Imagine you are a stay at home mother looking after two young children. Your other half works full time and only gets to spend limited time with the children, on weekends and holidays perhaps. In the evenings, you discuss them, you talk about what they have done and said. Three snap shots:

One (1)

You: “He wants to help me with everything nowadays. He uses his little chair to get around the kitchen and help himself to biscuits. As soon as I start cooking he is on that chair, at my elbow, saying ‘Help you, Mummy?'”

Other Half: “Brilliant. He’s getting really independent, isn’t he.”

Two (2)

Other half: “He doesn’t seem to talk about his friends, does he?”

You: “No. Just the food he ate. But he does enjoy playing with them when he’s there. That will come, he’s still so little.”

OH: “Ok.”

Three (3)

You come in to the bedroom and your son is bouncing on the bed. Your other half is there and they are laughing together.

You: “That’s cute, but my rule is no jumping on the bed. You can supervise now and catch him if he falls, but he’ll do it again when I’m on my own holding a baby on one arm and then it’s too dangerous. Best if he learns not to jump on the bed at all.”

OH: “Sure. I’m sorry, son, but you heard Mummy. No jumping on the bed. That was Daddy’s mistake too, but you know the rule. Let’s go downstairs and play something else.”

In (1), the oldest child’s progress is discussed. The primary caregiver gives some feedback on the child’s latest accomplishments and the other parent beams and enjoys hearing about how his boy is growing up.

In (2), the parent expresses a concern about the child’s development from his own observation. The primary caregiver acknowledges this concern, but can put it into context from what she has seen and experienced, and can reassure the parent that this is developmental and will get better – either through blind Pollyanna-like optimism or from solid research.

In (3), there is a discrepancy between the rules of behaviour as set by the primary caregiver and those set by the other parent. The stay at home mother explains the problem, giving reasonable justifications for her initial rule, which the other parent acknowledges as valid. He apologises to his son for confusing matters and supports the primary caregivers rules by leading the child away from the undesirable activity.

Note that in none of these examples there was any request for written evidence. At no point did the other parent say: “Show me a log book of what you have done today with the children.” He does not want to go over every single detail to make sure they had their 5-a-day or that they washed their hands after being in the sandpit or that there was a good balance of activities. I am sure the two parents will have had conversations and will continue to have conversations about how they want to bring up their kids and if they have disagreements they thrash them out. But the parent who needs to work full time is placing these two precious children in his partner’s care full time because he trusts her to do a good job. He trusts her to stick to the principles of child-rearing that they both believe in and to own up if she has messed up. Then he trusts her to fix it again. He accepts that she will not always be perfect, but also trusts that she will on the whole have more good days than bad and that she will cope and do right by their children.

Feedback happens in conversation. Art work is stuck on the walls or the fridge or is proudly presented to Daddy. Mishaps and accidents are discussed afterwards or in emergencies, the other parent will be called home from work. Beliefs, morals, principles are discussed and agreed on by the parents. The finer details of what happens day to day in order to keep the children happy and turn them into well-adjusted and decent human beings are mostly left to the parent who does the majority of the childcare. The working parent is happy to hear about them beforehand or afterwards, whatever comes up or is necessary or suits them both best.

There is no quarterly test to assess the children’s progress towards happiness, well-roundedness or decent human-beingness. There is also no yearly assessment of your parenting in which you might get referred to training sessions if your result is merely ‘satisfactory’, nor will your supermarket budget be capped if you don’t make the grade.

I am sure you are starting to see through my cunning and thinly-veiled analogy by now. I am sure you will want to point out at this point that there are rather important differences between leaving your children with your wife and leaving them with a stranger – the teacher. Yes, there are:

1. You love your wife. You don’t even know the teacher. Also, you can be certain your wife loves your kids. How can you feel confident that the teacher is going do what’s best for your child when they hardly know your child?

2. How will you know what your child is being taught and whether you agree with it? You don’t know the teacher’s values, their pet hates or favourite topics, but you do know all these things about your wife and the mother of your children. You know what needs addressing and what you can put up with.

3. How will you know if it is a good or a bad teacher?

Although these are pretty big differences, they can be solved by learning from your relationship with each other as a couple, or from relationships with friends who you might trust to look after your children:

Trust is built up through relationship.
If we want parents and teachers to trust each other, to support each other’s decision and stand together for the good of the child, there needs to be a chance and an opportunity to build relationships. Parent and teacher evenings need to be social evenings where all the important people in a child’s life, with whom he or she spends a significant amount of time, come together to get to know each other and learn to trust each other’s instincts.

