Early Years

 I always wanted to be a teacher.

Well, not quite: I wanted to be a superhero with a magic flying Rolls Royce Silver Phantom: then, briefly, during Apollo, an astronaut, and then an RAF fighter pilot but they wouldn't have me because my eyesight wasn't good enough so I transferred to the Flight Navigator program but they rejected me for having no personality or leadership qualities.

But by the time I applied to University I wanted to be a teacher: to study physics so I could be a primary school teacher and teach physics - and maths - differently, as I, in my teenage arrogance, felt it should be taught.

I've wondered since why I felt that way: what was wrong with maths and physics teaching, that I wanted to go to University to study and learn how to teach it better?

Mr Wyatt started it: he was our primary school teacher and he went on a year's teacher exchange to Canada and when he came back he showed us how to make hot air ballons out of plastic bags and cotton wool and meths, and how to make a rainbow with a mirror in a bowl of water and I adored it and I am sure it started me on my route into Science.

Mr Taylor got me into electronics and computing and engineering though. He was our primary school headmaster and he made a primitive computer where you put a sheet of card with questions and answers on a board with holes in and stuck a metal peg in the hole by the question and another one in the hole by the answer and a light would light up if you got it right. And he made a machine with a solenoid with a plunger, and a boy held two metal terminals and another boy shoved the plunger into the solenoid as hard as he could and if you were lucky the boy holding the terminal got a really nasty electric shock. I've loved solenoids and mechanical actuators ever since.

So I studied maths and physics but it was kind of boring with formulae to learn and mental arithmetic to do and not a lot of electrocuting your friends or making rainbows and nothing at all about computers: and I didn't do very well at it because I wasn't - and still am not - very good at memorising things and doing mental arithmetic.

My dad used to leap out at me and demand: "What is seven nines??" and I would cringe and fail but he meant well because he knew mental arithmetic is prized above all else by those who think maths is just mental arithmetic but it didn't work. Well it did in a way because I can now tell you what seven nines are without thinking - but it's too late because when I studied physics, and later did a PhD and then got into nuclear physics and medical imaging and computing and control systems and streaming media and ...  I learnt that you should never, ever, trust your own mental arithmetic - or any other instant knowledge - with any safety critical system, ever.

Anyway, I qualified for University (it wasn't hard, in 1974, to qualify to study physics and I was offered two E grades at A level - the lowest allowable achievement, which luckily I scraped by). But I knew I wasn't ready so I took a year 'off': which was mainly me working as a postman - which I loved - and which taught me what 'working' really was. Also, by the joy and pride of my fellow postmen when I finally announced I was leaving to go to university, taught me what an incredible privilege an education is.

So I went to University, and studied physics.

But I became involved in student politics and the occupation of Senate in protest against tuition fees for foreign students (can you imagine, there was once a world where we thought education should be free for all who could benefit from it..?) brought me to the attention of our Department Head - England's first female Professor of Physics, as it happened, Daphne Jackson (whose life, by the way, is celebrated through the amazing Daphne Jackson Trust which is dedicated to helping people get back into science when they have dropped out for some reason). And coming to the attention of the Professor, as an undergraduate, is an undeniable, if probably unfair, advantage. By then, having been a full time postman, I was way ahead of the field in terms of knowing what 'working' was (thanks, Ivan The Terrible, our fierce foreman..), so I left behind my miserable record of underachievement from school and benefited fully from the opportunities offered to me. But I still wanted to be a primary school teacher - there was even a simpering news article in our local paper, when I got engaged to Sarah, lauding my worthy aim to teach primary school science.

But it was too late. Daphne Jackson identified me as having talent, and when she asked me my ambition on graduating and I said teaching, she just said: "a phenomenal waste of talent" and, me being very pliable in the face of flattery, I accepted the offer of a PhD in medical imaging (NMR, which eventually became MRI). And then again, on gaining the PhD, a similar conversation ending in: "I've arranged an interview with CERN".  Which launched me on a fascinating and rewarding career - where I treacherously betrayed Daphne's view that there was only one kind of physics and it was nuclear - that focused on computers and electronics and signal processing and streaming media and digital TV and all sorts of really interesting stuff.

