I was in the classroom observing the student teacher of the y. 6 class. Both the student teacher and the associate teacher were delightfully as one, and what I was observing was admirable but predictable. I looked forward to the post-lesson discussion (as I always do).
The discussion went well and, as it developed, I did what I always do, asked the student teacher the main aim of the curriculum areas she had taken – on this occasion, written expression and reading. Very rarely can student teachers answer anywhere satisfactorily these main aim questions, and never for written expression. This is largely the fault of WALTs, a classroom practice imposed by the review office based on learning that is measurable, immediately observable and, as a result, seriously limited in scope. Lacking the organisation of a main aim, WALTs take learning in strange directions; often contrary to the true nature of the curriculum area concerned.
WALTs are the great learning robbery.
The discussion with the student continued.
I asked the student teacher what she considered the main aim of writing.
After a number of questions and a ruling out of answers, we eventually got there. (‘Expressing themselves is not satisfactory’, I said. ‘How well did they express themselves?’)
When we agreed that ‘Writing with sincerity’ would fill the bill; we then went over the appropriateness of the objectives set for the lesson and the activities undertaken.
We agreed that writing with sincerity is writing that communicates to the reader that the writer has thought deeply and truthfully about his or her writing. Also that the writer has wrestled to find just the right words to express that truthfulness.
We agreed that sincerity in writing is mostly writing with nouns and verbs with adverbs and adjectives used sparingly. Also that there are no ‘interesting words’ separate from context; that the use of the expression in lessons is just a euphemism for adjectives and adverbs. A better expression we decided might be ‘powerful words’; only able to be validly allocated according to context.
We also agreed that metaphors and similes should come naturally not discussed beforehand as if something to be lifted from the shelves of a literary supermarket.
And much more along these lines.
I pointed out that main aims are usually omitted from planning because, with their attention to the affective and the immeasurable, as well as skills and knowledge, they put the lie to WALTs.
The effect on the student brought me close to tears (as it often does). These are tender moments for an old educationist in the light of inevitably reducing opportunities to discuss education with young ones.
The look in the student’s eyes was magic. I could see her clicking over much of what she had seen and heard about written expression, and was now excited at the stark challenge to that, the revelation provided, and the implications for her teaching as a whole.
I pushed on.
I said I had observed what she called the written experience, which went better than most, and that I had seen the writing, but where was the experience?
Once again, I could see she was getting it.
The discussion that followed was powerful, by now it was the student doing the talking and asking me questions.
I ended by giving the student teacher two starters, not necessarily for the second visit, that would have been crass, but for her consideration at leisure.
Even transactional writing, I said, needed the affective, needed heart.
We now moved to reading. With her newly found appreciation of the power of main idea teaching, she was quickly onto it.
Getting children to read books, she said.
Stronger than that?
Getting children to love reading books, to be independent readers of books.
Well, why are you fiddling around with school journals?
When I returned to the classroom a week or so later, I saw a reading lesson that was a celebration and exploration of books – books that had been carefully chosen by the children in association with other children, or the student or teacher.
And I saw a transactional writing lesson on a matter that had the children deeply involved: ‘What are your views on cross-grouping for mathematics?’
This was no writing on one of those deadening templates or a tailed-off routine of a few grudging sentences, this was deep affective involvement, with the results to be given to the as yet unsuspecting principal. (The children, on the whole, while they respected the reasons for the cross-grouping, didn’t like it.) This was a lively written discourse about something that was real and felt.
In the wonderfully productive post-lesson discussion that followed, I suggested the student might like to read a posting of mine, ‘Albert and the discovery thieves’.
As an aside at the end of the discussion she asked me about giving children individual work.
My answer, I think, surprised her.
The best way to deliver individual work, I said, leaving aside the technical aspects of reading and maths, is through class activities that allow and encourage, individuality of response.
I told her I didn’t want to get too detailed here, but in primary school teaching, resolving children’s learning difficulties is largely and better resolved holistically in the course of children being involved in thought-provoking class activities in which children can respond at a pace that suits them. Formal and informal evaluations might well inform individual attention in the course of an activity, or points made in the teaching of those activities, but most gain comes through the teaching power of the holistic process.
A few months later I received the following e-mail:
I hope all is well?
I’m not sure if you will remember me but I was one of the … students that you evaluated at … this year in June.
I have been meaning to e-mail you for some time now to thank you for pointing out the posting ‘Albert and the Discovery Thieves’ for me to have a look at.
Reading it made me think again about everything I had learned about teaching. The insight and thinking behind it makes so much sense, in fact it seems incredibly obvious now that I have read it! I now question the reasoning behind schools pushing the WALTs approach and wonder why it has become such a fad throughout the schooling system.
There have been times where I have observed teachers and found that the WALTs on the board are only surface deep and, due to this, the learning is the same. Once the students feel they have achieved the WALT, many will see their task as complete and not take the risk to delve deeper into the understanding of their own learning and take the topic further.
Perhaps this is due to lack of motivation or guidance? And in many cases time constraints? Either way the opportunity still needs to be there so the students can explore, expand on and discover the topics within topics rather than be limited and influenced by a set of narrow, largely discrete objectives.
Part of what I wrote back was:
At your tender age you have broken through to inspired teaching.
Other people could read ‘Albert’ and agree, but it wouldn’t resonate with them as it has with you.
I know the implications seem straightforward to you, but some people never get it.
[Because of new Teachers Council regulations (which I accept), ‘outsiders’ can no longer visit students on practicum, so after 42 years of visiting students as a teachers college lecturer, inspector of schools, and then invited visiting lecturer, this was my last practicum visit. Thinking back on it is still affecting.]