Tag Archives: assessment

The expectation of labels


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In some circles labels can be used as an attempt to define who you are, either to yourself or to others; for example the car you drive, the clothes you wear, the foods you eat, the technology you use, even the books you read. The use of labels can lead to stereotyping and expectations based upon particular characteristics while other, and equally salient, qualities specific to the individual are ignored.

Applying labels to children can serve similar purposes: to define and explain particular behaviours or characteristics. Labels can range from an informal “naughty” through to medical diagnoses such as ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) or ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder).

Whether the result of an informal observation or a professional assessment, labels can have a profound effect upon a child and family members. The label sets up expectations that may limit the way the child is viewed; so that only those characteristics specific to the label are noticed and responded to. The child is viewed as being “the label” rather than an individual who displays those particular behaviours or characteristics, at this moment.

People tend to see what they want to see and ignore evidence that doesn’t support their thinking. So if a child is labelled disruptive, it is the disruptive behaviour which is noticed and acted upon. Similar behaviour in a child not bearing the label may be overlooked or excused. While the focus is on one, usually negative or limiting, behaviour other positive characteristics and strengths may be ignored.

pygmalion effect

Unfortunately, once a label is applied it is often difficult to remove and it may be used as an excuse for a child’s failure to learn or progress; after all the “fault” is considered to be with the child, not with any methods used or not used. Sadly too, labels can be misapplied or not fully understood. This may accentuate differences that are non-existent or less serious than the label implies.

However not all effects are negative. There are many positive effects of labelling a child’s condition or behaviour; including:

  • increased opportunities for the child, family and teachers to receive support through funding of programs, assistance of trained personnel and professional development
  • enhanced understanding through discussions using a common language with specific meanings and applications
  • increased awareness in the community with further opportunities for advocacy as well as greater acceptance and tolerance
  • the development of programs aimed specifically to support individuals with the condition.

But are all labels negative? What about giftedness?

Previously on this blog there has been some discussion about praise and the effects of different types of praise. The discussions were initiated in response to The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz and can be found here and here. Grosz suggested that praising a child could cause a loss of competence. Why would you continue to try if you were already “the best”?

Claudia M. Mueller and Carol S. Dweck support the notion that Praise for Intelligence Can Undermine Children’s Motivation and Performance. They suggest that labels such as “smart”, “clever” and “intelligent” can be just as damaging as those with deficit connotations.

Dweck explains her ideas more fully in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, my current audiobook “read”. I have previously mentioned Dweck’s theory of ‘yethere and here.

In the book Dweck talks about how praise creates mindset. If one is praised for being smart or clever, then one develops a fixed mindset: “I am smart. I can achieve because I am smart.” If effort is required then one is not smart. Those with a fixed mindset avoid challenges that might jeopardise the view of themselves as smart.

On the other hand, praise for effort encourages a ‘yet’ or growth mindset: if I try it again, try harder, try it a different way, then I will do better. “I can learn”. There is no risk of becoming ‘not clever’. A growth mindset recognises the importance of effort, persistence and motivation.

fixed - growth mindset

Dweck says “don’t praise the genius – praise the process”.

Giftedness” is a label that was once applied after achieving a high result on an intelligence test, and was just as sticky as any other: there for life.  Giftedness was considered stable and unchangeable. It is obvious that many “gifted” students could fall into the fixed mindset trap. Thanks to Dweck’s work on mindset, attitudes to IQ scores and the concept of “giftedness” are now changing.

Teachers with a growth mindset appreciate the incremental

Students can be encouraged to develop a growth mindset by learning about how the brain works. When they understand that labels aren’t fixed and that learning can be improved, they will become more confident and may find more enjoyment in some of the challenges that school offers. Encouraging students to recognise how they view themselves as learners and to substitute “growth” for “fixed” thinking will have a remarkable effect upon their confidence and success.

Encouraging this growth mindset may be one way we can look out for each other, one way of “getting your back”.

