Author Archives: Sue Cowley

The Missing Skill

There’s a skill that I was taught nearly 30 years ago, which over the intervening years has saved me literally years of wasted time. It’s a skill that is completely missing from the current National Curriculum in England, and indeed the new draft curriculum. But it’s a skill that both teachers and students need to use on a daily basis. Indeed, the further we move into the future, the more valuable and vital this skill will become. It’s a skill that is crucial in the vast majority of workplaces as well, and yet we completely fail to include it within the world of education.

When I’m in the classroom, and I show my students this skill, they are totally astounded. Comments range from: “How do you do that miss?” to “Miss, that’s like, magic innit?” They simply cannot believe that it’s possible, and yet it’s a relatively easy skill to learn. Like most skills, it just takes a bit of practice and commitment to get the hang of it. And the more you do it, the better and faster you become, until you can do it without even thinking. A handful of UK schools teach this skill, but the vast majority do not.

It’s a skill that I’m using right now, as I create this blog entry for Pedagoo. Have you guessed what it is yet? A couple more clues … I can do it at a speed of about 80, while those people who haven’t learned the skill can only go at a speed of about 8. So, that means I’m ten times as fast at this skill than someone who cannot do it. If you have mastered this skill, you can do it at the speed of thought. If you haven’t mastered this skill, then your thinking processes (and those of your students’) will be slowed right down.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? And yes, you’ve probably guessed by now, that I’m talking about touch-typing. There are various ways to learn. There’s the old fashioned way I was taught, which in those days involved a book of exercises, an hilariously huge BBC computer or even (gasp!) a typewriter. But these days a quick Google search will bring up software options suitable for schools, such as the ‘Englishtype’ programme. I recently bought my own children a Pokemon DS ‘Learn Touch Typing’ Game, with wireless keyboard included, which would work brilliantly in a school environment and which is great fun.

So this blog post is a plea to all you technologically minded teachers out there, to seriously consider teaching this skill in your schools. My ‘missing skill’ might not make it into Gove’s controversial new curriculum, but that doesn’t mean you can’t teach it in your classroom. Your children will thank you in their digital future, I promise.

Risky Teaching

It’s often said that we’re becoming more and more risk averse as a society. Certainly, it seems to me that schools and teachers are less willing to take risks than they were when I first came into the profession in the 1990s. Ironically, at the same time as we become less likely to take risks, we have become ever more aware that taking risks is vital for effective learning. Indeed, taking risks is probably one of the most important factors in effective learning. Because if students (and teachers) are not willing to take risks in their learning, then their progress is going to be either slow or non existent.

For example, think about how someone learns to juggle. If I want to become better at juggling, I have to try to do it, which means I risk dropping the balls. Indeed, worse than that, it’s highly likely that I will drop the balls, especially when I first begin to learn. And if I drop the balls, I risk looking like a fool, even more so if I’m doing it in front of my peers. So, I have to be brave enough to be willing to fail, and brave enough not to care what anyone else thinks.

There are some key pedagogical messages in this for teachers. First, that one of the most important things you can do in your classroom is to create a climate where children support each other, and where disrespect for another person’s efforts is seen as completely unacceptable. Second, that you must make risk taking, and its friends ‘making mistakes’, ‘giving it a go’ and ‘getting stuck’, seem like a really cool bunch of dudes. One of the very best ways you can do this is to show yourself making mistakes and coping with failure. Or, as I often say to teachers when I’m running a training day: ‘As a teacher, you must never be afraid to make a complete a**e of yourself.’ Another way you can do this is to stop believing that every piece of work must have a finished ‘product’ – a beautifully presented news report, or picture, or whatever. Sometimes get the children to give it a try, share their ideas, and then simply throw it away.

The third message for your practice is that you must use your skills as a professional to break down difficult activities into simpler steps. That way your children only have to take one small risk, then another, then another, to move forwards. And finally, that perhaps the most important thing of all for a teacher is that you get to know your students as well as you possibly can. That way you will understand who is brave enough to make big mistakes to move forwards with their learning, and who has a more fragile personality and needs more help. This is a key part of what differentiation is about.

A friend of mine manages a clinical research centre for the NHS – it’s a pretty high-powered job and she frequently feels nervous about doing it properly. She recently went on a training course and afterwards she told me all about it, because she knows that I’m really interested in all things training related. One of the first things they asked her on the course was ‘If you were 10% braver in your professional life, what would you do?’ The question really struck a chord: both with her, and with me. It occurred to me that when I first started teaching I probably was 10% braver. I probably was at least 10% more likely to try something risky in my classroom, even if a lot of the time those risks meant my lessons went completely pear shaped. I honestly didn’t much care what others thought of what happened in my classroom, because I saw it as part of the rich, varied and often completely hilarious process of learning to become a teacher. I was doing it for my kids, after all, and not for some external audience.

So, why is it that teachers, as professionals, have become more risk averse in the past few decades? All those risk assessments surely can’t have helped. If we constantly focus on what is dangerous, eventually this must skew our perspective on how likely these dangerous events are to occur. Certainly, the more formal and prescriptive the curriculum has become, the less teachers have been able to take creative, instinctive, organic approaches to learning. These are the approaches that yes, do sometimes fail, but equally sometimes lead to astonishing leaps forward in learning. And a strong focus on inspection, and progression, and league tables, is damaging as well. Because this assumes that we must always care about what others think about what we do – the antithesis of what risk taking is all about. Surely we do what we do because we believe in its value for our children, and not because some external person will pat us on the back and say ‘oh aren’t you great’.

I’d like to finish this blog post with a challenge. Consider your answer to the question I talked about earlier. What would you do in your classroom today if you were 10% braver? What would you do if you didn’t care what anyone else thought? And now go and actually do it.


Take one cardboard box …

I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about resources recently: how they can extend children’s thinking, and also how teachers can use them for differentiation. It’s tempting to believe that you have to spend quite a bit of money on resources. All that bright, shiny technology is indeed very tempting and often of great value in the classroom. But, as is so often the case in teaching, what you really need to do is to apply a liberal dose of creative thinking. Because once you do that, you very quickly realise that pretty much anything you have to hand can become a useful resource for learning.

Last week I just happened to have several deliveries from a well known internet book store. The deliveries all came separately, so I ended up with three huge cardboard boxes. For several days, the boxes sat in the corner of my lounge, waiting to be recycled.  But all the time they were calling to me (“use me, use me, use me for something, anything“). They were obviously calling to my daughter as well, because one day she came home from school, eyed the boxes possessively, and announced: ‘We’re studying plants at school, I want to make a Giant Apple Tree, with those boxes.’

So it was that I spent last weekend with my daughter, up to my elbows in cardboard, brown paper, sellotape, green paint, glue, scissors, leaves plucked off a nearby tree and some battered looking daisies to serve as apple flowers. All the time I was thinking, this is what makes a great, differentiated resource. Something so simple, that the child (and/or the teacher) is forced to apply his or her creativity, imagination and lateral thinking. We took the tree into school on Monday morning (she had asked her teacher’s permission first). I’m not quite sure what her teacher was expecting, but I’d imagine she had anticipated a small child like drawing of a tree, rather than a metre high cardboard sculpture, with added collage effect.

I’d like to finish my first Pedagoo blog post with a challenge: sometime soon, take one cardboard box of any size or description, apply that powerful teacher creativity that all teachers have so much of, and turn it into a useful resource with or for your students.  And then, of course, post a blog about it here on Pedagoo!

Sue Cowley