The lie of “putting the children first”

It’s one of those arguments that trumps all others.
You can be in the middle of an educational debate about some issue or other when the person you’re trying to convince says: “but you’re not putting the children first.” All your other arguments are suddenly sunk, dead in the water, and you slink off knowing that you were wrong. There are barely any other arguments that are as powerful as that one; that are as strong in your hand; that beat all others. Perhaps the ultimate is the line “but, Health and Safety…” in that it might possibly outdo “but you’re not putting the children first.”

But it’s a lie.

As teachers, we shouldn’t put the children first. I’m not speaking to parents in this, nor social workers, doctors or anyone else who might have a good reason to put children first. I am speaking to teachers, and I’m including myself.

Here’s the reason: children’s learning.

If we put children first, then they will not learn as effectively as they should. Putting children first devalues our own knowledge. It would be like me saying: the child is more important than the knowledge I am going to impart to them. It says that the child is more important than the culture of which they are a part. It raises the child to the top of a pyramid that shouldn’t even exist.

So, I’m not saying that we should put the child second. The phrase “putting the child first” sounds that education is some kind of race. Nor am I saying that children aren’t important. They are. A school without children would be a conference centre. But likewise a school without teachers would be a playground. Both are important places, but not places where learning is maximised and standards are raised.

It’s ironic then that putting the child first will actually disadvantage the child. Teachers who do so will become ‘facilitators’ – desperately trying to allow the children to independently learn the outcomes they themselves have devised.

That’s not what Vygotsky intended when he talked about scaffolding – the appropriate assistance that will give the student the knowledge and confidence to move into their zone of proximal development. No, this assistance is part of the interaction between teacher and child – part of that positive relationship that has teacher as guardian of knowledge within their given socio-cultural context and child as learner of norms, rules, facts, knowledge and attitudes.

This relationship is damaged when children are put first. It is the relationship that should be put first – the nature of the the interaction between teacher and child. Some people call this teaching. Please don’t call it facilitation.



The lie that we can’t learn new attitudes.

Old dogs, new tricks


‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ is the old line, but there’s a consensus that it isn’t actually true. The actual statement may still stand, but I’m no dog trainer so couldn’t say for sure.


In humans though, it has been shown that a very high percentage of the brain’s ability to learn new things remains far into old age. We refer to adults as life-long learners. We have silver surfers and tweeters (or twits) in their 90s (the oldest died recently aged 104).


Old dogs, old attitudes


Learning is three things – knowledge, skills and attitudes. OK that’s a pretty broad statement, but I think those three words cover most of what we try to do in UK schools. I think we’re happy that new knowledge can be learnt at any age, and the ‘old dogs’ disproval would indicate that we’re also happy that new skills can be learnt at any age. However I think we’re not so assured about attitudes. In other words, old dogs are stuck with their old attitudes.


Unsure about attitudes


In fact if you check your own experience of school, I’m not too sure that we’re really sure how to change. influence or teach attitudes at all. What do we do? – we have a school ethos with some rules attached to it. We punish non-compliance and reward compliance. We may have other strategies such as circle time, but what proportion of the timetable do we really allocate to attitude shifting?


And what attitudes are we really teaching. It seems to me that for the most part, we rely on the educator in front of the children.


And at what age are children most likely to learn positive attitudes to life and learning? And at what age do they stop?


My teaching experience goes up to the age of 11, and I’ve certainly seen attitude change there. This year, a girl who had very little confidence in maths (yet high ability in English) turned it round to become a brilliant problem solver. The change was more down to a change in attitude rather than new skills she learned. I’m sure secondary colleagues also have stories where they have seen students’ attitudes completely change around.


Stuck with adults


I’m sure you’ve heard adults say things like “I can’t draw” or “I’m no good at maths.”


Somewhere along the way, we must get the idea that we’re stuck. We can’t improve our attitudes. We believe things like our intellience is fixed and we’ve reached our limits, or we can’t learn a new language because we just don’t think that way. It’s about the difference with being fixed and being flexible.


And if, as teachers, we pass on a fixed way of thinking to our children then they you will become stuck at some point in the future.


Our behaviour isn’t fixed. We can learn new attitudes.