To write a story (in 99 words, no more no less) about a character who is called to have the back of another was the challenge set by Charli Mills at the Carrot Ranch this week. In her post Charli is talking about labels of another kind, labels that can be just as damaging or just as useful. She talks about having another’s back, being there to offer support when needed.  A parent, a teacher, a friend can be there at any time to offer support for a learner on their path to discovery. My response captures one such moment.

Growth: a mindset

Marnie propped her head on one hand while the pencil in the other faintly scratched the paper. She hoped it wasn’t too obvious that she didn’t get it. But she didn’t get it. She didn’t get last year, or the year before. Why should she get it now? What was the point? Her brain just didn’t work that way. She was dumb. They had always said she was dumb. No point in trying.

Then the teacher was there, encouraging, supporting, accepting. “Let me help you,” she said. “You can do this. Let’s break it down into steps. First …”

Thank you

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Who wouldn’t be excited with high test scores?

Regular readers of my blog are aware of my attitude to didactic top-down, content and assessment driven methods of schooling students to become machines regurgitating meaningless facts on command. A bit of push and shove it in and belch it out.  For those of you who weren’t aware – now you are!

I probably should apologise for my indecorous description as I’m usually a little more temperate in the way I express my views, but I won’t as that is how I am feeling about it at the moment. The authorities who have the power to make the changes necessary are so caught up in their own murky visions that they fail to see either effects or solutions. Every time I read another report of test scores or hear of another child damaged by a faulty system my frustration grows.  It becomes one of those hysteria blossoming days.


A few moments ago I read a post titled “Vietnam Wallops US on PISA. Vietnamese educators belittle value of PISA” on Diane Ravitch’s blog. Ravitch is an education historian.

As the title suggests, Vietnamese fifteen year old students did better than their US, UK and most other EU counterparts in the 2012 PISA tests, ranking 12th out of 76. What I found interesting about the article was not the results but the attitude of Vietnam’s Deputy Minister of Education and Training. His view that the tests don’t reflect students’ overall competence, reminded me of a letter, shared in my previous post, written by teachers to students sitting the national tests last week in Australia. (PISA are international tests).

In the article referred to by Ravitch, Dr Giap Van Duong was reported as making reference to UNESCO’s four pillars of learning: Learning to know, Learning to do, Learning to be and Learning to live together. His opined that PISA addresses only the first pillar, and in only a limited way. He said that while Vietnamese students did well on the tests, “many … students fail to land a job after graduation. (and that when) they study overseas, many have difficulties in meeting the requirements of advanced education systems like team-work, problem solving and creativity”. Perhaps they are not “out of basement ready” as described by Yong Zhao.

Duong said that the reason Vietnamese students do well on the tests is because the “The whole system operates to serve only one purpose: exams.”

Duong’s admission that Vietnamese students lack the ability to work in teams, to problem solve and to think creatively reiterates the fears of many teachers who are  ruled by expectations of high test results and provided little opportunity to inspire learning, which surely remains the real (if neglected) purpose of education. Counterbalancing one’s philosophy with an employer’s expectations sometimes seems like being caught between a rock and a hard place.

This week at the Carrot Ranch Charli Mills is talking about rocks and hard places. But Charli knows that good can often spring from those seemingly hard places through making connections. She has challenged writers to In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that shows a hard place and a connection.

It is connections that are most important in my two main roles in life: parent and teacher. Neither is easy and neither will result in much good without making connections. I often worry about things I have said and the affect they may have had on others. To be truthful, occasionally it even keeps me awake at night. While I would rather think of my words and actions creating a positive ripple, there is no guarantee that, even when delivered with my best intentions, they won’t do harm.

Trevor Pilgrim shared a quote which puts it this way:


In his article Pilgrim says,

“teachers have (the power) to develop their students and shape their future lives.  The power to turn them on or off academically, stimulate or dampen their minds and heighten or destroy their engagement and intellectual curiosity.”

Scary stuff!

At about the same time I read an article that said that the influence of teachers is not as great as one might think; that socio-economic status, amongst other things, is more important. While I am happy with the thought of having a positive effect, I definitely do not wish to ruin anyone’s life so am happy to know that my influence is not be the most important to the lives of my students.

