On inspiring children

Yesterday I attended my first ever TEDx event at the University of Warwick. The TEDxWarwickEd talks were dedicated to inspiring education initiatives and learning approaches. The common theme that ran through the five presentations was creating inspiring educational environments that cater for the individual learner – this is a huge endeavour and the five speakers presented their thoughts, vision and their innovative ventures on the theme.

As the TED events are all about ideas worth spreading, what I took with me and what I want to share with you is an idea from the presentation of Daniel Scully, PhD candidate in Particle Physics at the University of Warwick and science communicator. His talk explored how we can attract more young people to study science. There is a worrying decline on the number of students taking A level physics. In response to that there are a series of national initiatives aiming to encourage students and in particular female students to take up physics.

So how do we inspire children to study physics? Here is an idea worth spreading in two quotes “… it is not the questions we have answered but what needs to be answered – it is what lies ahead that is important” and “People are not inspired by what you have done, they inspired by what THEY CAN DO.” In other words, science is not about what we have achieved, but more importantly about what we haven’t. This is where the excitement, innovation and rewards lie. So let us sow the seeds of curiosity and hopefully they will grow into a love for exploration and discovery.

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Playing maths

Working with Gifted and Talented children can be a challenging experience. My group of G&T Year 6 students are smart, have a range of interests and love challenges, but they are not easily pleased. They know what they want and they expect me to deliver it. And I can tell they have high expectations.

Today I wanted them to work on some fundamental mathematical skills such as logic, memory, spatial recognition and analytical thinking. And what is the best way to introduce those subtle but all important skills to a group of 11 year olds, but a videogame?

So this morning I decided to use “The Clockwork Brain” an iOS game, which consists of a series of well designed original mini-games that encourage players to develop and practice the all-crucial mathematical thinking skills. It is fun and engaging with the level of difficulty linked to the players’ performance.

Train your Brain the Steampunk Way!

My group of Year 6 students were ecstatic and understandably happy to exchange working on problems with playing a game. They soon settled down and I could see them focused on the task at hand, trying to complete the activities before time was up.

They were concentrated and tried hard to improve their scores. To my delight they were also able to reflect on their performance and discuss how they can become better players. I have also encouraged them to discuss strategies and exchange tips.

I can tell they were really pleased and could see that it was a positive learning experience for them.

The good thing about this game is that everyone can play. As it practices mathematical thinking, it does not involve any math work. So even if maths is not your strong suit, you will enjoy it!

The games are accessible to younger children as well as adults. My daughter, who is in Year 3, has been playing the game for about a year now and she still enjoys it. And I have been playing on and off for quite some time now.

I am now on the lookout for some more games to use with primary school children. If you have come across engaging and novel applications/games, please share!

Reading or playing?

Before having children I had an academic interest in Education. I would read newspaper articles and the Times Educational Supplement. I had a job that allowed me to mingle with KS3 teachers and visit schools to talk to children or take part in astronomy workshops. But as I said, Education was just an academic subject to me. And surely I was not familiar with the nitty–gritty details of school education.

It is now that I have two children that education issues have become relevant to me. I can appreciate how education policies affect my children’s present and future. I can see how good education practices do not only support my children academically, but more crucially help them become creative, emotionally intelligent human beings.

So it really saddens me, or dare I say infuriates me, to see that the current education system is constantly pushing early formal and cognitive based learning to children as young as four years old. I am really struggling to understand what the benefits of this approach to young children are. And I am afraid I cannot.

Having spent five years in Greece and becoming familiar with their educational system, where children start learning to read at the age of six, I was horrified to find out that children in the English Reception class are subject to a strict curriculum and are taught phonics within the first couple weeks of school.

Children in Greek Reception and Year 1 work on developing soft skills through play and outdoor activities. They only learn to count to 10 and write down their own name.  The school day is also shorter starting at 8.15am and finishing at 12.15pm. To be honest with you up to a few months ago I just could not visualise a normal four and a half years old child being able to decode words, read and having weekly homework assignments.

My son is at an outstanding primary school. Their EYFS provision is excellent given the constraints of the curriculum and they encourage free unconstructive play with elements of the Reggio Emilia approach. But I see children who are not ready to cope with such a rigorous academic curriculum. What happens to those children? Research shows that they are gradually left behind and are likely to be behind when they are older. More crucially, all the children miss out on a vital part of their life. Care-free and creative childhood.

So I completely agree with Susie Steiner when arguing that Six-year-olds need to play more than they need to spell. (This Guardian article triggered today’s random thoughts on early education…)

But I am afraid the current education trend in this country dictates that playing is a waste of time and children should rush into learning their letter sounds and reading their story books from a very young age. Apparently, the cost of that approach to the children’s well-being and learning is not part of the policy makers’ equation.

