Straw holes, straight jackets, and more. In this episode, Andy and Adam chat about early years reform. What is the purpose of a curriculum? How flexible should it be? Plus, a discussion about how a teacher is supposed to know a child understands what 3 is.
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Hi, I'm Andy Psarianos.
Hello, I'm Emily Guille-Marrett.
Hi, I'm Adam Gifford.
This is the School of School podcast. Welcome to the School of School podcast.
Okay. Welcome back everyone. So today we are talking about early years reform. So come on, Adam. I know you got stuff to say about this.
Yeah. I have got a few things to say, Andy. I mean, we've got to start off by saying wherever there's reform, wherever there's change in statutory, documents, and supporting materials, there's always a spectrum as to how people respond to it. So let's just accept that right at the beginning that some people will think that these reforms are great, others not so flash. And there'll be plenty of people somewhere in the middle. So we'll just accept that that's the case. But I think that some of the things that that are probably worth talking about is the potential impact for some of these reforms, maybe a bit of the motivation for those reforms and just thinking really about we've got this amazing opportunity every September. We get these children into our school and they're precious.
And so they come in and they're just wide eyed. And for some of them, if they're not been to a nursery in the school coming into a reception, it's a brand new time and it's really exciting. So I think that what will probably be most useful is to see how we can support the new reforms and have best practice and amongst it all. So that's what we're going to aim for. So just to start with, the first thing that I want to just touch on briefly is it's been slimmed down, some of it has been slimmed down. The Development Matters document which is the nonstatutory support for the early years foundation stage framework has been slimmed down a bit. And part of the reason for this was... And I've observed this in classrooms, is that the Development Matters in that supporting document was seen as a curriculum.
And I think we need to be really clear about what a curriculum is. Right? So I just think if we break it down to three parts, the curriculum's what's taught in a school. It's unique to every school. It has to be because it has to represent the children, your teaching staff, the expertise, your community, all of those sorts of things. Then about the teaching of it itself and then thinking about assessment. How do we know whether this is working for our kids? One of the criticisms that's taken place is in the previous document, there was this sort of linear progression through ages. And it was almost as if that took the place of the curriculum. Yeah? Except none of us work and learn in a linear fashion. So the danger is we're missing things and we are so focused on that next linear step that we are missing out on some of the amazing things we're doing.
And also it has the potential to take adults away from the children. And I'll give you an example, a real life example of being in a reception classroom. And I was sat with a wee boy and I sat with one of the teachers and he was sort of making marks or it was a... I won't go to the details of the assessment. But effectively, it was just saying about his mark making, fine motor skills, those sorts of things. I said, "Oh mate, what's your name?" And he said, "Oh my name's Dylan." I said, "Oh, pleased to meet you, Dylan, how are you doing?" and had a bit of a chat. And I said, "Dylan, can you show me something in this classroom that you've done?" And he said, "Yeah, yeah, see that picture up there." I said, "Oh my God, did you draw that?"
He was like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah." Now keep in mind that this whole activity, this one-on-one time with the teacher was to assess whether or not this child was capable of making marks and doing it in that faction. He pointed it out to me within the first, what? 10 seconds? So the task itself dictated what was being learned, because that was the next step. It's ridiculous, Dylan had already shown within seconds that he could do it. Right? You just observe a child and you can do it. Yeah. So it's these sorts of things that we need to be really careful of, that we are not so caught up in the minutia. So caught up in these incremental steps and use them as a curriculum where really what they are, are just way check points that we might check against. We need to make sure that we are knowing our children and we're working with our children, and they're going to show us so much along the way.
But it does bring up a lot of questions about what is the purpose of a curriculum? And how didactic should it be interpreted and used in the classroom. I suppose if you lack confidence, the easiest thing to do is to use that document as your justification for anything. Right? If you don't know, if you're a new teacher, you've never done this before, you need something. Right? So that curriculum, you're just going to follow it because you don't know. Right? You don't have experience. If you're really experienced and you're still doing that one would be quite worried. Right? But where's the balance? Should we even be writing a curriculum for early years? I think we should start with that.
So I think you're absolutely right about balance. Right? So on one stage, we've got these stages that we can put in and we can look at those. We can use those as these checkpoints, but I think that what gets talked about a lot is like a journey or understanding what the end result is. But I think that where it becomes more difficult particularly if you've just started teaching is, do you know all of those little parts that feed into understanding numbers to five? for example. So we can talk about here's the lesson structure, we can talk about here's where it relates to the curriculum. But we know that when we are supporting practitioners through the materials we develop, that we know there's more to it than just, learn this then this, then this.
We know that within every lesson, there's an opportunity for a whole host of things to take place. So I think what needs to be really clear, and of course we need to support practitioners with this and it doesn't stop, is understanding how we get to a stage, just pick a checkpoint, doesn't matter where, but how do we get to that? But I think what's also crucial is why are we doing it?
