Thinking on reverence for learning

Wild Geese

Mary Oliver


You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.


Like this poem

The Journey

Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice–

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

“Mend my life!”

each voice cried.

But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,

though the wind pried

with its stiff fingers

at the very foundations,

though their melancholy

was terrible.

It was already late

enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do–

determined to save

the only life you could save.


My current thoughts about standards

My current thoughts about standards

I am concerned that the standards-and-accountability ‘movement’ by its very nature and in practice, despite some perhaps laudable intentions, ends up acting like an elaborate sorting device, crudely separating wheat from chaff.

‘We have to go from what is essentially an industrial model of education, a manufacturing model, which is based on linearity and conformity and batching people. We have to move to a model that is based more on principles of agriculture. We have to recognize that human flourishing is not a mechanical process; it’s an organic process. And you cannot predict the outcome of human development. All you can do, like a farmer, is create the conditions under which they will begin to flourish.’ -Ken Robinson

I do not assume anything- I would want to question conventional wisdom as well as radical alternatives; I especially want to question elements of the education system that are clearly driven by politics; I certainly do not believe that politics always delivers on what is good for our pupils.

‘Our times are driven by the inestimable energies of the mechanical mind; its achievements derive from its singular focus, linear direction and force. When it dominates the habit of gentleness dies out. We become blind: nature is rifled, politics eschews vision and becomes the obsessive ser4vant of economics, and religion opts for the mathematics of system and forgets its mystical flame. Instead of true leadership which would be the servant of vision and imagination, we have systems of puppetry which are carefully constructed and manipulated from elsewhere. We never know who we are dealing with; hidden agendas operate to deepen our insecurity and persuade us to be hopeless.’ John Donahue

To remain true to our vision, I think it is necessary for us to define our own democratic (as opposed to meritocratic) definition of excellence.

Brene Brown asks some important questions about standards and comparisons in her book ‘Daring Greatly’, ‘Healthy competition can be beneficial but is there constant covert or overt comparing and ranking? Has creativity been suffocated? Are people held to one narrow standard rather than acknowledged for their unique gifts and contributions?’

I think we should believe in excellence for all with no child/ adult left behind.  On principle I think we have to believe, have to hope, that all of us could be excellent in our own way. I think we should be determined to enjoy people’s endlessly varied skills, interests, abilities, knowledge and personality traits; to help true individuality to be freely and clearly expressed. For me excellence cannot and should not be an ever shifting gold standard which only some will ever achieve.

‘Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do the work prescribed for it, but a tree that requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces that make it a living thing.’ –John Stuart Mill

As an institution, I think we would define a school’s excellence as much by its fierce determination to keep trying as by its humble acceptance that it is not there yet and may never get there; as much by its individuality as by its commitment to all the individuals within it.

I am mindful that attempts made to measure excellence can lead to limiting definitions of excellence and betray the appreciation and promotion of individuality. Einstein said, ‘Everybody is a genius but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.’ I think we should look to develop methods of assessment and evaluation which are both significant and promote a sense of self-value. We should value the development of life-long learners over the development of test-takers.

I like Ron Berger’s assertion that it is possible both to meet standards and create authentic work—through the idea that children’s work should be honoured. ‘Once a pupil creates work of value for an authentic audience beyond the classroom- work that is sophisticated, accurate, important and beautiful – that student is never the same again.’


New Relationships Policy -2

For those of you unable to attend the parent forum about behaviour after school on Friday, I provide here a summary of what I shared with the parents there and what was discussed. I would like to apologise if we caused any undue anxiety as a result of the last newsletter…it certainly seemed to cause a bit of a furore. It was not the intention; it was not anticipated and yet I am glad of the interest shown.

I’d like to start by making a couple of rather obvious points which might offer up some reassurance. Firstly please appreciate we are unlikely to be taking an approach that leads to worse behaviour in school- with 320 pupils milling around, this is clearly not in our interest. Secondly please rest assured, if you hadn’t worked it out already, that we care very deeply about your children’s welfare- it is what drives us, it is our job. Many of us work very long weeks- and all that time is devoted to finding what ways we can to give your children the very best education we can. If I see schools that are losing their way slightly, too often they are the ones where the needs of the staff have begun to be considered over the needs of the children. This doesn’t happen here- the dialogue, which is constant and deep, is about the children and little else. Having said that this new policy which is developing and the vision behind it is based on relationships – the quality of teaching and learning always closely correlates with the quality of relationships. Relationships are clearly two-sided: we are therefore finding ourselves considering for staff more or less exactly what we are considering for pupils and edging our way to something that will in all likelihood be called a relationships policy as opposed to a behaviour policy. A behaviour policy sounds still too like something we do to children, as opposed to something we do with them. The governors themselves pointed out something very similar when they considered the new draft vision statements last Monday (see below in ‘learning news’ for this draft), suggesting that all the statements could and possibly should be relevant for adults as well as pupils in school and in turn this would give it far greater potential impact.

