04 Jan Un-Masking Problems with Learning: Jacardi's Tale and other Stories
“We did 18s at my old school.” Jacardi
Jacardi joined us after transferring from another school. He missed our baseline test, we didn’t receive any other data but we just hoped we’d get up to speed with his needs. He was a bit of a mystery; articulate and outwardly confident but also something of a blagger; it was hard to trust what he said. During his first term with us we came up against a raft of issues – mainly social issues and some in-class disruption but, oddly, teachers felt he was doing OK in terms of progress. Until the end of year exams.
Marking a Maths test, it was clear that Jacardi had cheated. His score was extremely high and, on investigation, it seemed that he’d managed to copy answers from a top-end student sitting in front and across from him in the exam hall. For one question on simultaneous equations he’d written the final answer, 18, without any workings. I asked him how he got the answer. He said “Well, we did 18s at my old school”. The game was up.
This led us to explore Jacardi’s work in more detail. We found that he’d managed to dupe himself, his parents and several teachers into believing he was academically more able than he was. He’d copied a lot of homework, leaned on students for ‘help’ fairly often, and generally blagged his way through, avoiding registering as the serious cause for concern that he should have been. He literally put more effort into creating the facade of being an effective learner than into trying to actually be one. He didn’t know any different. Even when confronted with the absurdity of ’18s’, he was in denial. He had told so many lies, he couldn’t stand losing face to admit how difficult things were for him.
It was an extreme example, but I see Jacardi-like behaviour a lot. Faced with difficulties, many students will seek to cover up rather than own up. Asked a question in class, they look left and right..as if conferring on University Challenge – as a default mode. Safety in numbers; I’ll say what he said…I’ll copy my neighbour’s answer. Jacardi showed how far this can go before anyone notices. Tellingly, it was a test that did for him. Tests are good! As I’ve said before.
Eric: Knowing ‘The Twits’ by heart.
I once spent a wonderful six weeks as a supply teacher at Wood Lane School for children with moderate learning difficulties. It was the only time I’ve been directly responsible for teaching reading. In one early lesson, with my Y7-9 group, we were reading Roald Dahl’s ‘The Twits’. I was reading it to them to get the story going.. and Eric started to chime in. He was telling the story with me. Word for word. And then he ran ahead. I’d never seen this before. I thought Eric was amazing; that this was a gift of some kind.
Soon afterwards, in individual sessions, I discovered that Eric could not read well at all.. it was painful word-at-a-time stuff. But he knew ‘The Twits’ by heart? I asked him to explain and it transpired that he had an audio tape at home; he’d played it so many times that he knew the story like a song. He loved stories and had overcome his reading difficulties in a very different way. It was beautiful really; an eye-opening realisation. None of his other teachers has seen this happen because he’d tried to keep it quiet; with me, he’d let it slip out – he knew the story already, which is why he’d been so keen for us to read it in class.
We realised that his capacity to re-tell stories to himself had a major influence on his self-esteem as a slow reader and we needed to acknowledge and celebrate it. Instead of him hiding this, we asked him to express it openly, but not to rely on it instead of reading, which he had started to do. Students’ capacity to compensate, to find different paths, shouldn’t be under-estimated. It strikes me that we could explore this further; it could be masking their difficulties or it could be used positively to help them function.
Michael, Y11. “I’ve never ever done any work at home”.
This pains me still. Michael was a deeply frustrating boy. He was grossly immature, routinely disruptive in a low-level work-avoidance kind of way, and continually under-achieving with an appalling homework record. However, he didn’t affect other students unduly and survived year to year. Parents’ Evening conversations were uncomfortable – there wasn’t anything very positive to say – and, ultimately, his parents stopped attending.
In Year 11 I had him in my own bottom set Maths class and this catalysed some action that was very long over-due. I decided we needed to bring things to a head, now or never. I made a massive fuss about getting his mum in (literally, no more lessons until we have a meeting) and we sat down together to talk through his work pattern, his home study situation, revision issues, catch-up priorities and so on, aiming to get him the best GCSEs possible given the circumstances. At this meeting, I learned that Michael did not ever, ever, do work at home. He had never taken his books out of his bag at home; he had never sat down to read or do any revision at any time. He only ever did homework at school in snatched moments to get out of trouble.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise but I was shocked. His mum was aware of the issue but felt she couldn’t do anything about it; she was too ashamed to raise this with the school. A single parent, working long hours to run her business, she hadn’t felt able to keep an eye on him – and she deliberately avoided contact with the school. Mainly, I was shocked that it had taken us so long to work this out. Years! The main reason was that our expectations of Michael were virtually zero. We’d given up on him almost completely. It was a conspiracy of mutually low expectations. He had never worked out how to study at home.. had no motivation to do so and no parental boundaries to work within.