So why does a child need to know... How does counting to 10 help them when they get into year six? What part does it play in all of this and what may be learned along the way? So I think you're absolutely right. Of course, we need that some form of structure and support, but equally I think that we need to... This is probably a reasonably big statement, because I'm not suggesting for one second, this doesn't exist, but more professionalism into the workplace. So we are working on these things together. We're understanding when we look at how we can develop certain ideas. How are they developed? What can we do to support that development and practitioners to understand why we're making those decisions? So I think that there has to be space for both.
It is and it isn't. Look, if you try to dissect things into issues that need to be resolved, it's quite evident that there's lots of ways that a year of schooling, regardless of what age group it is could go horribly wrong. And there needs to be some accountability in the system. The government has a responsibility, they gather taxes and they give that money out to people who are responsible for teaching all of the children within that society. Right? And that's a huge, tremendous responsibility. Now, at some point, when you start looking at big numbers, millions of children, it's going to fail somewhere. Somewhere it's not going to work. There's going to be a school that's absolutely catastrophically horrible. And there's going to be outstanding cases. And the mass majority will be somewhere in the middle. Right? But you need to be able to do something about that.
So in order to do something about it, you need to state what it is that they need to do. Right? So you need to on some level say, "By the end of this year, these children should all be able to do this."
So you need to list possibly just outcomes. That's almost a necessity. If a school or a particular teacher, a particular classroom, whatever it is, a whole county or district is regularly failing at meeting that criteria, then there needs to be some form of intervention at the top level. Right?
So without a curriculum, you can't do that.
Yeah. So that's one extreme. Now the other extreme is the day to day things that a teaching professional needs to do to help those children along their learning journey. That's an entirely different thing. Right? So somewhere there needs to be some accountability, but there needs to also flexibility to be able to do what you need to do in the classroom to make sure that those children have the learning experiences that they need to have, so that they're ready for their next stage of learning. And a curriculum, it plays a huge role in that, but it's not supposed to be a straight jacket. Right?
No, and I think that's the thing. I think that that's where it becomes difficult because, or has been difficult in the past for some practitioners, because it's just being used as we're looking as if it's a checklist. As if I'm not bothered about what Andy's doing, because all I'm focusing on the moment is whether or not he can do this. So this other stuff that he's doing potentially that's gold to me in terms of assessment, but I'm too focused on the next step, even though there's other things that you are doing that will feed into something somewhere else, that's utterly valid.
And I think that brings me to something. I mean, I've done this with this activity with a lot of teachers and I want to put you on the spot a little bit here Andy so, brace yourself, but it should be okay. No, it should be all right. So we have to make decisions all the time. Right? So if I was to say to you, how would you know if a child knows what three is? At what point would you say, "Yeah, that child knows three." Just shoot from the hip here. Right? By the way as far as I know, I don't know that there's a single correct answer. Okay? So just have a go at this.
There isn't. You could argue that there isn't a correct answer for any question.
I read a great question in a book yesterday. Right? And it was how many holes are there in a straw?
Oh, good question.
Well think about it.
Well, I'd say there's one.
Really? Why isn't it two?
Well, because they are just the ends of one continuous hole in the middle of the straw no? Is it not?
Yeah. So whatever, just think about it. I don't want to go down this rabbit hole too far, but you know what I mean? There's no right answer to that question. How do you define a hole? Right?
Jumping back to three. I hope you're not dodging this question, Andy, but just give me a few things. Give me a few things.
I'm not trying to dodge a question, but I'm just trying to illustrate a point that you could argue all kinds of intellectual stuff around even the most simple question. Look, how do I know if a child knows the number three? Right. Well, I would expect that they can rote count, to 3. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 beyond. Right? I would hope that they could tell me what's one less than three and one more than three. Right? That would give me an idea of some form of understanding. Right? I would hope that they could count three objects.
Maybe even just subitize three objects. Right? So subitizing means you just look at the number and you know it's three. You don't need to count it. Right?
And everybody can do that up to a certain number. Past five, it gets difficult. Right? But usually you can look at three objects and you know it's three, you don't need to count them. Okay. So I would expect them to be able to do that. Now that's the easy, obvious stuff. Right? So the other thing is okay, depending on their age, so let's say it's a five year old. Right? I would expect at five that they could look at the number three, the symbol three and tell me that, that represents three. Right? Okay. I would also expect that they should be able to have a really good attempt at writing a three. They might do things like write it backwards and stuff, but that they recognize the form well enough that they can see that it's a three or meant to be a three. Right? When they write it. What's interesting is none of these things have to do anything with threeness of three. Right?