You choose who to trust. Choose before sending your child to a school and before employing a teacher.
When you choose a school to send your child to, you are committing to a relationship with the school. When you start a relationship with someone, you choose someone you believe you have important things in common with. Same applies to a school and by extension its teachers. If you think the school you have chosen has sound principles and respects its students, then you should be able to feel you can trust the teachers to teach your children without hovering over them and demanding proof at every turn.

More importantly, if you are a school, you should employ teachers you trust. Spend some time with them, let them teach, watch them work – if you like what you see, employ them. Then step back and let them do what they are good at. As a head teacher, an LEA, a government, you are delegating the job of teaching the children to teachers. Use your head. Let them get on with it. If you give them a job then let them do it, instead of making them spend hours of time that they could be spending preparing brilliant lessons on proving they have followed guidelines. If you don’t think you can trust someone enough to do the job – don’t give them the job.

Keep talking
You maintain trust by keeping in contact, by feeding back. The parents and the school should respect teachers enough to let them do their job – teachers should respect parents and schools enough to keep them informed, to talk to them about how the students are doing.

 

Trust teachers. Let them teach. Not only because it is the only way that they can teach, but also because trust is an important value to teach our children, and a vital building block for relationships. Model excellent relationships, and trust your teacher.

 

Mostly, the evidence is on the floor.

Mostly, the evidence is on the floor.

 

Entry 1 Aims Objectives

Setting aims and objectives for a lesson

Last Monday saw the first ever Clean Slate twitter discussion, continuing the theme of my last post: assessment. Attending the discussion were teachers of primary, secondary and further education, as well as other interested parties. That makes it sound huge, but there were seven of us, which on Twitter was quite enough for a lively discussion.

I had some questions to start up the discussion, but we ended up in all sorts of interesting places, including homework, social deprivation and how to judge teachers.

I asked if we needed assessment at all. The consensus seemed to be that we do – we need it to plan the next step in teaching, to fill in gaps and to give feedback to parents on how their child is doing. Assessment needs to be thorough, consistent and most of all relevant to the individual student – but does it need to be formal? We thought not. Teacher assessment was agreed to be most useful and accurate, as the teacher knows what the student is capable of day to day and not just on the day of the exam. In Early Years this is already the model used for measuring the children’s progress – why can’t this be implemented all through school? All it takes is putting a bit more trust in teachers. This concept was greeted with (virtual) hollow laughter by most. Apparently, teachers are not feeling very trusted currently. The amount of paperwork loaded on them suggests that it is not their word and their expertise that counts, but their recordable, measurable results.

This led us to talking about recording: how should our assessment of student progress be written down, and how much detail is needed? Although some felt that quantifying learning & progress was important, and that it was helpful to be able to present parents with a record of their child’s achievements, many of us did think that recording progress had definitely gone too far in schools. One teacher said: “Too much focus on physical evidence devalues the bit that needs to happen first. Play, language development, exploration.” And why is all this physical evidence collected? Because it is being used for performance management purposes.

This brought us back to the purpose of assessment: who are we recording for? Ourselves? Parents? School? Or Ofsted?

We ended up talking a lot about how teachers are judged, and whether we thought this was fair. At the moment, the students’ grades and achievement of targets feeds in to the teacher’s performance management, along with observation grades. Many of our possible ideas and solutions for making a change in assessment ran aground when we thought of all the ways in which teachers are monitored through students’ achievements.

I will have more to say about this in a later post, and will get back to some of the suggestions made in the Twitter discussion then, but for now I would like to say once more: when we talk about educational reform, nothing should be off the table. It is too important. Certainly, scrapping Ofsted or current funding models is on my to do list, as in their current format they seriously hold teachers back from excelling at their job.

