Pencil-holding, Hockey stars, and more. In this episode, Andy, Robin and Adam discuss how to manage low-performing or struggling students. Is it fair to hold someone back a year? What’s the social impact like as a result? Plus, Andy discusses what lessons we can take from Jean Piaget’s work.
Continue listening to our educational experts
The school of school podcast is presented by:
Subscribe to get the latest The School of School podcasts delivered to your inbox.
Hi, I'm Andy Psarianos.
Hi, I'm Robin Potter.
Hi, I'm Adam Gifford.
This is the School of School Podcast.
Welcome to School of School Podcast.
Are you an early years teacher struggling with lack of support for lesson planning? Foundations can help. Foundations is the new reception programme from Maths No Problem. It's a complete reception package with workbook journals, picture books, and online teacher guides all in one place. Visit mathsnoproblem.com today to learn more.
Welcome to another episode of The School of School Podcast with all the regulars, Andy, Adam, and me, Robin.
Today, I really want to bring up this topic because it's come up a few times lately, but it's about struggling students. I see this or I hear about it from my kids where it seems like it's impossible to repeat a grade nowadays. No one wants to do that. And I mean, coming from the school's perspective, is it really a bad thing for some kids who are not doing particularly well, they're behind on their learning to have to repeat? What do you think?
Yeah, I'm shooting from the hip here. I'm just thinking I have known people who have been in that position. I don't think it gave them any favours. I think there might be sound reasons why you need to, I don't know, do something again or look at it in a different context. But I think my worry, what the biggest worries are twofold. One, is the impact it has on that child because the social group, children that they may have gone through years and years with and got to know and gone to the same parties and swimming lesson, whatever. And then all of a sudden they're not with them anymore and they're with a new group. I think that could be hugely difficult, even though the reason behind it may be sound and there might be good reasons for it.
I think the other thing that would worry me a bit is I know a huge amount of thought would be invested in deciding on that, but is it a bit of a get out of jail card? Is it a bit of one of those that actually should the child never have been put in that position in the first place and maybe we need to look a bit harder as to what we could have done to support that child or to bring them up to speed so they're with their peers?
So my initial reaction is, "No, I don't agree with it." I don't agree with it, but I've seen some gaps in some children, particularly getting into secondary school that are so scary that the experience of that child in secondary school can only be horrific in class because of the gaps that they have. And so, then there's maybe a stronger argument to go back and revisit these topics that perhaps some secondary schools aren't set up as well as to do because that they might be things that are primary school based. But my gut feel is that I don't think it's the right thing to do.
What about you, Andy?
I think it's a very complicated question. I think there's probably some cases where maybe it is the right thing to do, but singling out anybody and saying, "You are not as good as everybody else." And this is not the only way to do it. It's putting them in the special help group or whatever, singling out any child is what... We're talking about children really here, right? Especially young children. You have to be pretty darn clear about what it is that you're trying to achieve by doing that. Because there may be cases where it is the right thing to do. There may be, I don't know, right? I don't know enough about it. Is there any data on this? I wonder where research, what happens to those children? Statistically, do they end up doing better when that happens?
Because the flip side is also equally as dangerous, which is accelerating them into the next year, right? Which I know several children who that has happened to and some of them did remarkably well. But is it because of that? Is that really what it is? I can guarantee you? There wasn't a reason that they did particularly well. What's the problem we're trying to solve when we do it? Is it for them or is it for the teacher? So if you've got a class where there's one or two, which are clearly struggling, clearly not where they should be, it's really inconvenient for the teacher, right? It's really inconvenient for the teacher. So is that the reason that we're putting those kids back or is the reason something else? Is it because we want to help those kids? I don't know. I'm just asking more questions here.
I was held back a year. I was held back a year in secondary school. We talked about this in another podcast. My secondary school experience was so horrible. I was such a bad student. Not a bad person, but a bad student that I was held back in year 10 because I failed English. So we had to take two English courses. I don't know what they were called. One was literature, the other one was just called English, I think. So I failed both of those. I failed math, I failed physics, I failed biology. Or was it physics? I don't remember if it was physics then. Anyway, science. I basically failed all the subjects that you have to pass. I failed every single one of them. And history was the other one that I failed, right? So I think the only classes I passed were PE and drama, right? So should I have been held back? Well, if you put me through what message are you sending, right?
Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Well this is it. Not to get too specific on your report card from high school, but-
No, no, but that's the question though, right?
No. No, I know. No, I agree. And you're a perfect example of that question. Should they have or shouldn't they have? But going back to young kids-
That makes a joke of everybody else that worked hard. I failed because I didn't go to class, right? I didn't do any of my homework.
Yeah. Right. And that's it. Adam brought up the point of how is that as a little kid who is held back from all their peers, that-
Yeah. If you do it in year two.