For this challenge of Charli’s I am back thinking about Marnie’s art teacher and the hard place she found herself in when she saw the brown muddy mess that Marnie seemed to have made of her paints. That she must respond is a given; but how? Whatever she says will probably have a lasting impact so she must ensure that her response is appropriate. While her initial instinct is to express disappointment, she maintains her professional composure and delays commenting until she has thought it through.

Here is my response:


She glanced at the child, usually so eager to please, and knew this was no ordinary day.

Downcast and avoiding eye contact, the child trembled. Her instinct was to reach out with comfort to soothe the hurt; but stopped. Any touch could end her career. What to say? Brown earth/brown rocks? would ignore and trivialise the pain. Any talk now would be insensitive with other ears listening. Any word could unravel the relationship built up over time. Nothing would harm more than doing nothing. Her steps moved her body away but her heart and mind stayed; feeling, thinking.

 Thank you

Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts about any aspect of this post or flash fiction

How important is it, if it can’t be tested?


This week, all across Australia, students in years 3, 5, 7 and 9 took part in the National Assessment Program NAPLAN.

In previous posts I have questioned the purpose of this type of assessment, the importance placed upon the results, and the undue stress caused to students, teachers and families. You can read some of my thoughts here, here and here for starters.

Of course I am not the only one questioning, and Australia is not the only country in which nation-wide testing is set, and questioned. The tests are no more popular in the US with many students opting out. Diane Ravitch does much to raise awareness of the issues on her blog. Concerns are also raised in the UK, and no doubt elsewhere.

However sometimes something good can arise where it is least expected. Out of the melee of the testing environment this week came a wonderful letter written to students by teachers who know that there is more to each one than the score on a test. A parent of one of the students posted the letter on Facebook and it went viral. The story was picked up by a variety of media outlets.

I congratulate the teachers for writing and distributing the letter. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Check it out on Facebook here, or read some of the media reports:

ABC Brisbane

Daily Mail UK

The Independent UK

A similar letter went viral in the UK last year, and according the ABC article, the letter was based on one written to students in the US a number of years ago. I don’t think the message can be repeated often enough.

Maybe it is one thing to tell the students, but how do we get the policy makers first to listen and then to act?

Perhaps they should have a listen to the discussion by Tim and Debbie, one of my favourite pieces from the 80’s.

Actually, in relation to the letter, I was looking for one of my favourite quotes by Tim but sadly couldn’t find it. He says, “My thoughts exactly. I would have said it if I’d thought of it!”

Thank you

Thank you for reading.

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Are you ready or what?

When thinking about schooling and education there is always a lot of discussion about readiness and the things that must be done to have a child ready for school, ready for the next class, ready go to college or university . . .

While I agree that a learner must be ready to take the next step, to broaden understanding of a concept or to grasp the complexity of deeper issues; just what that readiness requires is often up for conjecture.

Back in the early days of my teaching experience workbooks of ‘reading readiness’ exercises were frequently used with students in their first year of school. These activities generally required children to identify the one that was different in a group of objects. The exercises, such as those shown below, progressed through various levels of difficulty with the aim of preparing children for reading.
reading readiness exercises

Fortunately our understanding of how reading is learned has progressed since then and it is now recognised that exercises such as those did little to prepare children for learning to read. We now know that the best preparation for reading is to be immersed in language through conversations, with adults especially; to be read to frequently; and to develop a love of books and interest in print by sharing with others. The role of parents in preparing children for reading cannot be underestimated.

This week I watched a video of a presentation by Yong Zhao about a type of readiness he referred to as “Out of basement readiness”. I admit I hadn’t heard the term before but the concept is definitely familiar.

I do recommend you listen to Zhao’s talk. It is interesting, thought-provoking and humorous. I think I enjoyed listening to this talk as much as to Ken Robinson’s on How schools kill creativity which I have mentioned in previous posts here and here, amongst others. However at 55 minutes some of you may not be willing to commit the time. For me, it is 55 minutes of my life I’m very happy to not get back!

