Forget the 'fidget spinners'

Written by: Dr Sue Allingham
Friday, January 11, 2019

While it seems that some policy makers and practitioners are constantly looking for the next magic potion that will infallibly raise standards, it is important to look beyond the gimmicks and the fads.

Ofsted chief Amanda Spielman says schools must 'get back to basics'
Ofsted chief Amanda Spielman says schools must 'get back to basics'

The idea that children have agency is an interesting one for this month’s news analysis, and it’s worth reflecting on the statutory, EYFS principle of the Unique Child as you read. This, alongside the other three principles, can often be overlooked in policy and debate – ‘

EYFS Statutory Framework: ‘Overarching principles 6.
Four guiding principles should shape practice in early years settings. These are:

• Every child is a unique child, who is constantly learning and can be resilient, capable, con dent and self-assured

• Children learn to be strong and independent through Positive Relationships

• Children learn and develop well in Enabling Environments, in which their experiences respond to their individual needs and there is a strong partnership between practitioners and parents and/or carers

• Children develop and learn in different ways (see ‘the characteristics of e ective teaching and learning’ at paragraph 1.9) and at different rates.

The framework covers the  education and care of all children in early years provision, including children with special educational needs and disabilities’. (Department for Education 2017 p6). These principles must always be uppermost in our minds in our daily work and professional reading. Here are some interesting examples.

‘Learning styles aren’t a reliable way to categorise students’ study says
Reading this in Education Week reminded me that the idea of adapting our teaching to suit a visual, audio or kinaesthetic way of receiving learning has been around for a long time. I can remember being told that I needed to put together my weekly plan to include ‘VAK’ so that all the children could access it using their preferred ‘style’. Children were often asked to state which style they thought they were, so that teachers could respond accordingly. When I subsequently became an early years adviser, we were told that, when planning our training courses, we must make sure that they were accessible to each style of learner. is instruction provided its own challenges as we realised that, as a team, we didn’t have preferred styles and weren’t really sure what they meant.

It is an interesting example of how using a technique that helps working with children with a speci c learning need, becomes a trend and suddenly everyone has to do it. Think fidget spinners.

Do reward stickers work at any age?
It was interesting to come across this TES article as, like ‘learning styles’, the issue of giving stickers as a reward has long been contentious and is something that is increasingly dying out in early years and primary work, as underpinning self regulation is recognised as the way forward.

This item was written by a teacher from a secondary school. It once again reinforces the need for all teachers to understand and have professional development in practice across the key stages –  ‘For those of us teaching reception and year 1,  the answer is simple: give them a sticker and put it on the wall chart. Many primary schools are even o ering students “free time” or “golden time” at the end of the week as a reward for good behaviour. But in secondary school, the issue of delivering effective rewards tends to be much trickier'.

The practice outlined here will surprise many in reception and year 1, as thinking has moved on. The use of rewards, and punishments, is hugely subjective and means that the needs of the unique child are easily overlooked. It is worth reading around the area of rewards and punishments. Particularly the work of Alfie Kohn. So it is with relief that I came across the next headline:

'Ofsted warns teachers against "gimmicks" such as Brain Gym'
Even though a first reaction to this Guardian article may be that this warning is several years too late, it is still welcome. So often it is felt that a trend, or gimmick, will be just the thing to meet perceived Ofsted ‘expectations’. Programmes of activities are bought in, or training attended that we are told will make us ‘excellent’ or ‘outstanding’. Social media is full of them.

That all these headlines should come into the same update is important coincidence because it provokes new reflection. The thinking of Ofsted is –‘Ofsted chief says schools must get back to basics and not rely on an ‘elixir’ to raise standards’

Ms Spielman focused initially on ‘Brain Gym’, but - ‘Asked later to elaborate on other gimmicks, the schools watchdog came up with a list including interactive whiteboards, adherence to so-called learning styles and a growing enthusiasm in some schools for fidget spinners to aid concentration’. So many myths abound in teaching and learning, including several in the early years that have been alluded to here. It is really good to hear Her Majesties Chief Inspector say –

‘Some policymakers and practitioners are constantly looking for the next magic potion that will infallibly raise standards,’ she said. ‘Indeed, despite the history of snake oil, white elephants and fashionable gimmicks that have in the main been debunked, there remains a curious optimism that the elixir of education is just around the corner’.

It is to be hoped that this thinking continues as there are some worrying trends waiting in the wings.

Amanda Spielman launches Ofsted’s Annual Report 2017/18
The preceding extracts come from this years Annual Report. Many will remember that, at this time last year, Bold Beginnings was published. at report is still a focus of discussion, and has concerning repercussions. Is this year’s report the same?

We’ve already seen that there is a welcome reference to the over reliance on fads and gimmicks – this needs to be consistently and continuously reinforced. ere is, however, a danger that Ofsted itself can inadvertently be the instigator of gimmicks.

There is a focus on ‘getting the basics right’ –

‘It is often tempting to reach for new ideas or complex interventions to improve outcomes for children. But evidence from our inspections across all our remits is that the core of success for providers – what makes most di erence for young people – is getting the basics right’.

Early reading
It is hard to overstate the importance of early literacy. Reading is the gateway to almost every other subject, and to children discovering their own unique interests and talents. For that reason alone, ensuring that children master literacy is a central issue of social justice.

However we know from my previous update that this thinking is already producing gimmicks –

Parents will be sent text prompts to teach kids new words, but would you want them?
This appeared in EYE ‘s January 2019 issue. There could well be a discussion to be had about the gimmickry surrounding the year 1 phonics check and its overall validity?

Ofsted’s report is important reading for all in across all stages of education as there are key references to SEND and Ofsted plans for the future. It also makes reference to toilet training and obesity and how these are managed in schools and settings. These are important concerns, but simplistic viewpoints are not helpful. Neither of these tricky issues are helped by this sort of comment –

‘Parents have the most important role. Rather than expecting educational institutions to pick up the job of parents, parents must step up here. Only in the most extreme cases should parents be excused from being successful in this most basic of parenting skills’.

This type of thinking is in danger of rolling back to the subjective and judgemental points of view discussed earlier. Teaching and learning in Early Childhood Education is about far more than a ‘knowledge based curriculum’ (EYE Update Jan 2019), it is about partnerships and working together.

Even when it means –

Nursery staff reveal rise in children swearing and say 'we need to bring back innocence’ (reported by www.daynurseries. many of us feel like swearing sometimes, when we don’t understand what is happening and why?

DfE 2017 Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage

Useful resources
TES: Do reward stickers work at any age?
The Guardian: Ofsted warns teachers against gimmicks
Ofsted’s annual report 2017/2018 
Education Week: ‘Learning styles aren’t a reliable way to categorise students, study says
Huffington Post: Parents will be sent text prompts to teach kids new words: But would you want them? 


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