Another interesting point that came up was students who need extra support, especially those who come from families that are not keen on school themselves, who will not help with homework because they don’t have the time, skills or resources. “Schools should be community hubs offering support for the whole child/family,” one teacher said. “Hopefully all want what’s best for the child. [It should be a place] where staff can try stuff and if it fails, hey try something new! Supported to improve own practice and innovate.” This idea of a community hub was inspiring, and other came with suggestions: “mixed age classes, classes for parents to take/teach, parent support staff on hand…”

All this made me think: what is progress? Why are we setting unilateral targets for students when they all start in different places, learn at different rates and end up at different destinations? As one teacher put it: “for some, just managing to stay in school against all odds is an achievement.”

Finally, I’d like to end with some quotes that reflect the views on education we shared:

“Education should be a cultural growth experience, not a fast food menu of facts to memorize and regurgitate, ever evolving as the culture shifts from generation to generation”

“Education is a fun learning curve, every day all of the time, not something crammed into curriculums & assessments” 

“The school belongs to the kids and their families, not to the teachers, the LEA or the DFE.”

Learning happens everywhere, in everything. We just need to get out of the way.

Learning happens everywhere, in everything. We just need to get out of the way.

Let’s do this again! Next Clean Slate discussion Monday 2 September 2013 at 8.30pm GMT. Use #cleanslate.

 

 

 

 

 

This week’s post serves as an introduction to a tricky but important topic: assessment. As with every other aspect of education I have written about on Clean Slate, once I started writing down my thoughts it turned into about five different posts. So I would like to start by asking some basic questions and trying to dig down to the most honest answers, in order to lay the foundation for a more detailed discussion in the coming weeks.

Why do we assess?

Let’s start by taking a good look at why we do it. Why do we test and grade, formatively or summatively, internally or externally? These would seem to me to be the main reasons:

1. We assess for the students’ sake

a. To give them a sense of achievement – or not
b. To help them identify how far they are along the road to mastering a skill/acquiring knowledge
c. To give them official proof of what they have learned to show to potential employers or other schools/colleges

2. We assess for our own sake as educators

Assessing. Recording. Tracking. Proving. Lots of paperwork.

Assessing. Recording. Tracking. Proving. Lots of paperwork.

Besides altruistically wanting to help students get on in life, we also assess for our own benefit. We do it:

a. To prove the students are learning

so we can

b. Prove we are good teachers

so that collectively we can

c. Prove our school is a good school

which will hopefully

d. Attract more parents to enrol their children

and all that will

e. Justify our continued existence to those who fund the school

3. We assess for the government’s sake

Teachers need to prove their worth to the school, and the school needs to prove its worth to providers of funds – mostly the government. But it doesn’t stop there. The government itself feels it has something to prove as well, and will use assessment results to compare the nation to other nations across the world. Is Britain’s population more or less literate than the population of Sweden? What is the highest level of qualification held by the majority of the population? How do our universities stack up against other universities in the world?

Why is this important?

The government pours money into education, not purely because being well-educated makes for happy, fulfilled citizens, but because it wants a return. The government educates to keep the economy going. Society functions as long as we are collectively making money to pay for all the services that we have clubbed together to provide – and these services in turn feed back into the economy. Sick and unemployed people cost the country money. Together we fund the NHS to help keep people healthy and in work (as appropriate) and together we fund schools to equip people with skills that will get them jobs, which will allow them to take part in this whole wonderful cyclical process.

The government gets nervous when people from other nations are better educated and more literate, as this may well mean that their economies will thrive, possibly at the expense of our own.

And so, the government wants numbers, it wants to measure how effective schools are, to keep its finger on the pulse. It wants to have some control over education, since it is investing in it.

Somewhere beneath this is always that other motivating factor for governments, which is staying in power. Like the teacher who hopes to prove her worth with good observation grades, the party currently in government knows that literacy rates and league tables act as report cards to show the country that it is doing a good job and that it is worth re-electing.

Are these valid reasons?

These are the main reasons why we assess students the way we do at this present time. Now we should ask ourselves, are these the ‘right’ motivations?

Perhaps the question to come back to is: why do we educate in the first place?

We educate for the students. Mostly, these are the youngest generation in society, but they can also be adults. We educate because they have discovered that they both want knowledge and because they need knowledge. They want knowledge to satisfy their curiosity, because they want to explore and understand and interact with the world as it is now, and as it could be in the future. Education leads to fulfillment. They need knowledge so they can function in society and take their place in the economy. They soon discover, as they learn about the world around them, that society is structured in a way that requires you to specialise, to become good at something, to make this your ‘job’ and earn money with it and that this allows you to make use of other people’s specialisms. Education allows you to function in society.