But they all need to be done, because the most important thing about three is that there's three different representations of three. Right? That you need to understand in order for you to understand three. You need to know the cardinal aspect of it. That when you're counting three objects, if you say to that child, "Show me three." If they show you the third one that don't really have the idea of cardinality. Right? They think the third one has the label three and that three doesn't represent the first three that they counted. So that's cardinality, they need to be able to do that. So if I gave them five counters and I said, "Count all the way to five. Now show me three." If they showed me the third one, that's the wrong answer.
They need to show me the first three. Right? So they need to be able to do that and understand why that's correct. Okay. The next thing they need to be able to do is they need to understand it in an ordinal fashion. Being the third. Right?
Yeah. And understand that being third and being sixth, you don't add those two together. Right? There's no rational reason why you add nominal numbers together. They represent something else. Right? So they need to understand the difference between nominal numbers and cardinal numbers. Right? So numbers that represent a set versus numbers that show what order you're in. Right? Ordinal numbers. They need to also understand that sometimes numbers are nominal. So nominal numbers are like bus number three. Right? It has no mathematical value whatsoever. You would never add bus number three and bus number seven. There's no reason to ever do that. Right? So the number is just a representation that's nominal. It's a noun. Right? To represent something. Okay. Now that's quite a long winded answer, but I'm kind of flying by the seat of my pants here. But this is like, okay, I work in math education and I have done for the last 15 years, done nothing else but work in math education. So that's my understanding of it. Right? I probably missed a whole bunch of stuff.
No, no, no. But the point that I wanted to make is illustrated beautifully and you're probably not going to realize this, but let's say I'm a teacher and I'm working in the classroom and my understanding of a child's understanding of three is they can look at the symbol three and they say it's three and they can draw three. Now, let's just say... Now I'm exaggerating this a bit. Right? But let's say that I'm the other teacher in the other class, you are one teacher, I'm the other. And we both say, we both have that experience. Yours, you've witnessed these different things, whether it's in... and this is the point, whether it's in the enhanced provision and they're playing and you've witnessed some of the things that you've talked about, you're mindful. You're like, "Oh look, it's Dylan. He's just done this and he's told me about three here. He's done this. He's told me about three here. Dylan is all over three."
Because you know, it, you are able to spot these situations and assess really well. Right? If I only know it as, "Can you make the right sound?" Like maths phonics, make the right sound when you see the symbol. And I say that, "That's good enough for me, you know three. Well done Dylan." Well then now here one teacher's going to have a bit of a problem. Right? Because there's going to be two children who apparently, are at the same, they have the same understanding of a number. And this is the sort of exercise that I think is really important when people go back in September, because you've got these expertise all over the classroom, whether it's math or whether it's anything else that's being done and that having these conversations about what is it to me one, I can learn a whole lot. Right?
So you talk about that I may have picked up four or five different things and I'm going, "Oh Andy, can you tell me a bit more about those numbers? I've not heard of those ones before." Straight up, so how would that be in the classroom? What might the opportunity be that I'd look out for? Or what is it in this one here? So I always think that having the conversations around those end points, you talked about endpoints and knowing and understanding what they look like and going through them, you start to describe the journey. So you start to describe all those little steps that may reach that security. And I think that it's those type of conversations that we have, when we get together in September, when we come back, not so they can report to a head teacher, not just so I get a pretty folder or get an email through with the results, but more than that, is it gives me an opportunity to say what goes into knowing that, and then I can extrapolate that out.
What you've just said is true for every number. There's nothing particularly special about three. Well, we could argue a couple things, but really it's not, we're talking about, forgive me for the moment, but what you've said we can use for anything. Right? So that whole idea, I think, yes, there's reform, yes, there's change but, there's a huge amount of good practice going on so we don't need to make sweeping changes. But what we kind of I think we need to be very clear of is when something's been slimmed down, they're saying these are the end points. This is what we want all of our children to get to, and we think it's possible for all of our children to get there, then really unpacking what that might look like is I think a really nice way of looking at those contributing steps.
So when you're in the classroom, you're mindful, you're not having to do just a one off. So I have to sit down with Dylan or sort of construct it so he is third in the queue or... You know what I mean? I can observe that. It's something that I think is really, really important. And I think that this was the problem in some situations with the way the old Development Matters was set out as everything was so specified that it just became these series of steps that kind of almost felt like you taking the child out of that. And I know that's not the intention of it and I know there's no practitioner that goes into teaching to say, "I can't wait to just... I got to into teaching so I could assess every one of these steps and then email it to my head teacher, what a job." People don't go into it doing that.
So there you have it, I guess. Right? There's all the answers regarding early years reform.
Yeah. Right. They are just-
Everything you ever needed to know.
Thanks Andy. Not quite, might be a couple more things on, but that's for another time.
Thank you for joining us on the School of School podcast.