School Improvement & Development Conference 2023: Book your early-bird place

Masters of their Universe

It was a pretty ordinary day in my second year of teaching that I began my history lesson with Y3. It was only the second time I was ‘doing’ the Romans (as we did in the early noughties) but I was already adapting my approach. This class had shown a particular interest in the eruption of Vesuvius and, whilst it was not strictly speaking one of the old ‘QCA’ approved outcomes, I’d managed to find a great big book (yes I am that old, no clever technology for us back then) which could support the children’s writing, whilst discussing the facts they were so eager to explore. I was in mid-flow when a hand went up.

‘So what came before the Big Bang then?’

You could have heard a pin drop. The cartoon timeline, depicting key eras in our past, had clearly been a more interesting distraction than my slightly crumpled and faded book. Silence. Awe. 30 eager brains were ticking away on probably the biggest question ever asked, by anyone, and here we were on a dreary November morning in deepest Yorkshire. I paused – how to begin?

‘What do you think?’ I replied.

Hands shot up. There were more questions, ideas, references to Star Wars(!) and some theological statements too. An intense class discussion began and I knew then that I had found my real vocation. It is a moment that has stayed with me in my 20 years teaching since, influencing my learning and teaching pedagogies to this day.

In true reflection of how we, as a race, have evolved, I often ask teachers to question how the timeline of teaching has developed and why we follow certain practices in education. Learning is what we as a species have always done and it’s what has enabled us to thrive. Developing new skills through application, trial and error, a real purpose and need to succeed, we have surpassed all others. Stone age man, I am assured, did not write 5 sentences on how to use an axe to perfect the art of creating tools! Neither did the Egyptians’ understanding of how to build pyramids increase because someone lectured them about it. So why do we now reject the most original and successful methods of learning in favour of producing written evidence, to prove we have taught something and to prove the children have learned it? When securing children’s understanding of key structures, systems, rules or concepts learning is no longer, unfortunately, our central focus, evidence takes priority over learning and, when phrased like that, it begins to sound quite ludicrous.

When training teachers on our mastery model, the ‘Path to Success’, I am probably no longer stunned by the amount of teachers who confess to not giving their children a real purpose for writing. Without a clear audience why would anyone have a desire to write? A foundation stage teacher recently bemoaned the fact that although she had taught her class how to write a list, ‘… they just won’t go in the role-play area and write one!’ Well, why would you? I am still enormously proud that in the entrance hall of that school I mentioned in the beginning anecdote, there hangs a personal letter to myself and that Y3 class received from Tony Blair, then Prime Minister. I recall (with a little embarrassment, now if I’m honest) when David Bell, then Chief Inspector of Schools, visited my classroom and I insisted on showing him our B.F.G’s cave whilst my class were elbow deep in Snozzcumbers!

Just one pupil had led me to see the way to develop my pupils’ deeper understanding of where they are positioned in the development of the entire universe as we know it (and Brian Cox can’t even get deeper than that)! Unwittingly, I was then in the process of moving mountains for my own conceptual understanding of what teaching is, and how children learn. From lessons simply naming the parts of the hypocaust system and sewing a ‘bulla’, we had shot up Blooms’ Taxonomy – I can pinpoint this as the era in my career when I ‘saw the light’.

From then on, in all seasons, in all weathers, we went hunting for worms for our wormery; released flies we had hatched; buried a time capsule; enjoyed books in the sunshine; experimented with capacity; and stood outside in the autumn rain. Sounds like something from Enid Blyton I know! Sustained, shared conversations, laughter, a sense of community, awe and wonder (think back to the 80s) and returning to the classroom with a sense of successful, deep learning together. Mastery? Well, yes. These were experiences that enabled children to question and understand concepts, to see, feel, think, repeat, challenge, reiterate, articulate, learn and apply. And there wasn’t a pencil in sight.

The mastery model that we now shape all our teaching around requires just that – real learning, real discussion, real artefacts, real issues, real purpose. And it is around this that my discussions with teachers are centred on a daily basis. Learning has to be based on experiences. Children have to start learning from what they know. We have evolved as a species because we have adapted to change and that is what we as a profession must do now. As we have recently come to realise, we are preparing our current foundation stage pupils for a job market that will no longer exist by the time they are ready to enter the world of work. We need to be preparing them to carry out jobs that have not been created yet. How? The key skills children require now are centred around learning to learn, understanding themselves as learners and developing strategies to support that learning whatever the challenge, pressure or outcome.

So, I propose that we take a lesson from that Y3 child and encourage our children to think wider, bigger, deeper, further. It is only through supporting our children with their thinking skills that we can prepare them for the unknown. We may not be able to tell them what the world will be like in in ten, twenty, thirty years time, but we can send them into the world of work with the knowledge they can succeed and not with pages of writing in books that went in the bin long ago. That is not what learning is.


Making mastery happen in your classroom

  • Ensure children have clear ‘conceptual understanding’ at the beginning of every new element of learning. What does it relate to? How will children have experienced it before? What are you actually learning to do?
  • Children require ‘cognitive challenge’ to make memorable learning experiences. Open-ended questions allow all levels of ability to make discoveries at their own pace and can be supported by collaboration along the way.
  • SOLO Taxonomy (Biggs & Collis) enables children to see where their learning is and how to make it deeper. This can be a very visual way of sharing mastery with children.
  • Bloom’s Taxonomy can support teachers in identifying where the ‘task’ or ‘activity’ they are setting fits, in terms of challenge and higher level thinking skills. It provides a structure for moving children’s thinking and provides ideas on how appropriate challenges can be set.
  • Inspire, don’t bore your children! Use their interests as the basis of the learning. Foundation Stage have for a long time been focusing on the interests of the child, however by KS2 we seem to have forgotten to do this. Let’s recapture that magic and create lifelong learners who truly love to discover new things!