Don’t Panic!

October is the time when the pressure starts to build.  Entrance exams are looming closer, in some cases only a month away.  It is understandable that stress can start to grab hold.  

However, the impact of this pressure cannot be underestimated and can have a very real effect on learning. Even if you feel that you are hiding your stress from your child, they are very likely to be picking up on it. 

What can make the difference to both you and your child when the pressure starts to build?

✔️ Feeling supported rather than pressured by those around them. For you, talk to others going through the same process. Share ideas and concerns. For your child, make sure they feel that you are on their side. 

✔️ A sense of control over their learning. Give your child choices. While there is no escaping the need to get the preparation done, they might be able to choose which activity they want to do that day.

✔️A positive outlook – help your child to have fun and laugh as well as learn. 

✔️ Feeling prepared. If you follow a step by step approach and keep track of progress, you will feel more prepared for each part of the process. Letting your child know what is coming each day will also help them feel more prepared. 

What can you do to specifically help your child?

✔️ Listen to and acknowledge your child’s feelings. Help them understand that it is OK to feel worried about the exams and not want to do extra work. 

✔️ Show them how far they have come and emphasise the positive. Highlight their strengths. It is a great idea to keep examples of work from the beginning of the journey (such as a story they wrote) and remind them how they have improved. 

✔️ Don’t overload them with extra work and ensure they get plenty of breaks at weekends. Small amounts of regular work is much more manageable than trying to fit in long and arduous sessions all in one go at the weekend. 

Questions not Information

When we think of how children learn, we often associate it with giving them new information.  I would challenge that and say that often the best learning comes from being questioned.  This is a method that really works for home educated children.  

Asking the right questions to spark critical thinking is one of the most effective techniques we can use as parents and teachers.  Paul’s (1992) Elements of Reasoning is a model for critical thinking that suggests that for persons to reason through a situation they must:

⭐️ determine points of view

⭐️ make inferences based on given information

⭐️ make judgments about a given situation to determine implications and consequences

⭐️determine conceptual relevance or main ideas

We can capitalise on this model to have conversations with our children about the books they are reading, creating an environment which fosters the process of exploring and questioning over “right” answers. 

Critical reading questions include:

❓How does this text relate to my personal experience and does it affect  the way I respond to the text?

❓What point of view does the author write from and why did they chose this?

❓What is the author’s position on any relevant theme or issue?

❓What were the (significant) characters motivated by?

Validating the responses that children give, helping them to explore their ideas and challenging their pre-conceptions all allow them to move from conceptual to critical thinking.  You can do this in any subject or area of interest, but books and reading are the easiest jumping off point to try this out.  

Making Connections Through Reading

Summer holidays are not only a time for travel but can also be a time for making connections to what we read. 

I am currently in Devon with my family, not far from Torquay.  Agatha Christie was born in Torquay and used many of the nearby locations for scenes in her novels.  Arthur Conan Doyle set The Hound of the Baskervilles in Dartmoor in Devon.  Last year, I spent a few days in the Lake District and was able to see some of the locations from Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series.  

Making connections between real life and what we read is so important.  It helps open the door to the world of wider concepts and deeper understanding of the texts and has been shown to increase retention of information. 

Of course, we can’t always visit a location from a book (wouldn’t that make a great round the world trip?!) but we can help children make connections in other ways.  

You can begin when children are very young by:

⭐️ thinking about an emotion a character is expressing and discussing a time when they felt the same way.

⭐️ noticing similarities between characters in the book and themselves. Does a character have the same toy as them? Or like the same foods? 

⭐️ observing differences between their own lives and the lives of the characters. That character lives on a farm while I live in a city. 

For older children, you can help them make connections in deeper ways by:

⭐️  realising that the experiences people have in times different to our own still create the same conflicts and resolutions we face today.

⭐️ thinking about how the themes in one book relate to other books they have read.

⭐️ imagining themselves in the place of a character and how they would react. 