I will not attempt to share all the content of the talk; there is too much of value, but here are just a few snippets that resonated with me:

Zhao explains out of basement readiness this way:

out-of-basement readiness - Yong Zhao


Zhao says that students are being mis-educated, that they are being educated for something that doesn’t exist, and suggests that we should remove several phrases from the language we use to talk about education, especially

  • Under-performance
  • Evidence based
  • Data driven


His description of the traditional education paradigm will be familiar to any frequent readers of my blog. He says that it is “about forcing people to do what some other people prescribe them to do” and that we reduce it to just a few subjects that can be tested.


He talks about the “homogenisation” of schooling, and explained that homogenisation was the best way of getting rid of creative people and innovative thinkers.


He mentioned kindergarten readiness tests, and suggests that the only test should be whether the kindergarten was ready for the children and parents.


He recognises the uniqueness of every student, with different backgrounds, motivations and talents; and stresses the importance of effort. He says, “You cannot be born to be great. If you do not put effort into it you can never be good at it.” He explains it this way:

 “If you put ten thousand hours into something you are good at, something you are interested in you get great talent. But if I force you to spend time on something you have no interest in, you hate and something you are not good at, you at best become mediocre.”

He says that countries that produce high test scores, score low on confidence and interest.

He says,

“Everyone is born to be creative, that’s a human being, that’s our gift: to be able to adapt, to learn and relearn and do new things. But school has typically tried to suppress it (with) . . . short term learning. . . Direct instruction may give the short-term gain but cause long term damages Studies show that if you teach children how to play with the toy, they lose creativity, lose curiosity and if you allow children to explore more they may not test very well but they maintain creativity and curiosity.”

American schools _ Yong Zhao

Zhao says that “our students do not fit into a future world, they create the future world. This is why we need a different type of education.” He says that “education is to create opportunities for every individual student, they are not an average, they are not a probability, they need to be improved as individual human beings.”

our students do not fit - Yong Zhao

I couldn’t agree more. What do you think?


I was led to Zhao’s talk via Diane Ravitch’s blog which is about the education system and situation in the US. Much of what she writes has applications further afield and I recommend it to anyone wishing to stay informed of current issues in education.

Thank you

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What measure success?



I have often expressed concern about what I consider to be an over-emphasis on standardised and national testing and the pressure it puts on students to achieve. I explained some reasons for my misgivings here and here and here, for example.

As a parent and a teacher the most important thing I want for my children is for them to be happy. After that I wish for them to be healthy and successful. But what is success? In a recent post I referred to a seventy-five year study conducted by George Vaillant who came to the conclusion that success means leading a happy life and that “warmth of relationships throughout life have the greatest positive impact on ‘life satisfaction‘”.

bee 5

Last week I wrote about spelling tests and spelling bees and the effect that doing well, or not, might have upon a learner’s self-esteem as well as attitude to self as a learner, attitude to school, and to learning in general. While writing it I was not aware of an article written by Kate Taylor and published in the New York Times on April 6 2015: At Success Academy Charter Schools, High Scores and Polarizing Tactics.

I discovered the article via a series of stepping stones from Lloyd Lofthouse to  Diane Ravitch to The New York Times.

Taylor opens the article by describing how the struggles of students to learn are made public, for all to see; posted on charts in hallways and reproduced in class newsletters. To see one’s name at the bottom of the list in a red zone, clearly showing that year level expectations have not been reached seems to be rather harsh, and humiliating for the child. Perhaps even more so if the teacher considered the student was just not trying. The teacher, it is reported, had difficulty watching the child take the tests for fear she would be upset by his mistakes. Months later the child scored 90% and was warmly congratulated.

Taylor goes on to say that the school, which has mostly poor black and Hispanic students, outscores many students from more affluent areas with results much higher than average on the state wide tests. I know that everybody loves a winner and that we all want our students to succeed, but at what cost? The article describes the school as being very rigid with a competitive atmosphere that requires strict adherence to rules.

Last week in my post A sprinkling of semicolons I shared an article by Ron Berger who talks about regular students whose “teachers have helped them develop the skills and mindsets necessary to produce work of exceptional quality, and have built classroom and school cultures in which exceptional work is the norm.” He says that most of the work comes from students in low-income urban schools.