The context of this behaviour policy is also important and could offer up a further reassurance. As I have said, although we know behaviour to be an emotive issue, the level of interest in this has taken us by surprise—and this is partly because, in school, we don’t see it is as separate from the many other changes and new approaches that have been trialled and introduced and shared with you over the last 2 years;  all of which signposted us this way; all of which are complementary to our approach here with behaviour and in fact when all this practice is pieced together – it forms a coherent and very positive whole. Although the last newsletter specifically named Alfie Kohn, he is just one of many sources (including notably our own research) that we have drawn upon. The specific area of behaviour management theory we are interested in is the ‘behaviour for learning’ approach—(ref Tod and Ellis). This approach stresses that the single most important thing to do with reference to behaviour management is, as has already been indicated, to nurture relationships :-children’s relationships with themselves, their relationships with others and their relationship with the curriculum—this is where we are really coming from with all this.

There are a few other points worth dwelling on:-

–What we decide to do in school is, in some important ways, defined by the school context. Yes- children’s attitudes and behaviours are concerns that go beyond the school gates, but just because we choose to take a particular approach, in no way implies you should do the same. The school environment is different to elsewhere; it has its own challenges and advantages. And anyway children’s learning is also often context specific.

–We are not saying anyone has been ‘damaged’ by rewards—despite the title of Kohn’s book—what we are looking to do here is find a subtle but significantly different approach which might lead to better outcomes for all within school.

–We are not standing around blank faced and non-committal, avoiding the chance to praise children when we get a chance. We are still finding every which way we can to encourage and motivate our pupils; enthusiastically and animatedly. What has changed is that we are being that much more careful about how we speak to them to make sure that we have the greatest possible positive impact on them as individuals and develop positive relationships.

-We do see sidestepping an environment that allows pupils to readily compare themselves in a detrimental way with others is a step in the right direction; it is good for their self-esteem. This does not negate competition—some of the very best athletes I encounter are ones who are self-determined and constantly committed to self-improvement. We try to give our pupils ample opportunities to take part in competitive sport because we see it as beneficial. However this doesn’t mean competition need lie at the heart of school life.

-We recognise that any formula (however enlightened) applied without due consideration to the individual is likely to fail some individuals. We recognise that while we have to have a consistency of approach for the sake of our children, we also need to consistently use our judgement to make sure individuals are catered for and consistently be adapting and developing our approach to find the best possible effect on all children.

-I recognise by mentioning the reading of Alfie Kohn’s book over the summer- has lead some to question him as a source of wisdom. But in reality he is just part of a much bigger picture- we draw on many sources for our thinking including critically Carol Dwecke and Ellis and Tod—and the behaviour specialist Rob Long who gave an INSET to staff last January. Even more importantly we have an active research culture now thriving in school which means we have worked directly with Shirley Clarke- (one of the country’s leading educational experts) with staff from across Gloucestershire—this is very exciting stuff and improves the job we’re doing. This is in no way a ‘flash in the pan’ moment after a quick read of a book over the summer holiday – with our approach to assessment without levels; with reports that don’t allow children to compare themselves with others; with our commitment to pupils taking interest in their mistakes and self-evaluating their learning, this is very much just the latest effort in the same direction.

There are two key outcomes we think are more possible with this approach:-

  1. Pupil autonomy—expecting the children to self-evaluate/ describe their own learning asks for them to be thinking independently about their learning and achievements (rather than necessarily waiting for us to prompt them); for this thinking to be that much deeper than previously (my conversations with pupils when they now visit my office are much more demanding for me and them); for them to articulate it to another person (rather than simply receiving our wisdom). The outcome appears, at this early stage, (although of course with our work on growth mindset etc over the last year we already have a very real sense of the benefits of this way of working) to be pupils who are much better able to think about and understand themselves as learners (as opposed to pupils who when asked why they got a sticker or certificate often couldn’t remember why) and therefore learning of a higher quality. Trying to provide pupils with feedback rather than outright praise pushes them to self-evaluate their achievement rather than handing down our judgement on it.
  2. Pupil self-esteem—ultimately there is a risk at the point of doling out an extrinsic reward/ grade/ score etc—that the person being rewarded feels buoyed up but someone else feels deflated- especially when the reward is given publicly—at the same time there can be a drop in trust because rewards are by their very nature rather arbitrary—who really ‘deserves’ a reward is a very complex conundrum. We want a school full of confident, interested people, not a school full of winners and losers.

In the meeting, as could be expected, there was a range of responses from parents including positive feedback, reasonable concerns and good ideas. I provide only a summary here:-

  1. With the loss of certificates, there is concern parents will have less of a ‘window’ into their children’s achievements and learning than before.
  2. Certificates can be re-visited (stuck on fridge/ wall etc) in a way that a text can’t and each time, the child feels that pride again.
  3. Couldn’t certificates continue alongside the new approach without affecting mindsets- especially given the school have tried hard to carefully qualify any rewards in the gold book and in person?
  4. What about younger pupils who are not going to find self-evaluating their learning more difficult and who need something more immediate? A: We will be flexible in our approach- consistency of approach will also involve us consistently using our judgement to cater for different age groups/ needs.
  5. Are punishments going to be attended to in the same way as rewards- as in as two sides of the same coin? A: Yes, the school does not dole out consequences regularly and in many ways our approach to pupils making mistakes with their behaviour predates any work on rewards and is better developed. Broadly speaking though- yes- whatever approach we take with rewards must be mirrored by our approach to consequences of any kind.
  6. Many businesses are looking at similar approaches to be taken with their employees leading to greater motivation and self-determination. A: the school also is looking at the way it works with staff – mirroring this work with children’s behaviour.
  7. If we feel supportive of this as a way forward, could the school provide parents with any literature that might help with parenting strategies that could mirror the school’s approach.