As adults, we make these connections automatically. But children need to be taught to make these connections through the discussions we have with them. Doing this will ensure they not only understand and retain the information they read but also engage them in a love of reading.

Why Disagreement is So Important

Our final book group session of the term today sparked interesting debate.  Was The Invisible Man  (H.G. Wells) a great example of early science fiction or should it be dismissed as silly and two dimensional as some critics have said?

What made this debate interesting was not the outcome  or whether a consensus was reached, but rather the fact that the students felt able to share their views and ideas openly with each other.  

Too often, students can feel that their opinions might be “wrong” in some way.  They lose the confidence to say what they really think, set in the mindset of right and wrong answers.  There are not enough opportunities in education for students to learn to confidently express themselves, listen to and understand other view points, and stand by their own views in the face of opposition.  

But these are life skills.  To progress in their chosen career, students will need good communication skills, confidence in their ideas and the ability to engage within a group of peers.  It is vital as parents and educators that we provide opportunities for students to develop these skills.  

Book groups are not the only way to do this of course, but I think they are a great way.  Books don’t have a right and wrong answer.  Everyone reacts to a book differently.  We can love it, hate it, or be indifferent.  Being able to express this and reflect on why, while seeing how others have reacted to the same book differently is energising and eye opening.  

I began running book groups 10 years ago to provide exactly these opportunities for my own children, and continue to run them now to help other students develop the same skills.  

Gendered Reading Still Persists

Does this image shock you?

Why do we still have this distinction between “books for boys” and “books for girls” on recommended reading lists in 2021? 

Surely, the only questions that matter when choosing a book for a child are: is it well written, is the story engaging, will my child be interested? 

This last question is the one where stereotypes persists. Are boys only interested in stories of adventure? Are girls only interested in stories of princesses? Of course not, and by assuming so, we are doing children a great disservice. 

Children should be presented with a variety of books to read. Books that expand their world view. Books with characters that inspire them rather than pigeonhole them.  If we do not ensure this happens, we risk perpetuating the stereotypes the writer of the book list in the image presents.

Publishers have a part to play in this question when they choose colours and images for the covers of their books. Who are they trying to appeal to? And most importantly, why are they limiting their audience? 

I challenge these stereotypes every term when I choose books for my book groups. And my students never fail to rise to the challenge and embrace the books I present. Surely, we should all be doing the same and banish the concept of gendered books to history?

If you would like to discuss children’s book and reading with other parents, please feel free to join this facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/332049051724210

Using Practice Papers for 7+ Preparation

photo of person deriving formula on white board

Don’t try to run before you can walk.  I am sure we have all heard this expression but have you ever thought about it in relation to 7+ entrance exams?  So often, I hear of both parents and tutors who use exam practice papers as their primary tool for preparing for exams.  Perhaps this makes sense to you.  Surely we all need to practise, right?  But how can you practise running if you haven’t mastered walking?

The 7+ entrance exam is an assessment of knowledge and skills in English, Maths and Reasoning.  In each of these areas, there are multiple competencies that must be learned at different levels.  Think of it like a toddler who first learns to crawl, then stand, then walk, and finally run.  If we take creative writing as an example, a child must learn to tell a story verbally and sustain that narrative (crawl).  Then they can begin to write their ideas down (stand).  Next, they will learn to improve their written work with mature and interesting vocabulary (walk).  And finally, they will be able to put all of this together and write a story to any given prompt in a specific time frame with correct spelling and grammar, and neat handwriting (run).  

Practise papers are a great tool to use in 7+ preparation but they should come at the point the child is learning to run, not when they are learning to crawl.  Building those foundation skills in increment steps first is vital to achieving success at the end.  I would like to see more tutors and parents focusing on these building blocks rather than beginning with practise papers.  Those that do will help children soar to the finish line rather than fall at the first hurdle.  

How Do We Encourage Risk Taking as Part of Learning?

Over my long career, I have often come across students who are described as perfectionists.  These students have ranged in age from five to fifteen but all share the same characteristic: they will only present work when it is perfect.  Is “perfectionist” an accurate description of these students, or is there something else at the root of their behaviour?  And should we be supporting this desire for perfection or are we in fact doing a disservice to these students by not encouraging them to take risks? 

