A primary school teacher from the UK has been visiting us in Ballarat. Let’s call her Jane.
One of the places we always take visitors is Sovereign Hill, a working museum based on Ballarat’s gold rush days. While there, my daughters popped into the school house. The teacher taught them how to hold a quill, dip it in ink and use blotting paper while copying sentences off the board such as, ‘children should be seen and not heard,’ and, ‘manners maketh the man.’ Afterwards, we had a discussion about what these anachronistic statements meant. My daughters were particularly intrigued by ‘maketh’.
Over a coffee or two, Jane and I had a chat about teaching writing in the UK today and specifically the point at which children are first asked to write sentences.
“The problem is,” explained Jane, “that the kids who really struggle forget their sentence.”
I asked for more of an explanation.
“Well, say the sentence is, ‘The tree is green’. You get them to come up with it and repeat it, maybe as a sing-song, over and over, but when they sit down to write it you say, ‘Now what is the first word that you have to write with a capital letter?’ and they say, ‘It’.”
I drilled a little deeper. Jane was asking children to come up with sentences and then write them down with full stops and capital letters. However, for some children, this appeared to be too much to focus on at once: the mechanics of writing, the conventions of writing, spelling, remembering the sentence.
Clearly, this was leading to cognitive overload for a proportion of students.
With Sovereign Hill in mind, I asked why teachers didn’t begin by simply asking children to copy sentences. That would help practise the mechanics in isolation from the other sources of cognitive load. Perhaps children could then be given sentences without capitals and full stops and they could copy them down and correct them. Maybe this could be the introduction all children are given to sentences or maybe it could be a Tier 2 intervention for those with difficulties.
Jane had two thoughts on this. Firstly, this is what you effectively end up doing with struggling students – the teacher or teaching assistant writes their sentence down for them and they copy it. But this was considered something of a dirty secret and was certainly not part of a systematic approach. Secondly, if anyone senior walked into the room and saw children copying down sentences, the teacher would be in trouble. The idea of students writing sentences they had not generated themselves or worse, copying sentences from the board, was anathema.
A cannot think of a better example of how well-meaning ‘child-centred’ constructivist ideology harms and likely demotivates our most vulnerable children.