Tag Archives: inspire

Stick or carrot – what matters in education

As the mercury hits 30 degrees, and schools finally breath a collective sigh of relief at the end of term, the government makes its latest summer announcement. And it was hot. Proposed baseline testing for 5 year olds and secondary ready testing at age 11. Wow! Each child, including children with special needs, will be ranked against each other. Clear, straightforward and necessary to ensure pupil progress. Or is it?

I am loath to react to this latest “good” idea and instead would like to respond based on my experience as a teacher and latterly principal. Integral to the learning of a child is engagement with that learning. The best model of education is one where children learn effortlessly because they are immersed in their learning. Teachers are placed on their mettle because this model is without a doubt a pedagogical challenge. There needs to be real inspirational teaching as well as a focus on the needs of individuals.

Our junior school pushed the boundaries of its curriculum at the end of the summer term in a way which was challenging for staff. A collapsed timetable, a visit to the Harry Potter studios, and an entirely new learning environment was created. At one point, after a chemistry lesson on potions, a year 4 girl was overheard to say that she did not realise she was learning. A raptor demonstration was both about the owls at Hogwarts and the life of the owl in real life. And the Howlers produced on the iPads captured the digital skills of the children and their love of “telling off” Harry Potter style. The children were both actively engaged with and enjoying their learning.

Within the fabric of the junior school we believe that we need to create inspirational spaces. Our aim to inspire our pupils to embrace the power of the story is manifest in the reconfiguration of our junior school library. Adjacent to a room which is designed to encourage children to relax and read is a story courtyard with cultural references to classics in children’s literature. We seek to pique the interest of our pupils – incite curiosity. The signature “Lion, the witch and the wardrobe” lamp post acts as a focal point of the courtyard.

And inspiration is crucial. The focus on assessment fails to acknowledge the importance of inspiring children to believe in themselves and to believe they can dream. The proposed benchmark testing leaves little space for encouraging self belief. The child is pigeon holed and marked as a percentile of his/her cohort which I find profoundly depressing.

The debate about standards in education rages around us. Of course, we care that our children achieve their true potential. But the blunt instrument of testing is akin to using a stick without carrot. Assessment is an essential element in education. Yet to use this tool on its own without acknowledging the importance of inspiration in learning in the class room is for the government to fall into its own Gradgrindian trap.

League tables are all well and good but if they don’t measure what we value – the individual – then we need to take a long, hard look at their function. The individual trumps every time for me.

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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.

Learning service or Service-Learning?

The Duke of Wellington was famously credited with asserting that the Battle of Waterloo (1815) was won “on the playing fields of Eton”.  Well, in his own twenty first century way, Jesse Norman, Conservative MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire, Old Etonian, and acquaintance of Johnson clan (various), has claimed another famous victory for his Alma Mater. Defending the preponderance of fellow Old Etonians in the government, Mr Norman declared that Eton uniquely promoted an ethos of commitment to public service:
“(Eton) is one of the few schools where the pupils really do run vast chunks of the school themselves. So they don’t defer in quite the same way; they do think there’s the possibility of making change through their own actions.”

Umm. Apart from smacking a little of “Lord of the Flies”, this highly personal view of Mr Norman’s own education does a great disservice to schools in both the maintained and independent sectors. Schools across the land may not all have the playing fields of Eton (probably been sold off), but they do have what matters more – a community. And the best school communities will have what can be simply described as a heart, promoting a sense of social responsibility and service within the school and beyond. Whilst the government metric for success in schools focuses on examination performance and league tables, much of the fantastic work of our young people goes under the radar. Schools value it because teachers working with young people understand that school is not just about examination success.

Interestingly governments in other countries share this belief. In the U.S. for example there is a commitment to what is described as Service-Learning:

“Service-Learning is a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.”

