An agreeable attitude

Tes Editorial

Annabelle Dixon's mixed-age infant class was debating the merits of having a + Child of the Day. Three of the older children pointed out a "problem", namely + that everyone else would feel "jealous". The class talked it through, and had a+ vote. The majority agreed that designating a special day for each child was + worth it after all. They could overcome their jealousy by reminding themselves + that their own day would come.The children discussed the issue by using and + thinking about some of the words and feelings that Annabelle Dixon - who has + been named TESLucy Cavendish research fellow for 1997-98 - had introduced + throughout the year.The ability to point out that other children were jealous + showed a recognition of negative feelings, Annabelle explains. Introducing the + idea of "agree" and "disagree" has given the children "a wider range of + behaviour when someone else has an idea that's different from their own. If you+ disagree, you have to explain why."Having a "point of view" is another concept+ they have been learning to use. "Only by giving children these phrases can you+ help them to understand their own emotions and empathise with others. Their + reaction was usually to thump." Holdbrook Primary, in Waltham Cross, serves a + grim housing estate in Hertfordshire, where pupils might come to school the + morning after a drug bust, or a big row, or it just may be that no one has had + much time to talk to them at home. Their anger may be unfocused. The "tool" + words which deputy head Annabelle Dixon has been developing with her teaching + colleague, Di Hunt, help them recognise what kind of anger they are feeling. + Disappointment? Fear? Annabelle Dixon's own early years were radically + different. When she was growing up in Berkshire at the end of the Second World + War, she attended a "dame school", where 16 pupils aged four-and-a-half to 18 + were taught by a Miss Bloomer. It sounds like a cosy education, the kind which + has been left in the past. But apparently Miss Bloomer was a remarkable woman,+ and her lessons were anything but cosy. "Miss Bloomer used to say, 'Always ask+ yourselves the question, Why?'," says Annabelle. "It was a mind burst. It + really was very powerful. It has made me realise just how powerful words are + with children."Always asking yourself the question "Why?" is not a comfortable + way to live. But along with her Quaker beliefs and her grounding in psychology + and educational research (BA Hons from Goldsmiths and MSc from Surrey + University ), it helped to keep Annabelle focused on bringing the power of + words to children.For 33 years she resisted the temptations of academia or + headship, but The TESLucy Cavendish fellowship has helped her into early + retirement at the age of 56. She takes up the year-long post this month, and + will be looking at the range of "citizenship" programmes and materials that + have been developed across Britain, building up a database, and examining ways + to form a consensus on key elements for a national system. She co-wrote primary+ school materials for the National Citizenship Foundation. A book on tool words+ is also in the pipeline.These words are clearly helping the pupils of + Holdbrook school to understand each other and themselves better, and thus + become better citizens. "It's very important that someone gives them time to + talk. Otherwise they will never have a chance to be articulate," says + Annabelle. It is hard to see how the Government's literacy policies, which + emphasise reading and writing, and give far less thought to speaking and + listening, will meet the deeper needs of these children, she adds.But + Annabelle has been wary of foisting the discomfort of always asking "Why?" on + her pupils. "Because I know its power, I have been circumspect about + introducing it to children," she says.It fits in with her own world view, + however. Quakerism is open-ended and non-dogmatic, she says. "It doesn't have a+ set creed; people come in where they're at. " She is suspicious of + hierarchies, and rebelled against the strict C of E girls' school she attended + in the Fifties. She did not opt for a comfortabl e approach to teaching, + either. She has remained rigorously but open-mindedly "progressive" throughout + her career, and one article she wrote in The TES earlier this year drew barbs + from the Chief Inspector, Chris Woodhead, who singled out her comments on how + much teachers learn from children as evidence of what's wrong with primary + teaching today. But this is not directionl ess liberalism. As she skilfully + guides the children into discoveries about the horns on an animal skull or the + meaning of a googol (one plus 100 noughts), it is clear that everything she + does in class has a solid rationale and purpose, and is supported by + educational and psychological research. In her class there is much work on + language and phonics - but not what might be labelled a structured "literacy + hour". There are celebrations of children's accomplishments with lists with + labels such as "I can count to 100", challenges of the day, a list of new + words, and a book full of questions from the children. At the end of the day, + the children are responsible for clearing up, and then declare themselves ready+ to be inspected. "It means they stand by what they've done.""I quite genuinely+ feel it's a joint venture," she says. Learning is not a competition, and it is+ not helpful to tell children they're failing. It is better to get out their + old work from several months before and show them their progress, she adds. + "The more they do things, the more they understand. Everything has to be lived + through. That's what life's about."Her ideas about tool words were developed in+ a class where children either hit each other or walked away from problems. + "Then one bright spark suddenly asked, 'What's a problem?' Eureka! If they + don't know what a problem is, each time they come against something, it's a + particular event,not an example of something." She explained what a problem + was, then the class discussed and "collected" them. "I think it's a problem + when . . ." began the list, followed by examples such as "you have lost your + shoe in PE", or "someone else gets the fire engine you wanted to play + with".Then Annabelle introduced the word "solve". Problems, the class found, + were things you could often do something about, so they set out to develop + solutions.Earlier this year, two girls were arguing over a pair of shoes in the+ home corner. "Miss, we have a problem, " they said, "but we're going to solve + it." Five minutes later, they were back. One was hobbling on the right shoe, + the other on the left. "They were delighted," Annabelle says. "They had come up+ against a problem, recognised it, and thought up ways to sort it out for + themselves."But helping the children to become good citizens is not easy. As + she hears one boy snap "none of your business" at another, Annabelle decides to+ add "personal" to the list of new words.Annabelle Dixon is the third TES + research fellow to be appointed at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge. The + TESLucy Cavendish Research Fellowship in Educational Policy, awarded annually,+ is open to mature women students. Details of how to apply for next year's + fellowship will be published soon

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