Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Birth to Five Matters

Before I begin, I've got to say that I'm going to supplement my post with tweets from the event. It seems that a lot of the students at the university had a similar experience to myself, and some of us put the key points more eloquently than I could. Also, I do apologise for the length of the post (in excess of 2,200 words). but I honestly got so much out of this single day that it was worth writing every last one of them.

Since meeting Becy (@trainieteacher) towards the start of the year, I have come to realise that over the duration of the course, the students on the 5-11 pathway have had no input on the Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum. It also dawned on me that since my final, and technically most important, placement would be in Key Stage 1, it is entirely possible that I will have a mixed Reception/KS1 class. I do not particularly like the prospect of taking control of a class for which I haven’t the faintest clue what or how to teach, as I’m sure making the jump from Year 6 to KS1 will be hard enough as it is without having to familiarise myself and plan for an entire new curriculum.
When I found out that the entirety of the conference for the third year BEd students would be ECS-focussed, I had somewhat mixed feelings. On the one hand, it would be interesting to see and learn a little more about the EYFS curriculum, but on the other hand I debated the true value of what an entire day spent on ECS would help me to gain, as if I had missed the opportunity to experience something that could be of use to the entire cohort instead of the handful of KS1-placed 4th years.
However, it became quickly apparent during the opening keynote from Clare Bader that the EYFS curriculum is not just useful to those that will be teaching it, but all teachers can draw inspiration from the more creative approach it takes. She said that ‘Early learning should be active and multi-sensory’, to which I say that ‘early’ be extended to upper key stage two and possibly beyond. My most successful lessons have been the ones that involve so much more than just sitting at a desk solving problems, they’ve been the lessons where the children get to roam around, look at things from different angles, really putting into context the subject matter. In fact, one of my favourite lessons to date has been making cocktails with fruit juice in year 6, calculating and measuring the correct amounts, getting to taste, allowing them the opportunity to be creative and make their own, etc, etc.
Risk taking should be encouraged
There were a wide range of workshops throughout the day, but I only had time to go to three of them. The first I attended didn’t actually focus too much on the early years specifically, and that was the workshop chaired by David Mitchell (@deputymitchell) on safeguarding and e-safety. I was particularly looking forward to this session, having followed what the children at Heathfield were doing with their blogs for a while, so to meet the man that had inspired children to be so enthused by writing was great. What I really liked about this session was the fact that Dave opened up discussion to the audience, rather than standing and presenting. After witnessing a quote from our very own Pete Yeomans (@ethinking) demonstrating a surprisingly soft side (awwww!) opened the session, it was a quote from one of the parents at Heathfield that made the most striking impression. They said that they want their children to get hurt, but only a little. They want their daughter to have a boyfriend that treats her bad, again only a little, because learning by making mistakes is one of the most effective ways of learning. I think this approach to child development is key – if nobody makes mistakes at an early age, then how do people deal with making mistakes when they are older? I know my limits when it comes to how high I can climb a tree, how long I can run around for, how hot an object I can hold, etc, because my parents gave me the opportunity to test my limits, under a watchful eye of course, and I don’t think I’d be anywhere near as confident today if I was afraid of doing so. You can see David's Prezi and his reflection of the conference on his blog here.
Again, the risk taking theme comes into play
His next topic of discussion was talking about whether or not various web 2.0 tools should children be allowed to use, i.e. what are the benefits and drawbacks of each. Looking through my notes, I managed to list a lot of drawbacks to the use of Facebook, YouTube, Google, Wikipedia and Skype (Twitter was notably absent from the list!), but I have noted down no benefits. To be perfectly honest, I don’t think that listing the benefits is required, as in the majority of cases they are self evident. Facebook was one of the exceptions, however. I don’t think there is much benefit to allowing children to use Facebook, as in my experience the features such as photo sharing and conversation/messaging can be offered in a much safer environment elsewhere. Unless the teacher has a ‘professional’ account in which they can befriend the children and keep an eye on their activities and conversations, I think that there would be far too many social problems involved. Only through openness and transparency do we solve and prevent issues of cyber-bullying.
Finally, Dave rounded off with a summary of the dangers of blogging. When you consider the dangers we came up with were to do with ownership of pictures and plagiarism of the writing, I do not understand the objection that some parents may have to the use of blogging with children. As Dave mentioned, his Year 6 blogs have reached almost 200,000 hits since the turn of the year and the proportion of level 5s has increased from 9% to 63% within a year. When you look at quantitative data, the results speak for themselves, but the qualitative factor of enthusing children to actually enjoy writing cannot be understated. When Dave mentioned his children getting upset that they didn’t have any hits on their own blogs when they tried to set their own up, but being encouraged when they had the audience introduced by his tweets, it made me realise that audience generates enthusiasm, which generates audience, which generates enthusiasm... For a child writing for an audience 200,000 times the size of the number of people that will read any other child’s work, that’s a whole new level of effort that teachers just can’t generate on their own. As David went on to mention in his keynote later, ‘It itsn’t about results, it is about unlocking something new and not losing the children’s interest’ 
Even Year 2s are encouraged to blog, to incredible effect
 The next session I attended was focussed on Forest Schools. Having been lucky enough to grow up on the very outskirts of town, with fields and forests featuring metres from my back gate, allowing children the freedom to explore their surroundings to develop their physical literacy is something that I am particularly keen on. This linked back well to the theme generated at the start of David Mitchell’s session about children being able to make mistakes and learn from them. The importance of outdoor education was also particularly highlighted for me when @forestmanct talked at the TeachMeet the day before, right after our presentation on the virtual environment of Minecraft – Whilst the use of technology in classrooms is developing at an incredible pace, removing children from ICT to give them firsthand experience of outdoor education is vital, something I’m sure places such as Occombe Farm and The Seashore Centre in Paignton can attest to. 
Cait agrees with the change of learning environment
During my first year placement, I was fortunate enough to be placed in Chagford, a tiny village in the middle of Dartmoor. The school there has very close links with an environmental education group and even from an early age the children are taught skills such as building and lighting fires, which was fantastic to see. What I really found interesting was the way in which outdoor activities can be adapted for early years children, even allowing a degree of independence to (safely) explore their environment on their own terms. The recurring theme of the day seemed to be that children needn’t be ‘mollycoddled’ as is the perception of many, but, with proper supervision, be given more freedom.
The risk theme returns
As I attend more and more events to further my CPD, I start to see more and more links between the things I see and hear. One of the thoughts that sprung to mind during the forest schools seminar was Stephen Heppell’s keynote speech at PELC11 on learning environments. Isn’t the outdoors the most interesting, varied and interactive learning environment? Displays that change on a daily basis, a scale of resources ranging from the macroscopic to the microscopic and the lack of a stuffy and cramped classroom... A solution to overcrowding in schools perhaps?!
Clearly I am learning something from all this extra CPD!
The final seminar of the day was the one that I thought would be most applicable to my original aim of learning more about the EYFS curriculum, which was managing a mixed EYFS and KS1 classroom. Running two the two curriculums side-by-side looks to be a particularly demanding task. Firstly, it must be difficult for the KS1 children to be stuck inside working while the EYFS children are allowed to play, so extra provision must be made to engage the rest of the children in the afternoons. Secondly, the planning looks a lot harder than for a class in a single key stage, or even a mixed KS1/KS2 class. We were given the chance to try and plan just the timetable which would include all the needs of both EYFS and KS1 and it proved to be quite a challenge. If the timetable alone is that difficult to plan, I’m sure the lessons would be a nightmare!