The lie of the leadership pyramid.

So many people use the word ‘up’ when they talk about leadership. It is so much part of our language that even people who understand what leadership really is, still use the word ‘up’. I still use it, so this post is as much to me as anyone else.


Metaphors like ‘career ladder’ and ‘rat race’ don’t help. They indicate being ahead of other people – higher up than others.


So what do people mean when they say ‘I moved up into leadership’? Is it helpful to refer to leaders with expressions like ‘the great and the good’?


Of course there are some real ‘ups’ in leadership. Pay for one. There is a real financial pyramid – a few people earning incredible amounts at the top of the pyramid with progressively more earning less and less until you reach the bottom of the pyramid where most people earn less than the national average. I’ll write about this more in the lie of averages.


Money, I suspect, is a big factor in why we use the word ‘up’ so much in leadership. It leads us to the pyramid image. In most organisations there are one or two leaders at the top, maybe a few middle managers and then the ‘workers’. But is that the ideal way to be? The pyramid model is limited because a pyramid can’t grow any bigger unless you de- construct it and start again. That can be a lot of hard work, especially if you’re starting with a particularly large pyramid. Even in small pyramids, like my primary school for example, the pyramid can be hard to change if the people who make it up have a fixed concept of how everyone fits together. Change can feel painful, because it feels as though the pyramid is being torn apart and rebuilt each time something new is brought in.


However a paradigm shift can ease the pain.


What if we turn the pyramid upside down? Then it’s kind of like a bucket. Admittedly it’s a rather square cornered impractical bucket, and not one that would be very useful in my garden, but one that will serve as a metaphor for this paradigm shift I’m talking about.


Now we’ve got an upside down pyramid we can make it bigger. We can add a new layer to the top of it and presto it can hold more stuff. We can build capacity with ease just because we can think about it differently. I blogged about practical ways of building capacity here.


The job of the leader is key now. She/he is at the bottom of the upside-down pyramid – at the bottom of the bucket if you like. This leader has to hold all the links together. Foster a supportive network, encourage and motivate, spot the potential for new links, develop new leaders or ‘bucket builders’.


If anyone has any better metaphors for describing this ‘bucket’, please do leg me know.


The lie that you shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel.

“There’s no need to reinvent the wheel.” Have you ever said that? Or heard it said? While I agree with the sentiment behind it, I’m going to argue that to learn stuff, you do need to reinvent the wheel. Or at least refine it considerably.

The sentiment

I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment. What people mean when they say “there’s no need to reinvent the wheel” is “there’s no point in working harder than you need to.” The wheel analogy is the wrong one for this sentiment

The actual wheel

The wheel itself, in its primitive form of logs rolling canoes down go the river, or indeed the giant stone monoliths to places like Stonehenge, was invented and reinvented at different times and different place across the globe.

It has been reinvented many times since: for chariots, carts, carriages, cars; as cogs, gears, cams, brakes, measuring devices, energy storage, recording media; it’s a symbol of life in Buddhism; it’s even a military manoeuvre.

The metaphorical wheel

The most frequent occasion that I hear the line ‘there’s no need to reinvent the wheel’ is in reference to planning. Planning is the lifeblood of good teaching, but teachers are desperate not to have to work too hard at it. I think there’s a whole raft of reasons for this, not least that nobody should have to work too hard at anything. Working too hard is the enemy of productivity. It is demotivating. There are other reasons too, such as the culture behind the planning – does it just tick boxes and ensure coverage, or does it serve the needs of the children and the teachers?

While planning should not be onerous or time-consuming to produce, it does need to be reinvented. This is because in order to take ownership over the planning, we need to re-categorise it into ways that make it meaningful for us. My planning will take on a different from from anyone reading this post, because we all think differently. Even if you are continuing the same classes, you’ll still need to reinvent parts, to make it more relevant, to keep up to date with new technology or merely to stop it from becoming tedious.

This is not to say we have to start from scratch – it is good to build on previous successes – and it is good to reinvent. It helps us innovate, create and develop.

So the next time I have a huge amount of planning to do, I will say to myself: “It is good to reinvent the wheel.”

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