Half term musings

I’ve been dipping in and out of my Twitter feed during this half term holiday, and noticed a couple of hot topics being debated, most notably: changes to the Professional Skills Test and the introduction of a times table test. While I’ve been away, I’ve also had a chance to catch up with my reading, making significant headway into Peter Frankopan’s “The Silk Roads”. Here’s my take on all of these.

Professional Skills Test

Contrary to what Katie Ashford said here, the test isn’t easy – at least not the maths one (the English one was a doddle). The biggest challenge for me was the mental maths section, where you had to listen to a question on the headphones and answer it within 18 seconds (is that right, I’ve already forgotten). When I did my first practice test, I failed miserably. I just couldn’t complete the calculations in the given time. At that point, I must admit I felt fairly grumpy about the whole thing. What on earth did a maths test have to do with teaching history? Still, I persevered.

I also struggled with some questions in the other section. I had never encountered box and whisker diagrams before. They did not feature in my maths O Level, taken over 30 years ago. Luckily, the Professional Skills Test website provides sample papers with fully explained answers, so I ploughed through them and worked it out. For the mental maths, I looked up a couple of useful YouTube videos, memorised a few key fractions and then just kept practising online. The aforementioned website has three practice tests, which you can take over and over again. I examined my areas of weakness. One tip from the YouTube video was to start jotting down the numbers as soon as I heard them, rather than wait until I’d listened to the whole question. There were also pointers on common types of questions, and how best to approach them. Over a period of around three weeks, I engaged in what Daisy Christodoulou would call deliberate practice. It did the trick. On the day of the test, I found it quite easy to do.

There was a tremendous feeling of achievement in passing that test. I was outside my comfort zone but my strategic hard work paid off. I also revised my judgement on the test itself. It was important for me, doing a humanities subject, to be able to do it. Firstly, quick thinking is required to manage the test, and quick thinking is an essential part of being a teacher. Secondly, my experience was that, with the right amount of practise, the test was actually fairly straightforward. Any teacher worth their salt should be able to learn new material, prepare for it and be tested on it. That’s the kind of thing we expect from our students, and if we’re unable to do it ourselves, then we’re not much of a role model for them.

So, I don’t really have any beef with the test itself. I certainly wouldn’t want it to be made easier. But that’s not what the government is proposing. All that is being put forward is allowing candidates to re-take the test an unlimited number of times. I have no problem with that. I would think that someone taking it ten times and failing would get the message that perhaps this profession isn’t for them, and move on. At the same time, I can see how the timed test can make people nervous and how some perfectly good candidates may need additional tries before they pass. That’s not watering down the quality of teachers, just giving people more chances to achieve the required standard.

Times table tests for Year 4

I have heard so much nonsense with regards to this that it makes my head hurt. Some people even have gone so far as to say that memorising times tables is irrelevant, see here. I’m not sure this even needs elaborating. The evidence is strong, as is the general agreement among maths teachers (and year 6 teachers struggling with SATS) that times table knowledge is foundational to the subject. Without automatic recall, students struggle to make the required progress.

The more pernicious allegation is that this would add further stress on children, who are already over-tested. First of all, they’re not. Children in independent schools and in many state school systems abroad, do a vast amount more testing than we do. Plus, a five minute, no stake, no negative consequence on the child test, is not what I would call stressful.

The other allegation is that this would be yet another stick to beat teachers with. Ordinarily, I would have a bit more sympathy with this, but not this time. Schools that don’t ensure their pupils learn the times table should be held to account. It’s far too important an issue to let slide.

Peter Frankopan’s “The Silk Roads”

I’ve had this book sitting on my book shelf for a while, but didn’t get the chance to read it until I went on holiday (I’m still not finished, just got to the Renaissance era). My thoughts so far are as follows.

Some caveats first. I do find that Frankopan belabours the point a little too much about the importance of the East (Asia, Middle East and North Africa) in the early Middle Ages. He gives the impression that all eyes in Europe were turned towards the East, but I’m not so convinced about it. I do agree with his assessment that the fall of Rome brought about a period of stagnation and decline in Western Europe, and that by contrast the East experienced a period of boom, as well as massive trade and urban expansion, particularly after the rise of Islam. What I would question though, is the amount of attention given to the East by people living in Europe. From what I have read about late Anglo-Saxon rulers, or William the Conqueror, is that they were exercised by parochial issues: getting control of their lands, the loyalty of their barons, obtaining taxation and territorial defence or expansion. Jerusalem was a spiritual focal point of Christianity, but there was not, to my mind, much thought about developing trade routes to the East. This all changed, of course, as a result of the Crusades.

Apart from this mild criticism, I can only give a massive thumbs up to the book. It’s a gripping read and, despite the huge domain it covers, the narrative is easy to follow throughout. I found it more gripping than Robert Tombs’ “The English and their history”, which has a similar grand scope in the time periods it covers. Some sections are so evocative that you could close your eyes and imagine yourself back there. This, for example, is a description of the newly created city of Baghdad (apologies for the slightly blurry photo).

I would heartily recommend that teachers share some passages from the book with their students (particularly since there has been discussion about exposing students to more historical writing). There are some wonderful descriptions of the crusades, and of the Black Death, which could be read out loud in class. There’s also fascinating passages about the discovery of the Americas and the transformational effect it had, not only on Europe, but also on other parts of the world, the first instance of globalisation. All in all, it’s a must-have book for history teachers, that I think could be mined for so many different topics studied at KS3 and KS4.

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