That’s not to say that there are no benefits from a mixed class. In fact, I would say that it’s not a bad idea at all. There’s the fact that it enables a smoother transition from the more multi-sensory teaching of early years to year one. This is important to ensure that children are not struck by the sudden change and discouraged by the different approach. Whilst I mentioned that planning may be harder, it does enable the teachers to differentiate the lesson such that the higher ability reception children can be pushed and the lower ability year ones can gain extra support. Not only that, but by mixing the age groups, you introduce the reception children to positive role models while simultaneously promoting an ethos of responsibility to the year one children about maintaining this status.
It was a shame that I was unable to attend the other seminars throughout the day, but thankfully the audience were active Twitter users. The #earlyyears hashtag has been archived and looking back through, there were some excellent points made. Whilst I'd love to comment on each of them, I think that they speak for themselves. I was really pleased that our cohort produced such enlightening discussion and really pick out the key ideas.
The final part of the day was David Mitchell’s keynote about blogging in the classroom. Whilst a lot of the things that were said had already been touched on in his seminar, it was interesting to hear him talk about the different opinions, ideas and discussions that had developed throughout the day. There were some really key ideas generated on Twitter about the keynote. One tweet, from @trainieteacher,  asks the question ‘What’s better – a single teacher marking a book, or several people leaving comments on a blog post? Again, this links back to the earlier seminar where we found out about the sheer size of the audience the children have garnered. What’s better than a second opinion or two (hundred thousand)?

One of the more interesting parts was the live chat with his students using Coveritlive. The fact that the children knew they were blogging to a live audience of hundreds of teachers must have been a fantastic feeling for them, and the responses they gave to the visual or auditory prompts featured language that I would not expect from of a year 6 class. I think that the most inspiring thing about the blogging taking place at Heathfield school is the fact that it is almost entirely child-lead. Children choose what to put on the blog, children write the posts and the staff act as their enablers, and this was aptly demonstrated.

Overall, I’d say that the Birth to Five Matters conference was a great success. It was definitely not what I was expecting, but then again I’m not really sure what I was expecting in the first place. If there are any key points to take away from the day, I’d have to say this. One: Allow, nay encourage, children to make mistakes. Learning from experience is one of the most effective ways of remembering things and generating critical self evaluation. Two: The EYFS curriculum is something that should not be limited to Birth to Five. Elements of the curriculum, such as the emphasis on multi-sensory approaches to lessons and learning through play can be drawn upon for inspiration in teaching styles throughout key stages one and two. Third and finally, learning does not always have to take place in the classroom. The seminars from @ForesterJo and @DeputyMitchell have shown me that taking learning out of the classroom gives the children extra motivation to learn by encouraging them to enjoy what they are doing. Perhaps this is a psychological barrier that we, as teachers, must draw on to improve the learning environment within the classroom. Does the enclosed classroom instil a negative learning attitude within the children?
Many thanks to the University of Plymouth, @ethinking and @philipselbie for organising the conference and to all that hosted seminars, including @deputymitchell and @foresterjo. It was a really informative and inspiring day!

As is becoming a theme with my posts, I'm going to finish with another Tweet.