5 questions to ask your child’s primary school teacher – Part II

In the first of these two posts, I suggested questions that you might wish to sensitively ask your child’s current or prospective primary school teacher about behaviour and reading. There are three more questions that I wish to propose.

3. How do you teach history and science?

Both of these subjects contain significant amounts of world knowledge and have the potential to expand your child’s vocabulary and reading comprehension. Ironically, they can be potentially displaced by a misguided effort to over-teach reading comprehension strategies, perhaps under the guise of ‘guided reading’.

If they are given curriculum time, science and history may be taught well or badly. I have no problem with a few papier mache models and dioramas in primary school – they are a right of passage – but science and history taught primarily through these means are impoverished. I still remember being in primary school myself, collecting leaves in autumn and gluing them to sugar paper for a ‘science’ lesson. I still have no idea what the science was that I was meant to have learnt.

It is an opportunity lost if parts of our science and history lessons do not involve significant episodes of writing. After all, it is a component of the strategy for expanding vocabulary and contextual knowledge for later reading comprehension.

Again, ideology rears its head. We have the dreadful ‘we are mini-scientists’ approach to science. And there is one model of history teaching where ‘social studies’ education is meant to start with the immediate vicinity of the child, family relationships and local area and gradually work its way outwards over the years; out with the Romans and in with family trees. This is the precise model recently adopted by the new version of the Australian Curriculum.

The problem is that it is a stiflingly boring approach that redundantly teaches children things that they will work out anyway just by living in a society. Evidence for its failings emerged at least as far back as the 1960s and, in 1980, Kieran Egan wrote a paper debunking the whole idea. I can’t fathom why we still pursue it.

4. How do you teach maths?

Children should learn maths facts such as number bonds (5+7=12) and multiplication tables (5×7=35). The better ways of doing this will involve random retrieval – filling in a grid of randomly assorted multiplications – rather than always relying, for example, on a song.

There are plenty of people who disdain maths facts, pointing to some professional mathematician who apparently never learnt her tables. But this is like the argument about reading. You can do lots of things despite poor instruction, particularly if you have an excellent working memory as many mathematicians do.

Knowing such facts rather than having to work them out frees working memory to focus on other aspects of a problem. It is useful for everyone but probably most significant for those who struggle. The point of asking students to retrieve these facts under time pressure is not because we somehow think that speed is important in a mathematician but because it allows us to tell whether the facts are simply ‘known’ rather than the students having to work them out each time.

Ideally, students would also be taught a few mental arithmetic strategies such as 67+24=60+20+7+3+1 and then go on to learn the standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication and both long and short division. The algorithms would be practiced to fluency but the teacher would also repeatedly explain how and why they work, emphasising the importance of place value. If your primary school does all of this then you should be pretty happy.

Sadly, there seems to be a popular insistence on exploring a strange numeracy peninsula where various mental arithmetic strategies are written down and used in preference to the standard algorithms (which are superior). In the worst cases, children will be asked to solve the same problem in different ways or write wordy explanations of what they are doing.

5. Can you please explain what happened?

My final question is a little left-field and doesn’t really follow the rationale of the others. Imagine your child is now at primary school, comes home and informs you, “I wasn’t allowed to eat my lunch today because Charlie stole my pen so I couldn’t finish my writing.”

This seems outrageously unfair and the temptation is to phone the school to complain. However, you have only heard one version of this set of events. Without necessarily being intentionally dishonest, there is the potential for your child to have misunderstood or to have left out salient details. In a classroom of one teacher and 30 students the possibility for miscommunication is vast. That is why you should always ask questions about what happened from the teacher’s perspective before deciding whether you have a genuine complaint.

What have I missed out?

Lots. You might want to discuss art, music, drama and sports with your child’s teachers. I just don’t have as much to say about them. Writing is also significant in its own right – exactly how is it and should it be taught? My thoughts on writing, however, probably require a post of their own. I know the problem but the solution is complex.

Feel free to suggest other questions in the comments.


12 thoughts on “5 questions to ask your child’s primary school teacher – Part II

  1. @MrTRoach says:

    Greg, after praising part I of these posts for its straightforward and research-evidenced advice on the teaching of reading and behaviour policy, I was eager to read part II. However, the clichés that you describe seem to be based upon your own schooling experience (however long ago that was) rather than what goes on in the vast majority of (English) primary schools today. I also don’t think a discussion over Twitter would be constructive, as responses to this post have already showed.

    Although I don’t want to fall into the trap of generalising, this response is based upon working in four diverse primary schools going back over 8 years to my GTP year, having worked with hundreds of teachers at courses or hubs on various topics and as a parent of children in FS and KS2.

    As a history graduate, I take the teaching of history very seriously. It was one of my favourite subjects at school. Lots of primary schools tend to teach a history topic for one half-term, then switch to a geography topic for the next. Some manage to squeeze both into the constricted timetable, made necessary by the demands of the new national curriculum. I prefer the new national curriculum

  2. @MrTRoach says:

    Greg, I’m not trying to emulate your two-part post, but merely hit the ‘post comment’ button accidentally. Sorry. Phone, bed – in sure you understand. I shall continue.