Resources for Reception class children – reading

My son started in Reception this September, so as a modern 21st century mother I had already done my research and found two resources for us to use at home. Having tried them, I would recommend them to anyone with KS1 children who (a) would like to find out more about phonics and reading in school and how to support their children and (b) want some free resources to help children practice and revise.

Learning sound letters with a cute giraffe

I had already come across Mr Thorne does Phonics resources through the TES website. So it was a few months ago that I found out about a new section Geraldine the Giraffe. This is a great resource for reception children as it aims to teach them letter sounds using a fun and engaging way. Geraldine is the cutest giraffe, but a bit clumsy. She is willing to learn and really tries hard. But with her big giraffe tongue, sounding out is not that easy for her and it takes a few unsuccessful attempts before she is able to master her sounds, which add an element of fun to the experience.

Although at a first glance it may not convince the parents, I can see that my son is not only totally engaged but he learns as well. Each video presents a sound and it is only a few minutes long, just the right length to keep him engaged. As soon as he would get back home from school, we would check the Geraldine video of the new phonic sound of the day.

In each video Geraldine has to go on an object hunt and find things that begin with the specific sound. This is the highlight of the experience for my son, as he is full of anticipation for the things that Geraldine will bring back.

Reading with Biff, Chip and Kipper

Now that he has moved on and can read books I use the digital library of the Oxford Owl Tree website. They are the creators of Biff, Chip, Kipper and Floppy and publish the scheme books used in many primary schools. This is primarily an excellent resource for parents, as it provides tips and advice on helping and supporting young children in reading and maths.

Most of their books are also available on the website as ebooks and are accompanied by activities to encourage comprehension of the story. There is also audio so that children can listen to the stories.

I would really like to find out more about resources for supporting EYFS learning. Please feel free to share websites and books that you have come across and like

Parents wanted

Friday is one of my favourite days of the week. As soon as I drop off the children at school, I go to the reception, sign myself in, wear my badge and head for the Year 6 classroom. I am a parent volunteer at my children’s school and work with a small group of gifted and talented children. I help with Maths and I am one of the thousands of parents who volunteer in British schools.

For many years schools in the UK have been welcoming parents to help teachers with art and craft projects, reading, as well as accompanying classes on trips. Parents are indeed an invaluable resource, but have teachers really taken advantage of the variety of skills and expertise modern parents possess?

As someone who spends on average 20 minutes a day on the playground, what strikes me is the variety of talent and skills at the school gates – mothers that work part time or are on career breaks, who have PhDs or masters, invaluable experience in literacy agency and creative writing, run small and innovative businesses, are former accountants and ICT specialists.  Surely schools could benefit from that expertise.

Particularly these days, with the teachers struggling to manage big classes of 30 children while at the same time teaching pupils with a wide range of abilities and skills, schools need all the help they can get. Parents can be part of the solution.

As a former astrophysicist, holding a PhD and having years of experience as a researcher and then science communicator, teaching level 6 maths to a group of Year 6 pupils is a wonderful experience. I have to confess that working with the children, watching them learn and making sense of numbers and their meaning is the highlight of my week.   I really enjoy it and have a good relationship with the class teacher. I firmly believe that many parents would feel the same. Only if the schools could think strategically about how to engage high-skilled parents and encourage them to volunteer.

So for a start here are some thoughts on how schools could establish and support a network of parent volunteers.

  • Some parents may not be aware of parent volunteer opportunities. So a Call for Parents is published in the weekly newsletter on a regular basis to remind parents that they can offer their skills to the benefit of the children.
  • Every term, class teachers send out notes to parents detailing the expertise they require to support their teaching and their pupils.
  • In the beginning of the year, schools run introductory talks about parent volunteering, explaining the benefits of parental involvement in the children’s education as well as the difference they can make in a child’s learning.
  • Schools create a registry of skills, where parents enter their skills and qualifications. Alternatively or additionally schools produce a wish list of skills and invite parents to sign up.
  • Parents may be intimidated by the prospect of being in a classroom. Provide some basic training to explain what the role of a parent volunteer is. Have in place a shadowing scheme, where interested parents are shadowing a teacher or volunteer for a day or two.
  • Last but not least, train the teachers on how to work with parent volunteers. Remember that parents do not have qualifications or experience in teaching. They probably do not know how to plan a tutoring session, so give them all the support they need.

What are your thoughts? Are you a parent volunteer? I would love to hear your experiece.