I suddenly became fearful. Were the students and schools described by Berger similar to those of the Success Academy schools as described in Taylor’s article?

In both cases the students were from poor areas and they achieved remarkable success with most attending college. Austin, as described by Berger, made six drafts of his butterfly drawing before it was considered to be “scientific” enough. I wondered how much, if any, duress he had been under.

The article described Berger as the Chief Program Office of Expeditionary Learning Schools. I followed the link to discover a little more about Expeditionary Schools, checked with Wikipedia and other sites that came up in a Google search, including Open World Learning which says that expeditionary learning (EL) “fosters curiosity about the world by creating learning situations that provide something important to think about, time to experiment, and time to make sense of what is observed.” It also says that EL schools “promote rigorous and engaging curriculum; active, inquiry-based pedagogy; and a school culture that demands and teaches compassion and good citizenship.  EL schools are based on the Outward Bound model, which starts with the belief that we learn best through experience.

This all sounds wonderful and praise-worthy, and I was feeling a little happier about what I had shared. However, if there’s one thing I have realised after a lifetime involvement in education is that the written statements of any educational institution sound wonderful and praise-worthy. It’s the way the principles are applied in practice that makes the difference.

I didn’t like what I had read about Success Academy Charter Schools in the New York Times, so I thought I’d better check out their website to discover what philosophy and principles guide them. First thing I spotted was a letter from a parent responding to the article in the New York Times! The parent, Polina Bulman, painted a very different picture of the school from that offered in the Times.

Bulman describes the decision-making process she went through in choosing the Success Academy for her five year old daughter. She shares what had concerned her and explains how those concerns had been answered. She describes her daughter’s happiness at school and the progress she is making in all areas of her learning. She has nothing but praise for the school, and concludes her letter, which she shared on Facebook, with these words:

“I was so touched by the warm and welcoming atmosphere. I had a chance to hang out in the hallways, listening to what teachers say to students as they pass by, and watching what teachers and staff members say to one another. I saw so much collaboration and kindness, so much teamwork. The best thing is that as a parent I feel like a part of this team and am proud of it!”

These words are in quite strong contrast to those of the New York Times.

The “Approach to Learning” statement of the Success Academy explains that students are engaged in only 80 minutes of direct instruction each day and that the rest of the time they are engaged in small group instruction and hands on learning.


So what does all this mean?

For one thing, just as you can’t judge a book by its cover, you can’t judge a school by its policy statement.

For another, you can’t believe everything you read, even when the source seems trustworthy, you must question the author’s credentials, viewpoint and purpose in writing, “What barrow are they pushing?” (I’m upfront about my biases!)

And mostly, question, question question.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar

These are important lessons for readers of any material and of all ages. I have talked about the importance of developing critical literacy in a series of posts about using “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” in the classroom. No, definitely not in science lessons, but in lessons to discuss those very points discussed above:

Don’t believe everything you read

Check an author’s credentials and purpose in writing

 And question everything.

While I applaud the end result of Austin’s butterfly drawing, I question what the process may have been. We are not privy to that, though the supportive voices of students in the video do give us an inkling. I hope for the sake of all students that it was one of encouragement and support rather than pressure. Additionally I hope that the report in the New York Times got it all wrong. But if that is so, what is Taylor’s agenda and why would she attack these particular schools so fiercely?

Note: I wrote this article a couple of days ago and upon re-reading it now I have a couple of further thoughts re my advice to check an author’s credentials and purpose in writing. I have not followed my advice. I failed to check out the author of the NY Times article. However I think it is fair to say that Lloyd Lofthouse and Diane Ravitch are both anti the emphasis on standardised testing; and the Success Academy is probably reliant on the tests to measure its “success”.

There is no black and white truth. There are only shades of grey.

Thank you

Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts about any aspect of this post.

Spelling tests – How well do you score?


Familiar to most will be the weekly spelling test held on a Friday morning after a week’s practice at learning a list of words. Some will have dreaded the test fearing they may forget the “i before e”, “silent” letter or double letter rules, for example, their inadequacies made all too obvious by the large red crosses. Others would have relished the experience, requiring little effort to learn words they already knew, seemingly by osmosis, with the expectation of large red ticks and 10/10.