A: I will find the best literature and make some recommendations soon.

We will continue to consider the above and will be systematically reviewing our approach throughout this term- primarily through conversations with the children themselves and through class meetings. We will also be looking closely at how we work with children when they are struggling with their learning behaviours towards the end of this half term. I will keep you up to date, as always; we will feed back directly on where our thinking has reached regarding possible issues and ideas in a few weeks time, and we will hold another parent forum about developments in our practice each term from now on.

New Relationships Policy – 1

I read a very interesting book over the holidays called, ‘Punished By Rewards’ by a chap called Alfie Kohn. It pre-dates Carol Dwecke’s work on growth mindsets but feeds into the same dialogue on motivation. Basically approaches to managing behaviour which are influenced by behaviourist theories have too often been about control. Most school behaviour policies are driven by behaviourism and are essentially about control. It’s an ‘oh gosh, we have 315 children milling about- if we don’t ‘control’ the situation, we’ll end up with anarchy’ kind of approach to life. However it is entirely possible that, if we want ‘strong and motivated learners,’ we need learners with more self-determination than this kind of control sometimes allows for.

Also the problem with rewards & punishments is that they often do not lead to lasting change. The behaviour change lasts as long as the rewards and punishments last. Why- because rewards and punishments do not alter the attitudes and emotional commitments that underlie our behaviours…they only effect what we do while the reward or punishment lasts. They do not work to turn children into careful thinkers/ self-directed learners or help them to develop good values; in fact in this respect they can often be counter-productive. Why?

1.Rewards and praise can punish people. The recipient of the reward may feel pleasure in the short term but ultimately they feel controlled. Also some people can end up not getting the reward they hoped for or deserved which undermines their trust and resolve. It is impossible for a reward giver to know who/ judge who most deserves a reward.

2.Rewards and praise can rupture relationships: rewards are often preoccupied with individual performance rather than cooperation/ collaboration and the ways of working we associate with good learning.

3.Rewards and praise can rupture motivation. Rewards can not only have little impact on intrinsic motivation, they can undermine it. They will undermine it most when used to encourage children with the most intrinsically motivating tasks.

4.Rewards and praise can discourage risk taking—because the recipient becomes pre-occupied with getting the reward again and taking a risk might put the reward at risk..

5.Rewards and praise can lower the quality of performance—because pupils become pre-occupied with their performance as opposed to the learning.

This was tough to hear. However it did chime with everything we have been discovering about growth mindsets. In terms of a way forward- it has been difficult for us. Many of the systems schools have in place are long standing and embedded and many of our habits are bound up with how we were brought up and what feels a natural default position for us. We have discussed the research at length and begun to make a few tentative changes which I will share with you gradually over this term and which will be kept under constant review.

Significantly we want our pupils to become more autonomous and we have slightly re-modelled our approach to extrinsic rewards (these being the ones you are most likely to get to hear about). We want pupils taking control of their learning and how they feel about it. We have a particular focus on something called ‘learning powers’ which will help with this and all classes are gradually adopting an ‘Our marvellous mistakes’ board on which the class’s favourite mistakes can be displayed. We are also trying to provide feedback that demands more thinking from the pupils.

In terms of extrinsic rewards, we are no longer using raffle tickets, house points, stickers or gold awards. Oh my gosh I hear you exclaim, that doesn’t sound very tentative- but the trouble is once you start applying a principle it’s hard to find the compromise. Thus far, as promised by the experts, the children have hardly noticed: thus confirming our suspicion that these rewards were there more for us than the children themselves. We will however be reviewing how the children feel about all this intensively as the term progresses. It would be rather ironic to push for more pupil autonomy on all of this and then not ask their opinion.

We are focusing instead on providing them with carefully worded feedback. That sound very dry doesn’t it – it doesn’t stop us jumping about and getting excited about the children’s learning; it’s just that we are trying to consider the individual, not just dole out meaningless praise. Instead of our gold book assemblies, children volunteer to share learning that they feel pleased about. When they come to me with some work, I now try much harder to encourage them to articulate/ explain their learning themselves rather than them standing there and receiving my vain efforts at wisdom. They dictate what they want to write on a text home and sign it from themselves and if they want to share it in assembly as well, I make a note of their names for the next Wednesday. All this relies heavily on pupils becoming better at self- evaluation. Children are then far more likely to internalise the attitudes and the emotional commitments that underlie good behaviour than they are if the ‘thing’ is being foisted upon them.

There we go – another monologue- you do have my sympathy.