You see that in asking ‘why do we teach?’ we have once again ended up answering the question ‘why do we learn?’ And that is as it should be.

Our current motivations for assessment certainly feature both sides of the educational coin, then. But they are greatly biased towards the economic side of the matter. At student-level, we take into consideration their need for a sense of achievement and fulfilment, but heavily piled on top of that are the teacher-level, the school-level and the government-level. Each of these is pre-occupied with assessment as a means of self-preservation, of assuring economic well-being. Not that of the student, but that of ourselves. The teacher wants to keep her job – the school wants to stay open – the government wants to keep the economy afloat – and of course stay in power.

This balance needs to be redressed, because at the moment, assessment is killing teaching and it is killing learning. The thought of success rates strikes fear in the hearts of teachers and leads to all manner of creative accounting, teaching-to-the-test, an obsession with paperwork, half a term devoted to mock exams and setting the bar so low that students cannot possibly ever fail.

Focus on the Learner

We all know that education is about the learners. Every initiative, every policy, every training course I have ever been on, this has been the message. But somehow in practice this gets lost in a sea of paperwork. We are working so hard to prove that learning is taking place that there is no real opportunity for learning to actually take place.

So, what should be the reason we assess students, if at all?

Surely the purpose of assessment should be to check if education is successful in achieving its aims. In other words, assessment should show us whether:

a. The learners are achieving a measure of fulfilment: are they finding out about the things they are interested in? Are their lives enriched?

b. The learners are able to take their place in society: are they finding a specialism that suits their abilities and interests? Are they acquiring all the knowledge, skills and contacts needed to make this their profession?

Where to from here?

Science in the sandpit. How do we know if learning has taken place?

Science in the sandpit. How do we know if learning has taken place?

This is just the start, of course. I am sure the people and organisations who dreamed up our current system of exams, course work, target setting and benchmarks started at this very same point. In order to fix assessment, we will need to address the following issues in the coming weeks:

1. How can we eliminate ‘fear’ as a factor in assessment?

2. How can we keep assessment learner-focused and take everyone else’s interests out of the equation?

3. How can assessment be a true reflection of what students have learned?

4. If learning is tailored to the individual, and shaped around individual interests and needs, how can or should the affect standardised testing?

5. Should we be using assessment to compare learners, teachers, schools and countries? Or is that counter-productive?

6. How do you measure fulfilment? Does it need to be quantified at all?

This is just the tip of the iceberg.

I would like to invite anyone reading this with an interest in education, whether as a teacher, an innovator, a parent or a student, to join in the first Clean Slate twitter discussion on the topic of assessment on Monday 26 August at 8.30pm GMT. Please use #cleanslate to take part. Let me know your thoughts!

I would also, as always, be grateful of your considered comments below. What has your experience been of assessment in schools? How do you think things need to change (if at all) to make assessment fairer, more representative and more accurate? Should we assess at all?

Thank you for reading!

No one can deny that you are severely handicapped in the world today if you can’t read, write or work with numbers. You only have to go on holiday to Japan, or even Greece, to realise how lost an illiterate person must feel just walking along the street. What do all the signs say? How much do those pastries cost and do they have nuts in them? Have I got enough money to buy one, and if I do, will I have enough money left afterwards to get the bus back?

This looks important, but what does it say?

This looks important, but what does it say?

Reverse Psychology Works

Britain’s numeracy and literacy rates have politicians flailing in fear, battening down the hatches like terrified fathers of teenage daughters: withdrawing privileges, making rules and more rules to try and stop them going off the rails. Key Skills, Basic Skills, Functional Skills, core subjects, compulsory subjects – Maths and English are being pushed and pushed and pushed.

I don’t know about you, but my experience of children and especially of teenagers is that the harder you push, the more they resist. They get suspicious: what is the agenda? What is wrong with this thing? It must be something pretty bad if they are so keen for me to do it. Like an early bedtime or eating vegetables, adults have a way of presenting things that are good for kids that suggests they are not going to be nice or fun – and conversely, they manage to limit things that are potentially harmful in a way that implies that, really, this is the good stuff. This is what we’d all rather be doing or eating.