Spelling test

I dare say that most of you reading this blog are of the 10/10 variety. Just to be sure this is so, I have set you a little spelling test to do before you read any further. Please get your pen and paper, finger and notebook, or keyboard ready, then press PLAY to take the test.

So how did you go?

I hope you could see from that exercise that knowing how to spell has a lot to do with meaning. In fact the spelling of many of our words in English has more to do with morphology than with sound, and although sound can be helpful there are often many different letters or letter combinations that can be used to represent the same sound, for example:


According to the Bullock Report, published in 1975:

“For 6092 two-syllable words among the 9000 words in the ‘comprehension vocabularies’ of a group of 6-9 year olds, 211 different spellings of the phonemes were needed – and these spellings required 166 rules to govern their use! Even at that, 10% of the words had to be left aside as ‘exceptions’; which means that ‘even if a young child memorised these rules while learning to read he would still encounter hundreds of words not governed by them.’”

Lists of words, such as spelling lists, provide little support for learners, rarely providing context or meaning which might help them remember the words, or choose the correct meaning and therefore spelling, as shown by the spelling test exercise given above.


In his book “Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells a Story”, Michael Rosen explains that transmitting meaning is the reason for writing, for having an alphabet.

Rosen describes the alphabet as “a stunningly brilliant invention. We could call it a ‘cunning code’ or a ‘system of signs’ whereby we use some symbols (letters) to indicate some of the sounds of a language. … Though it is wonderful, there are some snags for users …” including:

  • letters and letter combinations do not represent the same sound each time they are used (e.g. ‘c’ in ‘cat’ and ‘city’)
  • letters represents different sounds according to regional accents
  • a particular sound is not always represented by the same letters (see the ‘eye’ example above)

He says that “Becoming or being a reader of English involves absorbing all these variations and then forgetting that they exist.”

a phonic's teacher's lament

He explains that the alphabet is more than a system of sounds and syllables and that “Our forebears devised alphabets so that they could store and retrieve meaning … over time and/or space”.

While not speaking specifically about learning spelling words, in his book “Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How The Mind Works and What It Means For Your Classroom” (referred to in a previous post here), Daniel T. Willingham consistently refers to the importance of meaning when acquiring knowledge. He says,

“Teachers should not take the importance of knowledge to mean they should create lists of facts . . . some benefit may might accrue, but it would be small. Knowledge pays off when it is conceptual and when the facts are related to one another, and that is not true of list learning. Also … such drilling would do far more harm by making students miserable and by encouraging the belief that school is a place of boredom and drudgery, not excitement and discovery.”

When a child scores poorly in a spelling tests and their errors are marked in red they see themselves as bad spellers, lose confidence in their ability and have a defeatist attitude before they even try.

Why is spelling important?

Standard spelling is essential to ensure the meaning of the message is transmitted correctly from writer to reader. While readers may very quickly notice spelling errors in text they are reading, these few errors, when embedded in meaningful text, rarely inhibit the transmission of meaning. However if the bulk of the text is in nonstandard spelling, the message would be virtually indecipherable.

How do we learn to spell?

The most effective way most of us use to learn to spell is reading. While reading we are exposed to a large number of correctly spelled works in context. If we read often enough, we see words frequently and learn to recognise them. We notice when they are misspelled and so recognise how they are spelled.

The importance of spelling correctly is relevant to and a tool for our writing. The learning of particular words is best done in the context of writing.

These are some strategies that can be used with beginning writers:

