Tag Archives: independent thought

Living a life worth living – the importance of guidance in schools

I had a conversation recently with an American scientist about the importance of offering young people an insight into the burgeoning field of bioscience. Why? In the States students do not learn about biological science until they reach the equivalent of our sixth form when arguably they have already determined their area of study for Higher Education. And for her this area of science is so important because it addresses global health issues such as malaria and HIV/AIDS – young people should be inspired to pursue a career in this critical area of scientific research.

In pursuit of this aim she and others established the BioQuest Academy 10 years ago to offer an outreach opportunity for students. Situated in Seattle, this not for profit enterprise has provided extraordinary laboratory experience to young people in the States and across the world. Such immersion in cutting edge bioscience has now a proven track record of inspiring young people to study the subject at a higher level. Yet by its very nature this wonderful opportunity is limited to those students able to take advantage of it.

How to offer guidance in schools for a future awash with opportunities – many as yet unknown – is a real challenge in any country. Indeed, Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, struggled to address this issue when questioned by the Commons Education Select Committee last month. Having axed Connexions as a guidance provider, there is now no clear framework to support guidance in schools. Yet to be fair, even with Connexions, schools were struggling to connect with the future.

The challenge to offer quality guidance is huge. However, if the focus of a school is inspiring students to aspire aligned with developing the capacity for independent thought, the groundwork is being done. It is interesting to observe that the Shadow Education Minister, Tristram Hunt, believes that the league table, target driven culture developed by the previous government resulted in a lack of aspiration in schools. Schools became so focused on the examination process they arguably lost sight of their broader educational purpose. In such circumstances the metric is everything – you can measure a grade, you can’t measure inspiration.

Yet there are those in the wider world who are keen to open the minds of young people to the possibilities out there. Within our school community we have drawn on the expertise and knowledge of parents, alumni and friends of the school. With our now well-established Inspire Me programme, we offer our students an insight into the lives of individuals at different stages of their career. As with the BioQuest initiative, we know anecdotally that this programme is making a difference. Indeed I should like to take the opportunity to record formally my thanks to Cambridge entrepreneur Sherry Coutu who has created an excellent network of like-minded people tasked with visiting schools to share their experiences. Building on the success of Silicon Valley Comes to UK – certainly transformative in our school – Sherry oversaw the setting up of a database of volunteers all prepared to give generously of their time. @Founders4School is a fantastic resource which I thoroughly recommend.

However, the rub is finding time in a hectic school schedule to offer such guidance. The level of prescription is such that ironically the very reason why young people attend school is lost – their future. Of course offering inspiration is not enough – guidance needs to create the link between aspiration and the learner profile of a student. And effective guidance will come at a cost because individuals rarely fit neatly into boxes.

The debate around education and qualifications is literally academic unless it is linked with the future lives of our young people. Rather than viewing them as potential worker bees contributing to our economy, let’s see them as the individuals they are and seek to inspire them to live a life worth living.

Students deserve a better vision for education

Are schools able to set the priorities that they know are fitting for students for now, rather than they might have been for 25 years ago? Teachers are in perhaps the most powerful position in the world. They personally shape the life experiences of the next generation. Students and teachers deserve a vision. Actually, it is more – the change our young people are facing demands a coherent vision for education – and not one that is dominated by some form of assessment metric.

For those of us subsumed in the everyday life of a school it is all too easy to become caught up with the mechanics of education. The curriculum, timetable and qualifications are often how school life is triangulated. It was ever thus – certainly my schooling fitted neatly into this particular educational hierarchy.

Curriculum and qualifications are currently the meat and drink of our national debate. Much blogging and tweeting captures the lively discussions taking place in this very familiar fulcrum. Very familiar indeed. Canon of knowledge, standards, employability litter the discourse on education. Yet, what we hear less about is arguably most important – how are we preparing our young people as learners for a future which will have a landscape marked at least as much by the unknown as the known?

As we see the technological revolution unfold around us, we lack a road map for this future. The old verities which have traditionally dominated school life are not enough to prepare our young. Their lives will be characterised by change driven on remorselessly by innovation and invention. Surely learning must be about the development of the whole child to ensure they are properly prepared for their world and not just prepped for a set of examinations? After all, life itself is not a set of exam papers where you pass or fail.

As the century progresses, the pace of change is, if anything, increasing exponentially. The capacity to think and more importantly to think differently is critical. Education must be about learning in a way which transcends the conventional metrics : it must also aim to encourage a range of literacies which can otherwise be lost in the melee of schemes of work and specifications. To the twin metrics of English literacy and numeracy should be added amongst others scientific, digital, cultural and visual literacy. In this way an individual is well placed to interact with and interrogate their world in a meaningful way and ensures a young person is properly equipped for their life journey.

The challenge for today’s educators is to lift their focus from the inevitable granular character of our national obsession with measurement, to the future which is broad brushed and uncertain. I do not underestimate this challenge but surely to constrain our debate as we habitually do is failing to educate the next generation in a way which is right for them and their lives in tomorrow’s world.

To find out more about what this vision means, the full animation is available here.

A vision for learning - animation introduction

A vision for learning – full animation

Education – it’s all about the economy isn’t it?

What price education? There are of course a range of responses to this question. Currently the approach to education in this country is driven by the demands of the economy – we need young people who have basic literacy and numeracy skills, and those who aspire to Higher Education must pay for the privilege.

It was therefore striking and refreshing to have this view robustly challenged – not in this country but in South Africa. Novelist and academic JM Coetzee’s foreword to University of Cape Town fellow Professor John Higgins’s new book, a series of essays on “Academic Freedom in a Democratic South Africa” , captures succinctly a view premised on the public good.