We need to face facts: wagging fingers and nagging rarely produce enthusiasm in children – as I found to my detriment when I recently attempted to potty train my son. After a week or so, constantly asking “Do you need the toilet? Why don’t you go to the toilet now?” produced defiance and resistance, rather than joyful compliance. Learning did not take place.  The times that he did want to sit on the toilet endlessly were at bedtime or when we were late for something and I was trying to shoo him off it.

Nonchalance makes things more mysterious. Rationing makes things more desirable. Refusing access makes things more precious than gold.  I have a friend whose tactic for interesting her toddler in new food was to put it on her own plate. When asked what it was, she would reply: “This is Mummy’s aubergine.” By the end of the meal, her daughter would be begging to try it.

When it comes to vital skills like Maths and English, I think we need to dare to back off.

Let’s not make them compulsory. Let’s not shoe-horn them into every topic that we teach. Let’s not do frantic and constant testing.

Subjects like any other

In the Sandpit School, Maths and English are treated like anything else: they are topics/areas of learning that children can be interested in or not. They will be both discreet subjects that can be learned for their own sake, and they will occur quite naturally in other areas of the school, in the same way that in History you might end up looking at paintings (Art) or in Biology you might climb trees and jump over puddles and go for long walks (PE).

The children will be able to explore Maths in the Numbers Room, where I think it would be great to have Numberjacks-style missions, where there are problems with numbers and shapes in ‘real life’ that need solving and will lead into discovering mathematical principles. Like in all other areas, if a five year old wants to know about radius or mass or how to calculate the area of a room, they can. If a nine year old wants to count beads and play hopscotch, that is fine. The teacher will make sure they know what the options are, and when asked give advice as to what they might like to explore and what would be suitable for them, but not push. Not say: “You shouldn’t be doing that at your age.” Not insist: “It’s time to learn your times table now, put that down.” Not break out into a cold sweat when they notice that Melissa (7) has never once set foot in the Maths room.

The English room will offer opportunities to read books or be read to, to write stories or shopping lists (after which you can take a little trolley back to the Numbers room to buy your wares and pay with the correct change), to do spelling and grammar games and to speak. You could write and record a radio or TV show with your friends, have a debate on school or world issues, write and perform your own poetry or interview a teacher for a magazine you are making with friends. You can come or not come, every day or once every fortnight.

The Maths and English classrooms will relate strongly to real life, but also let you delve into the subjects purely for the pleasure of exploring words or numbers – because that, too, can be fun.

Let me be clear. I am not talking about reinventing school so that we can motivate students better. I don’t want to make learning more fun. I don’t want to find new ways of icing stale bread to pass it off as a cake. I want to reinvent school by stepping out of the way. I want us to stop de-motivating. Stop sucking the fun out of things. We need to stop assuming that learning is actually boring. Children love learning. They are designed to learn and they do it naturally. From the time your child is crawling, you need to baby proof the house because they will be off exploring: what is this for? What happens when I touch this? Is this good to eat? When they are about three years old, you can’t stop them asking questions. They want to know why and how.

The key to all this is trust. We need to trust our children to develop an interest in reading, writing and mathematics by themselves, either early on because they want to or later on because they have come to realise they need to. We need to trust that they will discover a motivation to learn these two vital subjects. Let them come to you with their questions and they will listen to the answers. Badger them about Maths and English, and all they will hear is “blah blah blah”, a bit like when you tell them to put their dirty socks in the laundry basket.

Risk Assessment

I can see you all sweating now, so let’s do a Risk Assessment. Backing off: what are the risks, how serious are they and how likely are they to happen? In other words: what is the worst that could happen?

Literacy rates could drop. They might drop dramatically. Britain might fall below Third World nations in the international league tables of literacy and numeracy.

Let me ask you this: how serious would that really be? If we let small human beings – who we often point to as “the future” – decide what is important enough to explore and learn about, and they decide en masse that numbers and letters are not worth their while, then are they not shaping the future? They won’t die, they won’t starve. They will find new ways of communicating. They will invent alternatives to the written word. They are already reinventing the written word, as it happens, on smartphones. This is how the human race has functioned since it began. It finds solutions to pressing problems and then it finds better ones. At the same time, it is in our nature to resist change. So it is understandable that we want to use our schools to maintain the status quo, but that does not mean that this is the right or the only way to educate.

The potential consequences, in my view, are dramatic, but not serious.