What pains me is that we should have brought it to a head years before. All that time, he’d developed a fairly complex system for evading work, taking detentions when they came, telling lies to his mum and his teachers, but never addressing the core issues. Teachers had given up reporting their concerns and, because parents were so evasive, the pastoral team felt they had reached the end of the road. Michael’s mum’s main issue had become her own sense of shame and guilt, and not his learning. That was her own analysis in the end.. and it all came too late for him.
Colin and Elif: The great under-achievers; crippled by peer pressure.
I taught two students in consecutive years, now over a decade ago, who I never forget. They were super-bright students; sparklingly intuitive, articulate and curious. They were both very engaging whilst also being opinionated and challenging. It can be rewarding teaching students like that. They had something to say. I expected them both to be high achievers, heading for A levels and university. However, something happened to both of them as they moved from KS3 into KS4.
For some reason, their peer influences became very significant and we started to lose them. What Elif and Colin had in common was that, intellectually, they stood alone from their peers. Both students were part of fairly large groups that would hang out together; both students had street-lives outside of school. They’d get home, dump the school uniform and head out to hang out with older students, most days. In that world, doing well in Physics or History didn’t have value; they stopped working; they fell behind. Worst of all, they tried to pretend it wasn’t happening and, when challenged in lessons, they became increasingly hostile. It’s hard to sustain support for someone who is hostile towards you.. and teachers gradually gave up. I was one of them.
When Elif, who I’d given a lot of time to, started shouting at me, I started to think other people deserved my attention more. Colin basically stopped turning up; even if physically present, he was miles away in spirit..lost. I can remember his face as he tried to run the tight-rope of self-esteem: attempting the work was a risk; as someone with a reputation for being clever, he could not face the idea of ‘looking stupid’ in front of other people and, unless the answers were coming easily, he would be disruptive or simply bunk off which obviously made things worse.
Elif scraped enough Cs to go on to college and, later, she matured enough to turn things around. Colin didn’t. I don’t know what happened to him.
Writing this has made me question, again, how we let some of these things happen. We were working hard; he prided ourselves on setting high standards; we did lots of work on parental engagement and assessment. The answer is that we simply allowed ourselves to give up in certain cases and we let too much time pass between interventions. It was as if we had a certain failure-rate tolerance. We probably didn’t do enough assessment of casual entrants to the school or have good enough systems for students who were not yet on the SEN register. We didn’t tackle under-achievement issues with the same vigour as we tackled behaviour, raising the stakes so that certain patterns were deemed unacceptable.
With parents, we should have had more urgent summit meetings earlier on with several of these students and others like them. Instead of capitulating behind the ‘there’s only so much you can do’ defense, perhaps we needed more of a ‘whatever it takes’ attitude. In cases like Michael’s, Elif’s and Colin’s, there was a massive role-model issue: they didn’t see people like them achieving. It took a few years for that school to have its own home-grown role models for others to follow. I think we needed to address that deficit more effectively and more directly. Some additional financial and human resources would have helped for sure – and a more effective Education Welfare service, getting into homes instead of expecting parents to always come to us.
The main questions I am asking myself about my own school are these:
How do I know if my students are masking their under-performance? Do our assessment systems flush out the real issues? Do we allow students to dupe us and themselves into thinking they know more than they do?
Are we doing enough to bring parents together to work with us when we have concerns? Do we leave it too late? Do we appear critical of them rather than understanding of their issues, thereby leading to defensive behaviour?
Do we have a culture where students can openly express their difficulties rather than seeking to hide them? Do we make it easy enough for the students who need the most help to accept the help that is already being offered?
In other post, I will describe some of the mentoring systems we have at KEGS – things we didn’t have in place for Elif, Michael or Colin. I’ll also look at the power and importance of vertical modelling, using it to celebrate achievement, set standards and to raise aspirations. I’m also working on a post about parental engagement and how it could be embedded more deeply into the fabric of school life.