Tag Archives: critical thinking

Come the General Election, come another educational bandwagon – character.

I am greatly encouraged that Mrs Nicky Morgan, the new kid on the Education block, has conceded that education is about far more than merely the acquisition of qualifications. Indeed, she goes further in putting government money where her mouth is : “The &3.5m grant scheme for character education projects is a milestone in preparing young people more than ever before for life in modern Britain”.

As the leader of a school which values a holistic approach to education, I certainly would applaud this intention to give value to the overall personal development of an individual. What I question is why are we caught in the self-perpetuating matrix of segmenting learning in this way? Is “character” to be something else to be put onto the educational shopping-list of what schools must deliver to be solemnly measured by some arcane Ofsted measurement? I find it somewhat questionable that character development can be promoted through a series of character building “projects”. Mrs Morgan may argue that she is advocating a balanced education but for me this box ticking approach misses the point of what a good education should offer a youngster.

The learning environment valued by a school should be supporting the positive personal development of every learner. Far from box ticking, learners should be encouraged to think outside the comfort of their box – taking risks, learning from mistakes, taking the time to understand the perspectives of others. This can happen within the classroom in the curriculum where young people are encouraged to take intellectual risks and challenge others and not constantly feel that they are a set of data to be weighed. And of course in co-curricular activities where there are a myriad of opportunities for individuals to learn about themselves.

And how does this debate about character sit with the digital revolution which is changing our world in intended and unintended ways? The World Innovation Summit for Education, a Qatar sponsored education charity, recently carried out a survey of educational experts across the world asking their opinion about what schools will be like in 2030. The results are fascinating – if the predictions are right, a student’s interpersonal skills will be their most valued asset, with 75% of respondents ranking it number one compared to 42% for academic knowledge. In this world where online content will be king, it is argued that “old fashioned knowledge” becomes secondary. Collaboration, creativity and communication will be vital skills underpinned by critical thinking.

My view is that the debate is more evenly balanced because knowledge is integral to who we are. It strikes me that an approach to learning which values intellectual as well as personal development – not treating them as a false binary – will offer the best possible educational experience for youngsters in this future of unknowns. After all, studying the works of Shakespeare will give you a deep insight into resilience and grit in an abstract sense whilst an outward bound activity, for example the Duke of Edinburgh Award, places the learner in a personally challenging situation.

Actually Mrs Morgan, on reflection, I think we already have the tools for this task – let educational professionals get on and use them.

Bigotry and how to combat it.

It is quite shocking to witness the unfolding drama in Nigeria where over 200 girls have been kidnapped from their boarding school by a militant group called Boko Haram. Initially a barely reported story, it is now attracting headlines from across the world. Indeed the American First Lady, Michelle Obama, taking the place of her husband in the weekly presidential address, has condemned the kidnapping of the schoolgirls in Nigeria as an “unconscionable act” led by a group of men “attempting to snuff out the aspirations of young girls”.

However, the First Lady spoke not just for the kidnapped school girls but the 65 million girls worldwide who are not in education. It is indeed unconscionable that education, taken for granted as a birthright for so many, is unattainable for so many more. She singled out for particular praise Malala Yousafzai. Mrs Obama observed that Malala spoke out for girls’ education in her community, and as a result, she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman while on a school bus with her classmates. But fortunately Malala survived and hugely impressed Mrs Obama with her passion and determination to champion girls’ education which is still her life’s mission.

We are fortunate indeed to live in a country where education for all is a birth right. Whatever the rights and wrongs of political debate about the purpose of education, it captures without any fear of contradiction the vital importance of education for us individually and for our society. This is why the fate of the girls in Nigeria should matter to us. Indeed a member of our school community whose family are Nigerian felt moved to present the plight of the schoolgirls in assembly ensuring that everyone in our community understood the bigotry behind the kidnapping and the importance of education for these girls – after all, education is the most powerful weapon against such bigotry.

This dimension of our school’s life is essential for our young learners. Growing up in a world which is interconnected in so many ways necessitates a global awareness and understanding. We should all care what happens in other countries. Certainly global citizenship is an integral part of our vision for education. Growing up in today’s world our youngsters need a nuanced understanding of so many different cultures and societies. In my view, the outrageous kidnapping of the Nigerian schoolgirls highlights the importance of global citizenship. The race for grades can sometimes place pressure on that part of school life not so easily measurable. Yet young people in this country will only appreciate the horror of this incident if they understand the context. How education is so fundamental to the life chances of their contemporaries in countries in other continents; why it is that the education of girls is particularly important because of its power to transform a society’s demography.

So when we reflect on our values in education we must ensure that our learners have the capacity to view the world around them with a critical and informed eye. Their education must encompass the world beyond our country’s shores. After all, without a critical citizenry we risk intolerance and prejudice prevailing; a dangerous place to be in our interconnected planet.

Quaquaversal, Cabinet of Curiosities and the school library.

Quaquaversal. Yes, that’s right. Quaquaversal. I heard this word for the first time at the opening of our reconceived school library. Why? Because our guest speaker, Dr Robert Macfarlane, Fellow of Emmanuel College Cambridge, saw this concept as central to our new library inspired by the spirit of the Renaissance Cabinet of Curiosities. For those of you unfamiliar with quaquaversal, it is a term used in geology meaning directed outwards to every point of the compass from a common centre. And it captures beautifully the thinking behind a Cabinet of Curiosities.