  • Model writing for them, let them see you write for real purposes, think out loud so they can see what you are doing, for example: “I going to write a . . . I’m going to start … I need to write … ”
  • Encourage them to write for self-expression, to share ideas, to tell a story . . . sustained and uninterrupted writing without the fear of a red pen anywhere.
  • Encourage them to listen to the sounds in the words and write any of the letters they know (Beginners usually start with the initial consonant, then perhaps the initial and final consonant. Vowel sounds are the most difficult to hear and differentiate and are irregular in how they are represented.)
  • Respond to their writing with written comments to their messages, modelling the correct form, for example: If the child writes “I wet to the bich on the weced” you could reply with “Did you have fun when you went to the beach on the weekend?” This enables the child to see the importance of writing for communication, demonstrates the correct spelling without being “corrected” and provides a model which can be used in future writing.
  • Encourage children to proofread their own writing by circling words they weren’t sure how to spell. Don’t always expect them to discover the correct spelling. Being able to recognise when a word is or is not spelled correctly is a first step in developing competence.
  • Notice and comment on any development that can be seen in the child’s spelling ability, for example: “You have written the word ‘kitten’. You have written the ‘k’, you know that it begins with ‘k’; you have written the ‘t’ you can hear in the middle and the ‘n’ at the end. You have listened very well to the sounds in the word.”  
  • If you want to give a child a list of words to learn, use words that have been misspelled in independent writing. Independent writing provides you with information about what the child wants to write about.
  • As they begin using technology for writing, show them how to use the tools available for checking their spelling.

bee 5

As a final note, in the Conversation this week was an article by Nathaniel Swain, entitled Spelling bees don’t teach kids literacy, or much else. The article discusses a soon-to-be aired television show that pits nine to thirteen year old children against each other in a spelling competition.

Swain says,

“How would you go spelling feuilleton, stichomythia, cymotrichous, or appoggiatura? More importantly, do you know the meaning of these words, and could you use them in a sentence?

Challenging and insightful, or obscure and essentially pointless? Spelling bees encourage endless memorisation of complex but low-frequency words – and are a distraction from the core of literacy education.”

Thank you

Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts about any aspect of this post.




A palette of colours

I think few of us would deny that each of us is unique, or question the importance of an individual’s interests and abilities to learning. Much has been written about learning styles, multiple intelligences and differentiation of instruction.

Most teachers try to incorporate a variety of experiences into their programs in order to maximise learning opportunities in the hope that, if students don’t “get” it one way, they will “get” it in another. The imposition of national standardised assessment makes doing this a challenge for teachers. The increased requirement for the implementation of particular approaches to teaching makes it even more so.

To say that I hold fairly strong views about learning, and the differences I consider there to be between education and schooling is perhaps an understatement, but it wasn’t always so.

My memory tells me that, while I probably didn’t “love” school, I probably didn’t “hate” it either. It was simply something that I had to do. I didn’t question it. I did my best to be a “good” girl, do what was expected of me, and conform. All of which I think I did pretty well.

The questioning came later and had more impact upon my teaching and parenting than it did on my own schooling. I came to view schooling as something that is “done” to us, and education as something that we do for ourselves. That is not to say that no worthwhile learning takes place in school, for it does, but education is a whole-of-life experience and schooling is but one small part of that.

Education is a whole of life experience

However, if the importance of schooling, and here I mean learning of particular content by particular ages, is inflated and rated more highly than children’s natural curiosity, interests and abilities, then the consequences to individuals and the community in general can be more negative than positive. One consequence may be that children don’t enjoy school; another may be the view that only school knowledge is important; and yet another may be that children are turned off learning all together.

My first conscious discomfort with what, for convenience, I’ll call a factory model of schooling (children go in one end, have things “done” to them, and come out the other end all the same) was as a young teacher when all five year two teachers were expected to be doing the same thing at the same time. That imposition, along with other inadequacies that were beginning to become apparent, set me on a quest to learn more about learning and education. My quest has never ceased and I am still searching for answers.

Recently I read a book by Daniel T. Willingham entitled Why Don’t Students Like School? The title had instant appeal, of course, and I thought I’d recognise a few of the reasons at least. My initial expectation was of reading views similar to those of authors like John Holt, Ivan Illich, A.S. Neill and John Dewey whose books I had read in the 70s and 80s; but a closer look at the subtitle told me I was in for more: “A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How The Mind Works and What It Means For The Classroom”.

The book is a wonderful read and I’m certain to share many of Willingham’s ideas with you in future posts. I enjoyed it because, in almost equal measure it reinforced, challenged and extended my thinking about many aspects of learning and how best to provide for and stimulate it in a classroom setting.

