next, expecting themselves not to be able to succeed in whatever it is the teacher will ask them to do next. But how does this happen? At what point do these children become this self-fulfilling prophecy?
I am going to risk a bit of stereotyping here. The vast majority of students that I encounter with poor literacy development come from feeder schools in areas that have high levels of social and economic deprivation. This is by no means to say that all do, but it is true that most do. Let’s take a hypothetical situation. Imagine Child A arrives at one of these schools. He is on FSM because, in this tough economic climate, mum and dad are struggling to find regular work that pays a wage that will allow a decent standard of living. Due to this there may not be internet access or reading material around the house. Mum and dad’s time is hugely constrained because they are looking for work or are carrying out low paid jobs to try and make ends meet. Due to the low hourly rate they have to work many hours just to get by. Neither money nor time are disposable commodities in this household. As a result, Child A hasn’t had the luxury of time spent looking at or reading books, and nursery or playschool are way out of mum and dad’s budget. Therefore the Child A comes to school unfamiliar with the pleasure of time spent reading. It is an alien concept.
Now let’s take Child B. This child goes to the same school, but dad has a succeesful joinery business and mum does a bit of part-time hairdressing. They are able to spend evenings and weekends as a family and do not have to worry about paying the bills. Consequently there is less stress in the household. Child B usually gets to read a book at bedtime, or at least listen to the “book at bedtime” on CBeebies. At that very early developmental stage, Child B has already developed a reading habit. Obviously he’s not reading in the sense that he’s recognising and decoding words, but the key thing is that the habit is established.
If we now imagine these two going into primary school in their reception year and taking part in daily structured reading activities, we can start to get a sense of where things will go wrong. Child B will accept taking part in such activities, seeing them as normal because similar activitis have been done at home. Child A on the other hand will struggle initially becuase it will be a very new and different experience, and humans naturally tend to find new experiences a little uncomfortable to begin with. And so the rate of progress is instantly going to be very different for these two students. And because Child A will see the progress Child B makes and the positive feedback he receives from the adults that run the sessions, he will begin to see himself as inferior (not that I’m advocating the abolition of competition). As this goes on and on the self-fulfilling prophecy begins to realise itself. As Child B learns things at school, he then goes home and applies them in the things he does with his parents there. He recognises letters and words around the house and in books and again receives positive feedback. This then creates a positive feedback loop in which the progress in Child B’s literacy is quite dramatic, whereas Child A’s improves much more slowly due to the lack of a fertile literacy environment at home and his inability to access the school curriculum quickly. As time goes on, Child A’s feedback loop positively reinforces his self-perceptions as a failure and as “thick” or “dumb”, and these continue to grow and become more and more deeply embedded in his psychology, whereas Child B’s feedback loop happily continues to bolster and boost his literacy skills. At some point in primary school he will probably get a diagnosis of dyslexia (read “poor literacy” skills) and this will serve as an excuse for him not to try and improve his skills. It’s the old “there’s no point me trying as I can’t do it syndrome”. But in actual fact, the reason he can’t do it is because he hasn’t had the hundreds of hours of practice that Child B has had, both at home and at school.
As teachers, we can do nothing about the social backgrounds from which we draw our students. Which means that we have no choice but to try and change the culture and approach of these students because, at the end of the day, to really succeed in modern society, they have to have really good literacy skills. There’s no way that we can make up the thousands of hours of practice that they’ve missed over the last few years, but we have to do our best to make them want to be involved in literacy activities. One of the ways we can do this is to try and ensure that the we provide rich, stimulating and challenging educational environments in which literacy skills are highly regarded and where examples of good language use are highly prized and praised. And alongside this we have to be prepared to avoid praise where it isn’t due. We have to make our students realise that our expectations are such that they must apply themselves to their learning and where they won’t do that this won’t be tolerated. And this is where we get back to our theme of differentiation.