The centre of quaquaversal for our new library is an exhibition inspired by the life of Jacquetta Hawkes, a pupil at Perse Girls a century ago. She was born Jacquetta Hopkins in 1910. Her father, Sir Frederick Hopkins, was a fellow of Trinity College Cambridge, where his research into biochemistry led to his discovery of vitamins for which he was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1929. He was incidentally a cousin of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. Jacquetta clearly was born into an intellectually interesting family.

As a subject for an inaugural exhibition, this most distinguished alumna was perfect. The many and various strands to Jacquetta’s life offered a unique opportunity to create a provocative quaquaversal learning space. Through the generosity of local museums and a private collector, the extraordinary archaeological world of this great female adventurer was celebrated – in our senior school library.

Our creation of a Cabinet of Curiosities or Wunderkammer, as it is also known, is the logical next step in the evolution of a library in a digital age. Yes, there are books and the obligatory bean bags for relaxed reading in the space, but the central purpose of this new learning environment is to encourage curiosity untrammelled by preconceptions or indeed physical barriers. For the Jacquetta Hawkes’ exhibition our Digital Researcher has created an i-Book which is an interactive catalogue for the exhibits. At the click of a finger the viewer can delve into a dimension of a physical object and spin away into a cornucopia of resources which challenge and enrich in equal measure.

And as the digital world expands opportunities for learning, those with responsibility for educating young people need to be mindful of the unintended consequences of information out there lacking curation and context. Equipped as our students are with i-Pads, we are very conscious of their digital potential to enhance learning. We also appreciate that a virtual world devoid of integral values to aid young people’s judgement is intellectually a corrosive unintended consequence of the digital revolution. Hence our determination to create a Cabinet of Curiosities. The quaquaversal effect is within an intellectual framework which encourages a variety of pathways taking young people on a journey of curiosity skilfully curated by the Curator and the Digital Researcher.

The Cabinet of Curiosities also offers the opportunity to share with students subjects which would not necessarily pique their interest. The distractions of our digital age mean we are in danger of young people failing to engage with aspects of our culture which are arguably less accessible and require a greater intellectual effort. The Jacquetta Hawkes exhibition is a case in point. On the surface a rather worthy topic but within the Cabinet Jacquetta’s world view is so fascinating that it is a beacon for curiosity. The highly successful opening of this new space attended by adults and students is a testament to how we can share values and interests across generations.

We are already planning future exhibitions. Obviously World War One must be explored. A random conversation with the Head of English who has a passion for cinema was the quaquaversal in action – the cinematic dimension of the war could be interrogated. For me, I quite like the idea of an exhibition inspired by Sherlock. Who knows where the quaquaversal would lead with such an extraordinary subject.


A Vision for Education? I can but dream.

Jane Austen bans homework! Ex-soldiers to discipline unruly pupils! I- Levels to restore rigour to examinations!

The breathless Sun-like approach to educational news captures our imagination but leaves us none the wiser about the vision for education in this country. As a leader of a school, I remain bewildered by the fast changing landscape around us. Indeed, where in the hurly-burly of educational news is the “why” behind everything we do? Looking at education piecemeal is a function I know of politics. Identify the issue, make it a problem, proffer a solution. “Simples”.

Imagine for a moment a different world. A world where education is not a political football but is the focus of educators who understand learning and what it needs to be. Of course learning for its own sake is integral to the human condition. As a student of history I revelled in interrogating and trying to make sense of the past but I learnt so much more from this endeavour. I learnt how to think critically.

I recently enjoyed a very twenty first century lesson in the application of learning. I had the privilege of meeting Roberto Cipolla, Professor of Information Engineering, Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, and a thoroughly nice guy. Interestingly Professor Cipolla also works with Toshiba and is a frequent visitor to Japan. His interest in future learning is focussed on the ways young people learn and the importance of problem solving. He demonstrated his latest creation which has enjoyed world wide coverage. “Zoe” is a virtual talking head who displays emotion: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-21827924. The work of a team led by Professor Cipolla drawn from the University and the Toshiba Laboratory in the Science Park, it offers the potential for a range of applications. I was fascinated by the creative process behind “Zoe” and how her creators are still investigating how she can be best used in the real world.

Professor Cipolla’s message to us as teachers was to the point. We must educate our students to take risks, be confident. From the perspective of Silicon Fen, we should be encouraging problem solving. Don’t fear coding – embrace it because it is the future.

The message resonates with us because of our approach to learning. A student is not a list of subjects but the sum of its parts. This year we introduced a new series of modules into the Year 9 curriculum which are all about “Myself as a Learner”. Included in the carousel is a module inspired by the Paralympics where students learn about how sport is played when athletes have physical limitations; another module introduces students to the world of forensics where they learn the science behind solving a crime before themselves having to investigate a murder scene set up just for them. Apart from clearly enjoying themselves, the students also engage in making connections between the subjects they study. Taking them out of their comfort zone is challenging but is essential for their learning.

So in my world, where educators call the shots, education would be underpinned by a vision. This vision would be informed by the world our young people live in rather than the politics of the moment. The prevalent discourse, which is akin to ever decreasing circles, would be displaced by thinking about education which is expansive and ambitious for the students. It would not be a world where policy initiatives jostle for position in the media.

I can but dream.