    I prefer the new national curriculum to the old one; the one that I was introduced to while training to teach, along with myriad folders of English and numeracy strategies, frameworks and corresponding addendum, was all very confusing. The point being that history gets taught. In most cases chronologically (at least within the topic).

    Most primary teachers I know take science just as seriously and will probably spend more time on in, second only to maths and English, because, y’know, SATs. They will pay particular attention to the scientific vocabulary, model how to explain scientifically and endeavour to plan an experiment with the children. I taught with a brilliant teacher in Year 6 who had a degree in molecular biology, and her approach to science was not drastically different to other teachers I worked with.

    Because curriculum time is finite, teachers will often use English lessons to broaden the children’s knowledge and deepen the understanding of the history, geography or science topic by including reading and writing about said topic. They won’t be scrimping on the grammar instruction either, but teaching it in context,rather than as a separate entity for some test. And I don’t just mean guided reading, which is something I do not use, preferring whole class reading (and knowledge pail filling) teaching.

    Maths teaching should be very systematic too, and the new national curriculum makes this very clear. A couple of years ago, the teacher I mentioned previously and I taught a year group of 61 pupils. We used to practise number bonds and times tables daily. We taught all the standard algorithms. We looked at KS3 and KS4 examples on how to teach the more challenging aspects of the then-level 6 domain. 100% of these children passed the KS2 maths SATs with at least a level 4. They were all EAL learners from one of the most deprived towns in England. I might not be as eloquent at describing this approach, but I know what I was doing.

    I don’t really understand the fifth question in your blog. It seems to be a very personal point and one which might explain why you felt the need to write (or had an axe to grind) about primary teachers. I hope you appreciate that we can’t all be blamed for these shortcomings.

    I’ll still keep reading every blog post. It’s just that this one (at least this second half of the post) does feel like an attack on an entire sector of our profession and I don’t think that’s what you’d intended. I hope you and your family are well, Greg.


    • I’m not sure how you take the 5th question as anything other than aimed at parents who think their child’s word is gospel. All Greg is saying is that any story that you are told about an injustice from your child – it is always worth discussing with the teacher before complaining!!

      As for science, the emphasis on practical investigations and ‘finding out for one self’ does waste a lot of time and leave a lot of gaps. Practical investigations in primary to me should be more about replication than creating ones own investigation (at least until year 5/6) as children simply have not encountered enough good examples to be able to create their own!! The replications could lead to modified tests but they need a much better foundation than has been given. I do not blame primary teachers for this (being one myself)!! I just think we were given poor training and guidance on this issue and it’s only with further reading, analysing and reflecting that I have come to this opinion.

  3. Pingback: 5 questions to ask your child’s primary school teacher – Part I | Filling the pail

  4. Well, our middle school recently got roundly criticised by Ofsted for nowhere near enough writing in Years 5&6, (and that ties in with my experience of it). There are 17,000 primary schools in England, in contrast to the 8 mentioned by MrTRoach, and if even 10% of them don’t measure up, then it would still be reasonable for a parent to ask those questions.

    I personally am less sanguine than he is, given that around a third of primary schools are still determined to use Whole Language methods, and that many don’t teach phonics well, 8 years after it became statutory. Most professionals tend to believe they know what works, and to be fairly resistant to change, even change with as much evidence behind it as phonics. The quote “science advances one funeral at a time” springs to mind here.

    • @MrTRoach says:

      Are 1/3 of primaries ‘determined’ not to use phonics? I’d like to read the research on that figure; it sounds alarming. My comments make no argument with Greg’s views on teaching reading and writing because I agree with him on those. If my comments do overgeneralise, they were just intended to counter the generalisations that I felt were in the above post.

  5. Reblogged this on 1 of the 40 percent and commented:
    And part 2. Again, interesting from both a parent and a teacher perspective.
    I’m not sure I agree with the suggestion that it “is an opportunity lost if parts of our science and history lessons do not involve significant episodes of writing,” especially for kids just starting school. It’s better to give them the kids raw, hands-on experiences that will provide them with the basic understanding of scientific processes, without the worry of letting literacy issues obstructing the child’s achievement.
    Also, I like the section about “asking questions about what happened from the teacher’s perspective before deciding whether you have a genuine complaint.” That reminded me of
    this delightful experience.

  6. Pingback: 5 Things to consider in Primary School Maths | Filling the pail

  7. Yesterday I asked these questions of the principle at my local primary school and was pleasantly surprised by the answers, especially regarding synthetic phonics. There was a murmur about mistakes having been made in the past.
    I added another question “Do you have a knowledge rich or a skills based curriculum?” to which she answered “both, because we use the Victorian curriculum” which wasn’t the answer I was hoping for but at least better than just skills based.

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