When my children were growing up I, like many parents, would often take the opportunity to look at their exercise books from school. I’d thumb through them with several questions I’d hope to answer.
“What work are they doing?” That’s not always straightforward, I appreciate. If my sons’ music books contained extensive written work, I’d be concerned that they weren’t having sufficient opportunities for practical exposure to the subject. Likewise, in PE there would be no book at all. Our clues as parents to the content of PE lessons would be the kit required (“indoor” or “outdoor”), the state that it was returned to us in (from “near pristine” to what can only be described as “irreparably muddied”) and the sometimes brief, closed answers to the clearly-tiresome question of “what did you do at school today?”
A next line of enquiry would be “how hard are they working?” Now we all know that quantity does not necessarily denote effort. It would be easy to fill page after page with copied notes. So here, what was more important to us was any work that was clearly left unfinished, or work that was patently below their best work (as appraised either by the teacher through feedback, by looking back at previous output that was distinctly superior or by comparison with their work contained in other books). Other tell-tale signs? Well, dog-eared page corners, and presentation rules not followed. Often the start of the year would see titles and dates proudly underlined with a ruler only for these standards to sometimes wither on the vine as the term wore on and the pledges of neatness made to the empty pages were reneged upon. Graffiti, rare as it was, generated a separate – and terse – conversation.
Then perhaps the most important question of all: “What are they learning?” Sometimes it is truly inspiring to look at a pupil’s work over time and see the learning and progress captured on the pages. We see misconceptions addressed, skills developed (looking at an art portfolio can be truly astounding!), techniques improved, and confidence gained. For my own children, some of the best examples of this were found in the work in mathematics. By their own admission, neither of my children would be considered particularly able mathematicians any more than I would have been when I was at school. To see exercises undertaken and calculations made, with the consequent “ticks” and “crosses” administered, then to see feedback given – perhaps a worked example or an alternative method – and the resultant success of further exercises was a terrific sight. Whilst it always seemed a bit churlish, and became something of an in-house joke, as parents we were always concerned if we saw pages of activity marked only with ticks. We learn from error which comes from challenge, and we practise our skills with different examples and with added complexity to embed the learning and make the learning weatherproof. Once we have overcome the mistakes and misconceptions, we then engage in repetition to make the learning “sticky”.
I was struck by a tweet (I’ve been advised that we can still refer to posts on “X” as such) by educationalist Dylan Wiliam. In reply to a question about the importance of practice, he wrote “…Or as my nephew, a professional drummer, puts it, “Don’t practise until you can get it right. Practise until you can’t get it wrong.” I’ll admit that I hadn’t heard this expression before, but it makes an enormous amount of sense in relation to so many pursuits. “Tenacity and resilience” are enshrined in the core values of John Taylor MAT for a reason.
A phrase that I have heard, typically from sportsmen and women is that “practice makes permanent.” Here, the role of the teacher or coach to ensure that what is repeated is the correct method is paramount. Without that, bad habits become hardwired and much harder to jettison. In my last blog, I extolled the importance of teachers to the learning experience – and here I am concluding another blog with the same sentiment. I’m pleased, on this at least, to be consistent even at the risk of accusations of predictability.
Thanks, as always, for reading.