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Monday, 17 March 2014

St Patrick's Guide to Learning

Since it is St Patrick's Day, I thought I would offer an irish-themed blog.  And since, mixed in with my mongrel ancestry is a large element of Irishness, I feel able to start with an Irish joke.

A tourist in Ireland is lost and asks one of the locals for directions to Dublin. The Irishman replies: ‘Well sir, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here’.

In my last blog entry, I suggested that creativity is a habit. It is learned by doing it.  Exactly the same could be said of skill: skilful performance is acquired, developed, and improved by performing skilfully.  And, as the great coach educator Geof Gleeson used to say, a successful skill has a successful outcome.  Learners who can appear technically outstanding, but you cannot actually put those techniques into practice are not skilful in any meaningful sense of that word.

This might seem so obvious as to hardly bare mentioning.  But I think it is worth stressing because of the fact that will be obvious to anyone who has spent any time observing teaching or coaching sessions, as many seem to be concerned with the development of different qualities than the coach or teacher claims to be the aim.

Let me give you a few examples: two from sport, and one (very topical example) from school education

A sports coach who claims to want his players to be creative, but who fills each session with predictable, dull drills and practices will create players who are predictable and dull.

A martial arts instructor who wants her fighters to develop explosiveness and sharp timing, but who mainly asks students to punch air and repeat pretty punches and kicks in the air will produce dancers not fighters.

To paraphrase the Irish joke, if you want students to be creative or explosive, I wouldn't start with this!

And perhaps the most stark illustration of a disconnection between intention and preparation is the enforcement on teachers of young children to teach reading through the use of synthetic phonics.   As you may be aware, this is the approach that is insisted upon by The English government; the only approach that should be used, according to some agencies.  It teaches the phonemes (sounds) associated with the graphemes (letters), and the sounds are taught in isolation then blended together.  In fact, synthetic phonics can form one among a number of effective strategies for teaching reading. But the evidence base behind the government assertion that it is the most effective and should be taught alone is simply non-existent.

But this is not help people read. Understanding the constituent sales of words is a very useful strategy in case of complex words, but effective reading takes place at a number of levels, from the phoneme, to the graphemes, to the sentence, paragraph, and story.  Evangelists insist that children should be withheld real books until they understand the elements of words. And this is simply nonsensical.  It is also not supported by the research evidence.

What is the consequence of an approach like synthetic phonics? My worry is that it will produce a generation of learners who have detailed understanding of the elements of reading and writing, but will have nothing of interest to read or write about.

Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Daoibh!
Risteárd Mac an Breitheamh

1 comment:

William Manning said...

From a very young age I read to my two children, every night. They would sit beside me looking at the book as I read. Initially I found my voice boring and monotone. I put a little effort into trying to elaborate what I was reading and make it more interesting.

Both boys now love reading and seemed to just pick it up, they are both quite articulate and in general can think and respond in a reasonably mature fashion. It is as though the simple act of being read to and being engaged in reading helped them to learn not just to read but so much more. They appeared to learn to read almost by absorption

I firmly believe that a great reading experience makes words come alive, this is down to both the author and also the reader. Good reading cannot be passive. It must be an active engagement.

I can remember books I read from years ago not necessarily for the words but from the images they conjured in my head.

An rud is annamh is iontach