Rather than differentiate tasks by ability, teachers must differentiate the way they behave towards students, and this differentiation must be based on a response to a students approach to their learning. We have to constantly demonstrate and model our expectations of students, and differentiate the way that we respond to their response to this. Our expectations have to be based on the two following statements:
– everyone in the class is capable of achieving the highest grades
– everyone in the class will work to the very best of their ability to achieve the highest grades
So long as our students are aware of these and are doing their utmost to realise them, our response needs to be positive and praising. But where a student doesn’t believe the first statement, we have to adjust or differentiate the way behave towards him or her. We need to be absolutely clear that there is no room for this sort of thinking and that anyone is capable of the highest achievement with the right guidance and enough practice. And where the latter statement is being violated, we have to be absolutely firm in finding ways to make sure it starts to be followed. I am confident that the majority of my weakest students have achieved this label through learned behaviour, through the constant reinforcement of the positive feedback loop mentioned above. We have to differentiate our speech and body language to ensure that we cause a change in the culture of these students and make them want to learn and achieve, because if they don’t, they won’t. This means never, ever letting them think, or think that we think, that they’re dumb or thick or stupid. Because these are just things that they’ve learnt to believe themselves and because of that they act like it (just look at their body language most of the time). No teacher should ever give off signals that can lead them to such a negative conclusion. They just need to know that we won’t stand for such silly, self-depracating behaviour, until they begin to change the way they see themselves.
Our relationships with and the way we speak to students are absolutely key in this, and it includes making sure that we are willing to not only praise good effort and achievement and challenge poor behaviour in the classroom, but also wherever we see it in our schools. Our schools have to become places of learning both in and out of lessons. We all know that learning styles are absolute tosh, and I’m convinced that differentiating by ability is tosh too, so instead of using these to base your approach to differentiation, why not think about differentiating the way that you respond to and deal with different students’ approaches to learning? I have seen so many teachers that moan about how stupid a child is or how badly behaved without actually reflecting on what they can do about this. As teachers, I’m afraid to say, we’ve accepted to be paid for the responsibility of helping these children achieve their potential, and research shows that potential isn’t fixed. It’s down to us to grow their potential in every way we can.
(Just as an aside, please do keep differentiating by providing equally challenging activities that allow students with different interests to reach the highest levels through ways that interest them. Personalise their learning experiences by allowing them to plan their own learning journeys through shared objectoves; but whatever you do, don’t cap their achievement by differentiating by ability, and more than anything, stay well away from those cursed differentiated objectives.)
Earlier this year I wrote a couple of blogs about using SOLO to inform planning in the classroom and to get students involved in planning their own learning journeys (see earlier posts with “SOLO” in the title). The basic premise was that I would present them with a series of learning objectives and skills outcomes that would be levelled at the multistructural, relational or extended abstract levels of the SOLO taxonomy and they would tick off the ones they felt they could do and work together to plan how they would get through the rest. This began in January with all three of my year 10 groups. This week, I conducted a student voice survey to see how one class felt things had gone, and what follows is the summary of the responses that I have produced for my records. I don’t claim that this is scientifically robust, but I do think it gives us a fair idea of how this kind of approach can improve students’ learning experiences in the classroom.
Summary of GCSE Media/Film student voice June 2013.
The response to the student voice feedback was incredibly positive. Students had two questions to answer, “what did you like about the course?” and “what would have made it better?”. In the former category, 12 general themes came up. The most popular were the freedom students had to shape their own learning and the creative and practical aspects of the course. Others included the variety of concepts, theories and topics that were studied, the teaching methods used and the relaxed, fun, interesting and motivating atmosphere. Below are some quotes:
“I loved the creativity aspect where I was given choices about what choices I wanted to make in the production area of the course.” (sic)
“I love the course it has been really fun nothing really to change.” (sic)
“I enjoyed the relaxedness but also the motivational sense in the classroom, it made me WANT to learn and not merely attend.”
“To be honest it was really fun and interesting.”
“Freedom to shape where our education goes.”
“Very good learning methods.”
Of the responses to the “what would have made it better?” question, four main issues arose. The most popular response, from 25% of the students, was that they would like either more lessons or more time in lessons. The other popular response was that more group discussions would have been preferable. I can see their point here; most of our discussions have been whole class with little opportunity given for students to discuss issues within their tables. Some respondents wanted to watch either more moving image clips or more films in class, but this simply isn’t practical with time constraints and would not be a good use of lesson time. I prefer that they watch in their own time and use class time for questioning and discussion (rather like the “flipped classroom” idea). The other things that came up individually were: “less writing”, “more filming”, “more active lessons”, “less homework”, “be clearer of targets” and “more teacher explanations”. Out of the whole class only one student had anything negative to say, saying that she didn’t enjoy the course and her mum had made her do it.
In summary, the students couldn’t have been more positive about the subject. This is particularly reassuring with it being the first year of a brand new course. Their responses were measured and thoughtful and the points they made for improvement will help to inform planning for next year, particularly their call for “more group work and discussion”.
Since I wrote this, the students carried out a re-self-appraisal of their progress this year against the Gifted and Talented criteria for Media and we found that 40% of the group are now eligible to be put on the G+T register. All credit to them.