How likely is it that Britain would become largely illiterate and innumerate if we stop pushing Maths and English? Remember, I am not suggesting we don’t teach them. I am merely saying we should let children seek them out if they are interested and not nag or punish or force them into learning what they are not ready or willing to learn yet. I think we will find that if teachers who are genuinely passionate about their subjects place tasty morsels on their own plates and eat them with visible enjoyment, 99% of children will come and ask: “What is that? Can I have some?”

If you like sport, you'll soon find a need for numbers. Especially if the sport is cricket.

If you like sport, you’ll soon find a need for numbers. Especially if the sport is cricket.

In Part 4 last week, I started thinking about the role of the teacher, but ended up focusing on mentoring and bringing a family atmosphere into school instead. So this week I really will discuss the all important topic of what the teacher’s role will be in my Sandpit School.

I have put a lot of emphasis on learning being instigated by the child in my new school. The children decide what they want to learn and when and have a great measure of freedom to explore their interests. You could be forgiven for thinking that I am arguing that teachers are redundant or even in the way. In Part 1 of Clean Slate I already go some way towards explaining how I see the teacher’s role, but I would like to go into a little more detail here.

Guide

Tourists mostly explore by themselves, but appreciate being able to consult a guide (book)

Tourists mostly explore by themselves, but appreciate being able to consult a guide (book)

In a school designed to help children explore the world and discover new interests, one of the teacher’s most important roles is that of a Guide. On arriving in a new country you have no idea what there is to see and do, so you turn to a guide (book) – someone who has lived or been there before, has many years of experience and knows their way around. Children are in effect new immigrants on earth. One of the things I love about spending my days with my two small people is that everything is new and exciting to them. They have no idea what the world has to offer and every new discovery is the best thing yet.

The teacher has the privilege of being a Tour Guide to Life. They should be a sensitive guide: not killing off the enthusiasm of their charges by their own prejudices or cynicism (“Oh you wouldn’t like medieval art, it’s a bit boring” or “Don’t bother with Arabic, you’d have to learn all the special letters. It’s too difficult.”) but hanging back long enough to find out what each child is like in order to get a good idea of what they might enjoy. The Guide lets tourists spend as long as they like exploring an old ruin, even if they have seen it many times before themselves, but then knows when to suggest moving on to another location so they don’t miss out on other fantastic sights.

Expert

When you are discovering a new interest, you can get quite far on your own. Let’s say you have heard of archeology and you decide to get a spade and have a go at it in your own garden. You have fun digging and finding. Perhaps you dig up some objects which you then take inside and start to examine. You can decide what you think they are and how old they are and what they are made of, using your own current limited knowledge. But there will come a point – and mostly people come to this point all by themselves – where they will want to look up more information. Most of us go on the Internet and will Google: “old pot with two handles” to see what comes up. We might go to the library and find some books on archeology. Some of us might be lucky enough to have friends, relatives or acquaintances who have some experience in the field and we can show them our find and ask them about it. These experts will either be able to gives us answers or give us good tips on where the answers can be found.

The teacher as expert provides these avenues of broadening the child’s knowledge and experience. Firstly, by providing a classroom that is equipped for self-study. It will have folders with fact files, relevant books and posters and computers or tablets with which children can access the Internet. The teacher can assist where needed by helping with these peripheral but essential research skills. Secondly, the teacher will themselves be the expert, who can provide answers when asked or point the child in the direction of where the answers can be found.

The teacher as expert is sensitive to where the child is at and is responsive rather than intrusive. Some people are happy just digging in the garden. If, even after a long wait, even after other junior archeologists have come and shared what they have found out, even after the expert has shown them pictures of dig-sites and examples of what you can discover with a bit of research, a child is still just happy digging in the garden, then let them. Closer inspection may reveal that their interest was not in archeology at all, but in dogs, or mini beasts, or gardening. The teacher can then gently encourage them to go and do some more exploring in the Biology Wilderness, for example.

Lecturer/Story teller

The two roles I have outlined so far are very hands-off. They involve a lot of preparation before school starts in setting up rooms, but very little traditional “teaching” while a session is in progress. However, I definitely see a place for direct transference of information from teacher to students en masse, not just one-to-one on demand. Everyone has their preferences when it comes to learning. There are plenty of children who benefit greatly from sitting down and listening to someone tell great stories. Not just fiction, but great stories such as “What is courage?” and “Who was Leonardo da Vinci?” and “What is a chemical reaction?”. Sitting down and listening in itself is a skill worth learning for everyone and it will get you far in life. It also provides some structure to an otherwise very free learning environment.