When we think of risk-taking, we often think of people who engage in extreme sports such as sky diving, free climbing or bungee jumping.  But the definition of risk-taking is to take action which involves risk in order to achieve a goal.  If we apply this to learning, any time a student puts out an answer for which they are unsure, they are taking a risk.  But they are also taking a step towards their goal of learning and achievement.  So how do we help “perfectionist” students view risk-taking in a positive light rather than something to be feared?  

As teachers, we are perfectly placed to identify students with this risk avoiding behaviour, and gently guide them to consider a new path to learning.  

  1. Create a safe learning environment.  Students should trust their teacher to listen and explore new ideas and to value their input regardless of the perceived correct answer.  Mutual trust and respect is vital. 
  2. Design situations where there is no right answer, only open-ended discussion. Build these into each session so that over time the student begins to take those more risky steps, putting their ideas out there.  
  3. Lead by example.  Students should know that teachers are not always right but are fine with taking a chance on an idea and having it proved wrong.  Put your idea out there and encourage your student to disagree with you!

Risk-taking is a core life skill.  It is integral to an innovative and forward thinking society.  We need to encourage learners to move from their safe path in which they avoid all risk, and help them recognise it as an opportunity for development. 

How is Learning 11+ Comprehension Like Learning to Cook?

In guiding parents through the 11+ entrance exam process, I am often asked what is the right time to begin purchasing and using practise papers.   To help parents understand why I ask them to delay doing this, I use the analogy of learning to cook.  

Look at this simple recipe for stir-fry:

Step 1: Finely chop or slice the vegetables into pieces roughly the same size. 

Step 2: Heat the oil in a large frying pan then fry the garlic and ginger for 1 min.

Step 3: Add the veg and toss to coat. Fry for 2-3 mins, then add the soy sauce and chilli sauce, if using, and mix well. 

Step 4: Cook for 2-3 mins more until the vegetables are tender. Stir in the prawns until cooked.

For most adults, following this recipe and producing a meal would be straight forward.  However, for a child who is learning to cook, there are a number of skills that would need to have mastered before they are able to make this recipe.  Have they learned to safely chop vegetables?  Do they know how to mince and chop garlic and ginger?  Can they tell when a vegetable is cooked through but not overcooked?  Do they know how to tell if a prawn is cooked?  To successfully follow this recipe, the must first learn the foundation skills of food preparation, food safety, and frying techniques.    

When a student is preparing for the comprehension portion of the 11+ exams, the foundation skills must be fully grasped before tackling practise papers. Learning how to understand and answer each type of question that they will encounter on the exam before they tackle whole papers will ensure they have success when they practise.  Do they know the PEE method of answering questions about tone of a passage?  Can they comment on language techniques used by an author?  Do they know how to answer “in your own words” questions?

Regular revisiting of each question type is also a must.  When you learned to chop an onion, did you get it perfect first time? 

My process for smooth 11+ comprehension learning, whether you are a tutor or a parent helping a student, is these 4 steps:

  1. Spend time on each individual question type, becoming comfortable with what is being asked and how to answer.  Do one type of question at a time. (Note – this step should take the largest proportion of time)
  2. Practise a whole comprehension paper that encompasses all question types.  Look for areas which need improvement and where skills have been forgotten.
  3. Review the question types from step 2.
  4. Practise whole papers, refining exam techniques.  

Ensuring the right skills are in place first before doing practice papers is like getting the right ingredients together for your recipe before you cook.  Both will lead to success! 

Celebrating the Return to Home Educating

Today is the day that school children and parents are rejoicing.  It marks the end of home schooling.  Today is also the day that another group of children and parents are celebrating as it marks the return of home educating.  The terms “home schooling” and “home educating” are often used interchangeably, a fact that has long irked the home education community.  However, the pandemic has brought a new level of frustration as the media portrayed only one image home learning – and for the most part it was not a positive one.  
 