Sometimes Willingham would make a statement with which I agreed, and then go on to explain the faulty thinking behind it. Sometimes his statement would seem to completely contradict what I think but his explanation would show that we simply had different ways (mine perhaps inadequate) in explaining it.

What I really appreciate about the book is that Willingham carefully translates what has been learned from research into practices that can be implemented in the classroom to enhance student learning. Often research seems only to tell teachers what they already know from experience and observations, or provides information in such an abstract way that nothing of practical use can be gleaned.

The section of Willingham’s book that I refer to today is “Chapter 7 – How Should I Adjust My Teaching for Different Types of Learners?” Willingham opens the chapter with the words “All children are different.” He says that some learn visually, some auditorily; that some are linear thinkers and some holistic, for example, and that

“It seems that tailoring instruction to each student’s cognitive style is potentially of enormous significance”.

The important word in that sentence is “seems”. He talks about the differences in the way that hypothetical Sam and Donna might learn and says that “An enormous amount of research exploring this idea has been conducted in the last fifty years, and finding the differences between Sam and Donna that would fit this pattern has been the holy grail of educational research, but no one has found consistent evidence supporting a theory describing such a difference.”

He states that the “cognitive principle guiding this chapter is:

“Children are more alike than different in terms of how they think and learn.”

That statement really made me sit up and take notice: “Children are more alike than different”. But it turns out, those words are not the most important ones in the sentence. The most important ones are: “in terms of how they think and learn.

He goes on to say that, “the claim is not that all children are alike, nor that teachers should treat children as interchangeable. Naturally some kids like math whereas other are better at English. Some children are shy and some are outgoing. Teachers interact with each student differently, just as they interact with friends differently; but teachers should be aware that, as far as scientists have been able to determine, there are not categorically different types of learners.”

He also talks about it in this video:

Willingham acknowledges that students differ in their cognitive abilities and styles. What he does in the chapter is “try to reconcile the differences among students with the conclusion that these differences don’t mean much for teachers.” In reading these words one might expect that Willingham is proposing that differentiation is not an important part of classroom practice. But such is not the case, as stated in this video:

In the book he writes, “I am not saying that teachers should not differentiate instruction. I hope and expect that they will. But when they do so, they should know that scientists cannot offer any help.” According to Willingham, scientists have not identified any types of learners or styles of learning.  He says, “I would advise teachers to treat students differently on the basis of the teacher’s experience with each student and to remain alert for what works. When differentiating among students, craft knowledge trumps science.

What Willingham says is of most importance for a learner to learn is background knowledge. If a student does not have sufficient background knowledge to understand the content or concepts which are presented, learning will not take place. This supports the advice that I repeatedly give to parents: read to your children, talk with them, and provide them with a wide range of experiences and activities. The same is true for teachers: ensure the students have sufficient knowledge on which to build the new work you are expecting them to grasp.

This week at the Carrot Ranch Charli Mills has thrown a prompt with which I have struggled: In 99 words (no more, no less) write about the day the earth turned brown. I always like to tie my responses to the educational focus of my blog and this one had me stumped for a while. A mind journey following various twists and turns, retracing well-worn paths, and hitting many dead ends, finally led me to an oasis in the parched brown earth: the uniqueness of each of us; the amazing potential of each new child to create possibilities beyond our imagining; and the contrasting effect of a narrow test-driven school system that attempts to reduce each to the sameness of minimum standards and age (in-)appropriate benchmarks. A paint palette seemed a suitable medium for the story.

For those of you who have been following Marnie’s story, I apologise. She makes no appearance this time, though I have not ruled out the possibility with student M. I’d be pleased to know what you think.


Palette potential

She walked between the desks admiring their work. From the same small palette of primary colours, and a little black and white for shades and tones, what they produced was as individual as they: J’s fierce green dinosaur and exploding volcanoes; T’s bright blue sea with sailing boat and smiling yellow sun; B’s football match . . . At least in this they had some small opportunity for self-expression. She paused at M’s. M had mixed all the colours into one muddy brown and was using hands to smear palette, paper, desk and self . . .

Thank you

Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts about any aspect of this post or flash fiction.