... impact emotionally on them. Are they going to struggle from then on then with their own self-worth? Am I good enough? And so, like you said, there should be a study done on that kind of thing.
When I was a kid, there were kids that were held back and I have no idea how they ended up doing in the long run, but it must have been very, very upsetting for them. But then you've got a whole different topic, Andy, going into high school because I do see kids now who do not put in the work, they don't go to class, they don't hand into things and they still pass. And I think what message is that sending? So I think there's two different.
Yeah. Exactly. I agree. I think there's two parts to this. I think the difficulty is that when you get to secondary school, you've got a very clear set of criteria for every individual subject. So it's a lot easier to pinpoint where's this child doing it. And I also think that there's a level of maturity when you're in secondary school, if it's just well known, if it's known to you, right? If you go into whatever it is, wherever you are around the world, however it's described. But when you go into secondary school, if you don't pass this, this, this, and this, and this, you'll repeat your year. And I think there's a level of maturity that anyone who's old enough to be in secondary school, whilst they're not fully mature, you're mature enough to realise, "Okay, this is really easily measurable and I get it. And so if I don't do it, that's where it happens."
I suppose that that makes that job a lot easier because every subject has its own pass, fail. So it's a lot easier to make that decision. I suppose what I'm talking about is in primary school where there's less of that, and particularly when children are young, because I think that what we know now, I'd like to think more so with every year that passes and more research into it, is that children learn at different rates, but it doesn't make them less able to learn. And so, I think that when children are young, it's very difficult to have clear cut ideas about whether or not, and I've got to be honest, I don't know that I've heard in the time that I've been out here, children being held back in primary school. So I've been out here about 18 years. But yeah-
It certainly happened when I was in primary school.
It happened when I was in primary school for sure in New Zealand that without question.
But I'm going to question something that you said. You said that people learn at different rates. I don't think you can measure the rate that somebody learns at because I think people learn at different levels of complexity, which those who learn at the highest levels of complexity are often the ones that perform at the lowest level, right? And by that, what I mean is that if you can imagine someone is building, and this has been shown several times in the past, right? And there's different ways, but you can only look at it in a long view. If you are busy developing a really complex, seriously interrelated model of the world in your mind, you are not going to be able to articulate anything meaningful for a long time. But then, you may emerge later on having this tremendous insight, right? And later on being almost revered as an intellectual, but as a young age, you were actually seen as a struggling because some people can learn very superficially, very quickly, right?
And PIJ talks a little bit about this is they can assimilate lots of stuff very quickly. But what they can't do is make those really complex relationships between things. So all too often you see people who seem to struggle through school, but they struggled to perform at school. It's not that they weren't learning, they just didn't perform the way we wanted them to. But then, later on became almost superhuman, right? And you see that and they're able to pull things together in ways that people, whether it's tremendous intuition or an incredible ability to create associations between, and it can be in any discipline, it could be in wit, in literature, in mathematics, in physics, in art, where they have this incredibly brilliant creative minds that just blow you away. You look back at their schooling and their schooling was horrible, right? This just didn't work for them. So is it that we're learning at different paces or we're just learning differently?
Well, I think what I mean by that, I don't mean a constant in terms of rates.
No, I know.
But I think what I mean is that what we see, and performance may be a better word for it, or there's something that makes one piece of the puzzle that makes the rest click and opens it up for us. So we might overcome one hurdle and that allows us to then understand these other areas that we know we understand, but we've not been able to make sense of completely until we make that link with something else. And I guess what I'm saying is that trying to establish when children are very young, whether or not they understand, whether or not they are learning, all of that is incredibly difficult.
Incredibly difficult and made far more so because they're not eloquent at a young age, they're not as able to talk about ideas and concepts. Even though they may have them, they might just not have the language to-
The communications skills.
... help us understand where they're at. And so, I think that that's what I was trying to say was that where it seemed to be done. Now again, this is my memory, right? Only because I think that maybe it impact on me, even though it didn't happen to me in primary school, it happened to some mates, but it's obviously had quite a profound effect because I feel quite emotive about the subject and maybe I just thought it was a sense of unfairness towards those children at a young age. And I think now, I wouldn't want to be put in a position where I was having to make that decision. I think it would be an incredibly difficult complex one for children at a young age.
So is it ever okay? Is it ever okay? Let's go look back at the young age. Is it ever okay? What would a good reason be? What would it look like?