In the UK, home education in a mass sense began in the 1970’s and gained momentum in the 1980’s.  In 2019, it was estimated that between 90,000 and 130,000 children were being home educated in the UK, a figure that rises each year.  Despite media portrayal and the assumption that home educated children have been at an advantage during the pandemic as their educational provision has not changed, this massive group of children have faced a year of significant challenges equal to those of their schooled peers. 
 
As a parent who has been home educating for the last sixteen years, as well as an educator who has been involved with the home educated community, my heart has broken on numerous occasions over this pandemic period as I have watched the disruption to home educated children’s life unfold.  Contrary to the popular misconceptions, home educated students do not sit at a desk at home all day recreating the school experience.  While many students do formal learning through books or classes, most home educated students also have a wealth of activities that they attend throughout the week that are an integral part of home educating.  My own children have attended weekly: debate sessions at the Economist Headquarters, STEM sessions for First Lego League, philosophy sessions with the Philosophy Foundation, book groups, outdoor ranger activities,  and sports such as swimming.  This essential part of their home education learning stopped when the pandemic started. 
 
This week will mark the beginning of a return to true home education for 100,000+ children in the UK.  A return to the diverse learning activities that are an accurate representation of what home education is all about.  It will also mark the taking back of the phrase “home schooling” from something that has been portrayed in such a negative light to one of positivity and possibilities.  So as we rejoice at the return to the classroom for the UK’s school children, let us also restore the terms “home schooling” and “home educating” to the positivity they should convey.  

Imagination is a Muscle

What exactly is imagination?  Imagination is defined as the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses.  Is it possible to have no imagination?  There is indeed a very rare condition in which sufferers have no ability to visualise mental images – known as Aphantasia.  It is believed that only 1-3% of the population suffers with Aphantasia.  How then do we account for the much larger percentage of people who say they have no imagination?  

In an ideal world, all children will be stretched and challenged from an early age to develop their imagination into a powerful tool. However, we know this is not the case for all.  I often work with teenagers who are reluctant writers.  They tell me that they have no imagination, and are unable to think of ideas for creative writing.  This often goes hand in hand with a dislike of reading.  Do we accept that these students are unable to develop their imagination and must forever stare at a blank piece of paper with dread, or are there ways we can help older students?

Although we cannot turn back time, I do believe there are techniques we can use with our students to help them realise they do have an imagination:

  1. Start with the concrete.  If a child tells you they cannot visualise an idea, then create it for them.  Give them a picture as a starting point.  Begin discussion with what they can see in the picture, then move on to discuss what might be just beyond the boundaries.  One of my favourite resource pictures depicts a wonderful woodland scene with rough stone steps leading up and out of sight.  What could be at the top of the steps?  Pictures of people in action lend themselves to thinking about what might happen next.  
  1. Brainstorm.  So many students are reluctant to do this, and yet are surprised when they cannot just start writing.  Ask them to write down as many words and phrases that they can think of about a given subject, without worrying if they are actually going to use them in their writing.  There is no wrong word.  Once they get used to doing this, they can choose a selection of the words they have brainstormed as a starting point for writing.  The act of brainstorming itself will help stretch their imagination.  
  1. Exercise daily.  Imagination is no different to any other muscle.  You need to use it little and often.  No-one is suggesting reluctant students need to write a story a day.  However, they can write something: a description, a journal entry, what they are having for lunch, or details about their favourite video game or movie.  What they write is less important than ensuring they flex that muscle.  
  1. Read fiction.  Frequent reading has been shown to stimulate the right side of the brain and improve brain function.  There is no question that during reading students practise creating images in their mind, a vital step to creating their own ideas.  

Why does it really matter if some students don’t use their imaginations?  Can we not just accept their differences and encourage them in areas in which they do excel?  Without imagination, we have no innovation.  Imagination pushes discovery and understanding.  It opens the world to the possible in all things.  Shouldn’t we enable all students to be this creative?  To find that potential ​that is within themselves?