But I was still drawn to teaching, so I eventually ended up training people in industry - post graduate engineers, grizzled analog engineers being transitioned to the brave new world of digital, MSc engineering students - and I think I learnt that it wasn't teaching I wanted to do, but helping people to learn. Learning and teaching are two very different sides of very different coins. I used to teach people: to share with them my own knowledge so that they too might eventually aspire to the heights of knowledge I had already painfully scaled. Teaching was then - and still is now to some extent - like showing PowerPoints - what I think you should know, summarised and presented in bite sized pieces that your small brains might accept. Learning is different - it is an act on behalf of the learner, and it took me years to even begin to understand the difference, despite many very brilliant people teaching(!) me. Learning is more of a conversation - spiced with curiosity and exploration and channeled a bit with careful guidance and mentoring and challenge and questioning. And a lot of learning is by doing: by designing and making things and trying things out - and very little learning is by doing exam questions and memorising things. Training people in industry - people whose skills and knowledge are usually awesomely better than I could ever aspire to - is eye-opening: an analog TV engineer, transitioning to digital, knows everything there is to know about TV - how to make the picture look good, how to optimise the sound, how to mute the advert, how to make people's skin color look real and not like weird orange aliens - but they know nothing about digital; and that lack of the specific skill of digital probably kills their hope of ever getting a job in digital TV engineering. Whereas a new graduate in Digital Signal Processing, with no understanding whatsoever of what makes a TV picture good, will get that job in an instant: which explains why digital TV picture quality is so abysmal.

So here, at the other end of the scale, is encapsulated I think the issue that made me think that science and engineering and maths were taught wrong in early years: because they rest on knowledge and disdain understanding.

The mental arithmetic thing - demanding instant recall - is what is wrong with school teaching really, and most of us know it: memorising things instead of understanding them, mistaking skills and tools for the craft that is required to use them well. I am not good at memorising, and I am slow because I work things out rather than just knowing them, so my learning has been mainly through thinking about how things work, and then calling upon that when I have to solve a problem or design or make something. I tend to ask 'why?' a lot, and am not as satisfied as my teachers would like with 'because I told you'.This is a really bad characteristic in taking exams where you have to be quick to the right answer but is quite good when you are working on something where no-one yet knows the answer. And it is good to develop a skill to the extent that it becomes instinctive: like driving or playing tennis, we don't think about what we are doing because it would be slow - although some people might benefit from thinking a bit more about their driving. The problem is to mistake this quick recall - which is a skill - for understanding, which is deeper: and to prize it over all else.

Understanding takes longer to develop - and requires more engagement on the part of the student as well as the teacher. But it is essential as a base for innovation and problem solving. It is also learning, an active participation of the student, not being taught which is passive.

Education and teaching knows this: it is government and regulation that imposes teaching not learning, and teachers know this. But the dead hand of bureaucracy weighs heavy in education and crushes the lively curiosity and joy of exploration and discovery in children: a central curriculum, exam-based assessment, standard attainment targets, all work to squeeze children into standard learning pipelines that constrain and channel rather than inspire and liberate.

It's very easy to test knowledge: you just ask closed questions and mark the answers right or wrong. And the questions are obvious, because they test the defined Knowledge Base: that which was taught, the student must have learnt. Harder to test learning, because that is, by definition student-led: the student, through their exploration and trying and questioning and experiment, builds a base of learning - that is not necessarily what the teacher thought, or even what the teacher knew. You can't easily write an exam that tests what a student learnt that you the teacher did not expect: but that learning is what permits innovation and invention and problem-solving and new ways of looking at things, that are essential in our modern world where none of us really know what is happening or what is needed anyway. You can test learning - or at least note its happening: you can agree a framework of knowledge and understanding: a woodwork student can use a saw, knows how to see which way to cut wood, can mark out the most efficient cuts to make an object... but it's harder, because you the examiner have to think, to observe and question and assess what the student is doing, in open-ended ways that rely on your being adaptable enough to assess what you yourself do not necessarily know.

So when I retired, and had the opportunity to take an interest in a preschool - the level below my early ambition to teach primary, children aged 2-4 years, before they go to school - I took it on with pleasure and interest. And was pleasantly surprised, despite all the rage directed at Ofsted, to find that the Early Years Framework is just that- a framework for learning, not a set of knowledge - against which preschool practitioners are trained to observe and spot and record, quite literally, the 'Learning Journeys' of the children in their - and now sometimes in my - care. The Early Years Framework is not - not yet, at least - a body of knowledge, but a set of assessments - by humans, of humans, not of tick boxes on exam papers - and although I am new to it and know nothing yet, it is a thing of wonder and I hope it survives the efforts of government to reduce it to a curriculum of tick boxes. It isn't easy to assess progress against a framework of understanding: but preschool practitioners are trained to do so - to make observations, to note progress, and crucially to support that progress, to help further the individudal child's Learning Journey.

Which is why, 50 years after at age 16 deciding I wanted to be a teacher, I am starting my Early Years apprenticeship.


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