Underpinning this is a range of activities familiar to us yet valued in a way unfamiliar in our system. Service-Learning is not about short term volunteerism or extra curricular bolt ons. It is about integrating this approach into the curriculum:

“If school students collect trash from an urban stream bed, analyse their findings to determine the possible sources of pollution, and share the results with residents of the neighborhood, they are engaging in Service-Learning. In addition to providing an important service to the community, students are learning about water quality and laboratory analysis, developing an understanding of pollution issues, and practising communications skills. They may also reflect on their personal and career interests in science, the environment, public policy or other related areas. Both the students and the community have been involved in a transformative experience.” ( http://www.servicelearning.org )

Looking through the prism of this model it is striking that the desired learning outcomes are not subject to assessment in a sense we would understand. Service-Learning strives to promote a greater understanding and awareness of the place of a young person in their world and their own sense of responsibility.

If we insist on only valuing what we can measure in this country, let’s think about measurement in a way which takes account of our own version of Service-Learning. After all, Michael Gove believes teachers should create their own curriculum in the future. Surely this offers an opportunity to build on the excellent practice which already exists in our schools. Who knows? We may find future generations of young people from a range of backgrounds and schools aspiring to serve in government because they know through their experience that they can make a difference through learning  Service-Learning.

Mr Michael Gove – let me introduce Sir Ken Robinson.

Tin hats on. Michael Gove has stirred up another hornet’s nest, this time about school holidays (too long) and the school day (too short). Gove attracted the epithet “Gove the Holiday Snatcher” in one of the red tops – a topical reference to Lady Thatcher who, as the Education Secretary, assumed the role of pantomime villain when she was dubbed the ‘Milk Snatcher’ for ending school milk for children.

It is difficult to know how to interpret Gove’s most recent pronouncement. He did not so much open a debate as unleash a cacophony of noise. Gove’s now trade mark tendency of making grandiloquent statements with little reference to an evidence base underpinned his declaration on school holidays. Twitter, where embedded teachers engage in virtual guerrilla warfare against Gove, was on red alert as outraged educators hissed and booed Gove’s latest hobby horse. An inconvenient truth quickly emerged. A document, collated by the European Commission listing term dates in every country in Europe, went viral. It placed this country near the top of Gove’s new league table of countries with the shortest holidays. So if the UK had to think again about school holidays because of the perceived educational advantage of students in Asia then so too had our European neighbours – who, to the best of my knowledge, are not beating this particular drum.

As someone who would value debate about the best configuration of school terms for learning, I find Gove’s intervention really unhelpful. A political approach elicits a political response. And without a doubt, the simplicity of Gove’s panacea in response to a complex set of educational issues can only be explained as the thinking of a politician.

Anyone actively involved in education knows that the physical corralling of students in a classroom does not necessarily equate to learning. Learning is not a mechanical process to be packaged and measured by length of service in schools. Indeed with the digital revolution transforming our lives, it can be argued that the Pandora’s Box is open and learning has escaped its physical footprint. If this is indeed the case, discussions about length of school terms become, at best, about child care and, at worst, a very twentieth century preoccupation.

Yet again it seems to me that Gove is posing the wrong question. And he is hugely underestimating the importance of time outside of formal schooling in the development of a young person. Children do not stop learning just because of location. With the right mindset, learning is everywhere.

Yet herein lies the rub. The curriculum proposals favoured by Michael Gove are characterised by weight of knowledge to the detriment of developing the attributes of a successful learner. The generation of school children entering schools in the second decade of the twenty first century should be engaging in an educational journey which takes them beyond the constraints of a very English curriculum. Our global inter connectedness is an important feature of our lives and will be integral to theirs.

Thankfully there are other voices contributing to the educational debate. Sir Ken Robinson (@SirKenRobinson) enjoys an international reputation for his work on the importance of creativity in education. For him creativity is important for the economy, culture and personal growth particularly in our inter connected world. Indeed his efforts to persuade the previous incumbents of the Department of Education of the importance of creativity in learning were politely rebuffed. Yet his views have become a meme of our age, his talks on the highly regarded TED Talks watched by millions across the world. At the very least there should be some engagement with this thinking in our own national debate. Rather than – dare I say – a very uncreative discussion about length of school terms.

watch here: Sir Ken Robinson on creativity