The importance of reading and writing

Today finds me in a pensive frame of mind. In quick succession, questions such as “What am I doing?”, “Where am I heading?” and “What do I know really?” bombard me with self-doubt. In part, this is because I’ve got the flu, and nothing drags you down quite as much as feeling unwell. And also, I’m two days away from my birthday, where I turn 47. Not quite 50 years old, but getting there.

I’m sure it’s quite common to start feeling a sense of urgency when reaching those latter years. Not much time left to make my mark on the world. To be fair though, even if I were to pop my clogs tomorrow, I’d already have left a legacy. Ten years of happy marriage, a wonderful son, loving relationships with friends and family – these are no small feat. But I’m greedy. I want to feel I’ve achieved a little more than that. And in education, I’ve found my mission.

I’m under no illusion that I can transform the world through education, but I do feel the need to make some sort of valuable contribution. I’m putting considerable energy into my book, which is half-way written and progressing very satisfactorily. It won’t be a bestseller, but I’m confident that it will be useful to at least a handful or more people. That will be satisfaction enough. Then I can start on the next one.

My self-doubt is more to do with my having a vision in my mind of the direction I want school education to go in, but not having the wherewithal to put that vision into effect. This blog, and the hope that it can communicate my ideas to a number of people in education, is one of the few tools I have to hand at the moment. So let me try to articulate what is concerning me most.

The business of schools can be so all-consuming that it’s easy to get bogged down in the detail. Everything starts to coalesce around Ofsted, evidencing and reporting progress, balancing the books, fire-fighting this or that incident, exam results and league tables. The accountability stakes are set so high. In such circumstances, it’s unsurprising that many of us tend to forget our ultimate mission.

And what is our ultimate mission? Is it to prepare our pupils for the job market of the 21st century? Is it to get as many pupils to pass their GCSEs as possible? Is it to top the league tables of As and A*s? Is it to achieve social mobility for our most disadvantaged pupils? None of these ambitions are in themselves unworthy. The important thing is to know what your ultimate mission is and to focus your efforts on achieving it, rather than trying to do everything at once. I’ve noticed that the most successful school leaders are the ones that are very clear in their minds about their mission, and single-minded in achieving it. The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.

I’ve had a lot of time in the last two years to think about what, ultimately, school education is for. Getting good grades and jobs are obviously important, but they are a by-product of a good education. Developing technical skills can be done in apprenticeships, further education or in work. For me, school’s main purpose is academic. Where and when else are children going to develop the necessary literacy, numeracy and knowledge of the world? That’s not so that they can sit in an ivory tower of academia (though they might wish to do so) but so that they can access knowledge that would otherwise be outside their everyday experience. We need to be able to read and write well, so that we can access great works of art, learn about scientific discoveries, understand our past, be aware of what’s happening in the world around us, learn languages that can help us understand other cultures and communicate effectively with our fellow human beings. That is the entitlement of every single child, and all societies are the better for it.

Well of course, that’s what most schools already do, isn’t it? In theory yes, but in practice, far too many children leave school with poor reading and writing, and consequently poor knowledge of the world. Something is going wrong along the way. And as the difficulties start seeming insurmountable, the tendency is then to get bogged down in the detail and focus on the little things rather than the main thing. Learning objectives must be displayed on the board. Detailed lesson plans must be submitted for each lesson. Lessons must have a starter, main and plenary. There must be VAK activities and differentiation. All learning activities must be followed by an AFL activity. And so on and so forth. Before you know it, you’re bogged down in these bureaucratic details, so many of them forced upon you that it’s a struggle to even remember what you’re ultimately trying to achieve. The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.

So let’s get back to the main thing. We want our pupils to read and write well. That will be the passport for them to acquire further knowledge. Well there are no short cuts. If we want our pupils to read and write well, then they have to do a considerable amount of reading and writing every single school day. It also goes without saying, that if they are to learn effectively, their classrooms need to be calm and free of disruption. Focus on achieving these things.

I have, in the last few months, done a big sort out of my belongings and re-discovered a box file with loads of my old school work. I went to a French school until the age of 13, but I was curious to find some work I did in ‘sixième’, the equivalent of year 7. Every week, we had to do a dictation, usually an excerpt from classic literature, and then had to do comprehension questions or grammar analysis of the work. Here’s an example of what I used to do:

In this case, it was a bit of Balzac. In an English classroom, that would be the equivalent of dictating Dickens to your year 7 pupils. I was thoroughly drilled in grammar, punctuation and spelling, and exposed to copious amounts of quality literature. On top of that, we had weekly ‘redaction’ which translates as composition, or essay writing. Every week, I would produce pages and pages of written work at school, with the commensurate amount of reading. I have not yet seen year 7s in school today, do anything like that amount of reading and writing. Remember, there are no short cuts. If we want our pupils to read and write well, they need lots of practise.

So we come to my subject, history. It is an academic subject, ‘best consumed in the written word’. To be a good historian, you need to be able to read and write well. To develop your history skills, you need to read a lot of works of historical scholarship. You need to be exposed to the language that historians use and to the arguments they make. It’s no good focusing on source work or interpretation work in isolation. It needs to be part of a regular diet of historical reading.

And yet, what I’ve witnessed so far is a focus on making history teaching ‘experiential’. Whether it’s through role play or activities designed to make history ‘relevant’, the one common thread is the idea of some kind of creative activity. Let me give you a taste of some of the resources that have been shared on my Twitter timeline in the last week alone. How about a Snakes and Ladders game about Elizabeth I? Or maybe a learning quilt on medicine through time? Or perhaps you could get your year 7s to draw a tree about the Normans? And this one’s my favourite. How about drawing lego figures to study social changes in Germany?

Such has been the level of conditioning that it seems entirely normal and standard to create or share ‘activity-based’ resources. Not once, in my two years on edu-Twitter, have I seen anyone share a resource based on historical prose. Not once. And yet, historical prose should be our bread and butter as teachers. I find that shocking and demoralising. This is what energises my attempt to write my first ever history textbook. Maybe in my small way, I can help reverse that trend.

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