Well, this is where I was going to pose this question to you because when I lived in the Middle East, this happened regularly where... And it was boys, so I'm sorry to point out, boys for some reason, tended to have, a few of them had, they hadn't developed their fine motor skills, for example. We're talking early, early years and there were a few instances where parents were asked if they would want to hold back their boys because they didn't have, I think, the verbal skills or the fine motor skills to hold a pencil properly or anything. And it was suggested or recommended by the school to keep those kids back a year. And so, I'm saying this is five years old maybe. And some of the parents ignored that advice and their kids went on and some of them did hold back their boys for a year. I don't know if it's right or wrong, I'm just putting it back on YouTube.
So you look at five-year-olds, five-year-old the difference between a kid that's a kid that's five years and 11 months and a kid that's five years is massive, right?
Yeah. And it was the young five-year-olds, I would say.
It tends to be the young ones, right?
So I think there is an argument at that stage because I think at that stage you can minimise the impact because they're not really haven't developed the peer group and so on and so forth, and they're younger and they're probably more able to... As long as you're not telling them we're holding you back because you're not good enough. They'll probably work it out eventually anyway. But I think that there's an argument to do it there.
Look at Malcolm Gladwell's work on hockey players, right? Where he basically said based on if you're born at the beginning of the year, you're more likely to become a professional hockey player because you're more likely to be outstanding when you're young and therefore be singled out and get the better training, the better coaching, the better opportunities. You're always playing with people who are a bit younger than you, right? So that's an interesting concept and it's shown in sports that for sure makes a big difference.
There is an argument, I think at that age, for doing it for those kinds of reasons. But I don't know that the reasons that you singled out are necessarily the reasons. They may just be manifestations of the reasons.
The fact that a kid can't hold a pencil isn't a reason to hold them back. But if he can't hold a pencil because he hasn't developed enough yet and that's just a indication of the problem. That's not the problem, I guess is what I'm saying, right? Whether or not you can hold a pencil properly that a teacher can deal with a kid who can't write in the classroom in year one or can't write legibly, most kids can't write legibly actually in year one. I would imagine. It depends what you mean by legible, right? I think there's a skill for your one teachers to read writing of your year one students. But Adam, look, what's your take on that?
Well, first of all, parents can choose in terms of reception year group. So for that's four years old, that age group. So it's a very young thing. And like you're saying, Andy, if you look at it at reception, it's a massive proportion of their life difference compared from the youngest to the oldest. And I think that that's parental choice. So that's fine. To me, when you get parents involved in that at so such a young age and you've not quite got to say the social group set up or other aspects to take into consideration. So that's a little bit, I guess, easier beyond that though, when you get into schooling from year one, the only time that I would... If it was ever to come up, I don't feel qualified enough to make a decision.
So what I would need to do is to make sure that I've got some pretty clever people in their field to help me make a judgement because I certainly don't feel qualified enough to make that decision. And I think at primary school, when I grew up in New Zealand, so I was in primary school in the '70s, I imagine it was just the teachers making a decision based on their experience. But as I sit here, I don't feel... I'm probably heavily influenced by how I felt about friends being kept back and not being with their social group anymore. And the impact that had on them that as a child. I imagine that their learning was also affected in some way, shape, or form. But what I couldn't tell you is whether that was a positive or negative impact on them. But I imagine given the choice, they probably wanted to stay with their peer group that they've grown up with.
Agreed. Yeah, absolutely. And again, talking about a five-year-old versus a eight-year-old, that's very different when it comes to a peer group. So not that I'm saying you should hold back five-year olds, but if you're talking to the parents and it's an option for some really valid reason, I don't know what that reason would be, that's one thing, but just to say, "Oh, actually we're holding this child back and this child's eight or nine years old," that would have, I think, some serious ramifications in all kinds of ways. And it sounds like, Adam, you've experienced that through your friends.
Yeah. Yeah. Not personally, thank goodness.
But yeah, I just think now, I think we've moved on to using professionals more, perhaps. Again, I might have a really skewed view because I was a kid in primary school in the '70s, so it wasn't like I was asking teachers what process they went through and did you consult the various experts in their fields before making this decision? I just suspect that there was probably less of that, and we probably weren't as aware of how to support those children that may be seen as just... I don't know. Well, there are all sorts of terms used for children that just weren't performing with their peers. And I think were a bit more sophisticated now, and I hope we are better at supporting those children.
And I suppose if you're in a school where this is a really common issue, and it does happen... I know here, for example, in British Columbia, one of the areas where there is a huge range sometimes in classrooms is in First Nations communities for a variety of socioeconomic reasons. There could be an argument for mixed age classrooms being the best solution that actually will solve some of those problems because you don't separate, or there's an opportunity to keep the peer groups together, even though people are, I don't know, it's just something to think about, right?
That's a whole new topic on self, Andy. That's a-
Goes to say, and that's our next topic, folks.
Stay tuned. All right.
Thank you for joining us on School of School Podcast
Continue listening to our educational experts