“You argue – cogently – that allowing the transient needs of the economy to define the goals of higher education is a misguided and short-sighted policy: indispensable to a democratic society – indeed, to a vigorous national economy – is a critically literate citizenry competent to explore and interrogate the assumptions behind the paradigms of national and economic life reigning at any given moment. Without the ability to reflect on ourselves… we run a perennial risk of relaxing into complacent stasis.”

Coetzee’s primary concern is the absolute importance of the humanities which should not require special pleading to maintain their status within the life of a university. Whilst absolutely agreeing with the principle at the heart of this approach, it is not applicable to Higher Education alone. I believe this broader concept of what learning is for should underpin our approach to education in schools.

With a government which appears ever more obsessed with systems and measurement, our national debate on education becomes ever more reductionist. The lives of children are segmented into qualifications with a National Curriculum, itself a subject of some controversy, not mandatory for schools which are Academies or Free Schools. And as yet another government policy proposal is tweeted about ever before any proper consultation has taken place, educators are looking anxiously over their shoulders. For me, the triumph of process over vision in education is actually quite shocking.

The importance of educating a “critically literate citizenry” should be the Lode Star for a government of any political persuasion because our world is changing exponentially. We live in a time where the world is being transformed by the digital revolution, a revolution which has effectively sidestepped the conventional gatekeepers to information. The “anytime, anywhere” character of our lives made possible by digital technology is hugely exciting creating extraordinary opportunities.

But it also has a darker side. Those of us working in schools are very familiar with this. Whilst the press has focused on the perceived dangers of social media, there is also the realisation that the World Wide Web is the Wild West where everyone and anyone has a platform for better or ill. The instinct of adults is to try and protect young people from such unfiltered information. Any responsible school will operate some kind of screening to provide a learning Eco system which is balanced and responsible. However, the web exists outside of school where even the most careful of parents will struggle to police this particular Augean Stables.

As an independent school, we have the space to determine our own education philosophy. For us, in a time of rapid change, we believe absolutely in the concept of educating a “critically literate citizenry”. The vital importance of critical thinking – rarely mentioned in our national debate – is a prerequisite for anyone being educated in the digital age. With the emphasis on league tables and concomitant focus required from schools on this metric, it is quite possible that a young person can leave school with a clutch of good grades but frankly an inability to think independently. Indeed, we have received feedback from HE Admissions’ tutors who despair of candidates from very successful schools with a starry “A” profile yet cannot respond to questioning which takes them out of their specification comfort zone.

This is not an either/or issue. We believe strongly that students can achieve the necessary results to support their life chances but this need not be at the expense of their broader education. In the end, this is about what we value. And our school values a holistic approach to learning which is about the development of the individual. In the sound and fury surrounding education debate in this country, it is timely to remember the importance of educating the individual who must be critically literate in our brave new technological world.

Has the school library a future in the digital age?

The concept of a school library in a digital age is challenging. With the capacity to download books onto a range of digital devices there is every possibility the library could look superfluous to youngsters growing up today. Why would you want to visit a room which is essentially about storage and distribution?

This question has exercised the mind of my school because senior school students are already equipped with iPads. We had to consider what for many teachers is the unthinkable – is the library an anachronism? A resource to be discarded as no longer fit for purpose?

If we view the library as purely a function of lending books this is indeed the case. However, we felt very strongly that the library is more than a facilitating process – it has cultural significance which matters. The library can inspire. It is with good reason that the great Library of Alexandria is remembered today as a fulcrum of intellectual curiosity and invention. It was here that Archimedes invented the screw-shaped water pump; Eratosthenes measured the diameter of the Earth, and Euclid discovered the rules of geometry.

The Renaissance witnessed the exponential growth in libraries with the invention of printing. What interests me is not just the explosion of the printed word but the inspirational library spaces created to curate them. The Vatican Library is illustrative of the artistry of the Renaissance and the sense that this is not just a repository for books but an iconic crucible for learning. This grand purpose underpins the modern British Library which offers the visitor a unique experience.

So what does this mean for a school? It means a great deal. It is my belief that the library has the capacity to enjoy its own renaissance. Because of the digital revolution it is no longer just about the printed book. As a space, it is about inspiring young people.

The design brief for the libraries in our junior and senior schools is premised on inspiration. In the junior school the task was to create a space all about the power of the story. The story courtyard complements a room which is configured to invite children to engage and explore. It invites them into a world all about the imagination. In both spaces there will be cultural signifiers – the lamp post in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” or a disappearing White Rabbit. Signifiers referencing children’s literature which are integral to the power of the story.

 A corner of a cabinet, painted by Frans II Francken in 1636


A corner of a cabinet, painted by Frans II Francken in 1636

The senior school library continues the journey. Here we aim to combine the power of the story with a concept premised on the Cabinet of Curiosities. Curiosity in its purest sense where a student’s learning is entirely unrelated to examination specifications and is encouraging learning for its own sake. The first Cabinet being mooted relates to an evening next term where the films of Charlie Chaplin will provide both entertainment and a cultural reference point. Our Curator of the Cabinet of Curiosities is tasked with supporting this with the curation of a range of objects which will stimulate interest and encourage inquiry. Our approach is unashamedly about inspiring a love of learning.

The digital age therefore far from sounding the death knell of school libraries offers schools an opportunity to create their own distinctive library space. Libraries have a history of offering inspiration – they also have a future.