An agreeable attitude

17th October 1997 at 01:00
'Learning is not a competition, and it's not helpful to tell children they're failing.' So says the third TESLucy Cavendish research fellow. (You can see why she annoys Chris Woodhead.) Diane Hofkins talks to Annabelle Dixon

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 comfortable 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 directionless 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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