So in the Sandpit School, there could be set times in the day or week when you can go and listen to great stories being told by people who know their stuff. These will be the teachers, because the teachers are experts on their subjects, but they can also be visiting speakers. Children can ask questions and get involved, and these, too, will be occasions to both discover potential new interests and go deeper into the topics that already fascinate you.

Advisor

Mary: a child learning about nature through experimentation.

Finally, when a session is coming to an end, the teacher once again becomes your tour guide, advising you where you might like to go next based on what you have seen so far. If you are in the English room and you have just started reading The Secret Garden, the teacher might suggest you go to the school garden next to find snow drops or plant flowers – or perhaps to the History Room to find out what clothes Mary might have been wearing. If you are in the kitchen and you have been baking pancakes, you might ask the teacher why the syrup has made your hands sticky. The teacher would then suggest going to the Questions Lab for your next session to do experiments and find out more.

The teacher as advisor is sensitive, and gives advice when asked, based on what genuinely seems to flow from the child’s current projects – not from a desperate need to create reasons to send them to the Maths room.

Your Turn

What else do you think a teacher should or should not aim to do in a curriculum guided by the students?

Welcome back to Clean Slate! Let’s recap with:

The Story so far

In Part 1, we looked at motivation as the key factor in learning.

In Part 2, I suggested school should be structured to allow pupils to explore and pursue their interests.

In Part 3, I imagined the Sandpit School and sketched an example ‘class room’/session.

And so we arrive at Part 4, which you see before you. I started writing about the role of the teacher, but found there were so many other sub-topics lurking that I would need to split this into several posts. Today is about the teacher as mentor, and about providing children with a safe base at school. I realise that a lot of my ideas on learning so far have been very individual and that they might result in a child seeing different people at each lesson he goes to on a given day, which wouldn’t provide much in the way of continuity. So here is my suggestion.

A Surrogate Family

At my hypothetical Sandpit School, children would start the day with half an hour in a ‘home’ group, with their mentor. They are encouraged to regard their group as a ‘family’, a ‘house’ or a ‘team’. Many children come from warm, loving families already – hopefully the home group will simply serve to help them recognise school as familiar and safe. For those children whose home lives are less than ideal, who don’t have a place where they feel unconditionally loved, the home group could become the one place in the world where there are people who will look out for you and support you, like in a family. And like in a family, the children in your group will be of all different ages and stages in the school. The older ones can help the younger ones if they are struggling – with school work, practicalities, or with life.

The teacher who acts as mentor for the group is responsible for the well-being of their charges in the school. The children will see their mentor every day, regardless of the subjects they choose to explore, and hopefully the mentor will become someone they trust enough to turn to with any issues at school or at home – a bit like a parent.

The Desired Outcome

The mentor is responsible for helping the home group to be a model of what family can and should be:

1. A place of acceptance
2. A safe place
3. A place you can come to for guidance and advice

Like in a family, not everyone will get on all the time, not everyone will be close friends with everyone, but the home group will stick together. If you are five years old and lost, a member of your home group will be a friendly face to help you back to your class. If you are getting bored of dinosaurs but don’t know where to start with discovering a new interest, your mentor knows you well enough to suggest you go to the Questions Lab to find out about fire, or you can talk to another student and ask them what they have done that was good.

Ultimately, if done right, the home group will help children (especially those who do not get this from their own parents and siblings) to leave school with a positive blue print for family-style relationships that they can implement in their own lives. Even if home for them was a place of terror and neglect, they will have this supportive group and supportive teacher to look back on to inspire them to create a better life for their own children.

How to make it happen

Everybody needs a place like this. It is human nature to seek out or create a group of people who are like family and stick with them through thick or thin.

This is why young people get involved in football teams, or school plays.

This is why teenagers end up in gangs.

They want to be a part of a group that cares, that protects its members, that shares a common goal and has in-jokes they can laugh at that nobody else understands. Us against the world.

The best families provide this for their children. If we give our children acceptance, safety and guidance, they will still look for their own groups and teams, but these groups won’t replace the family, merely supplement it.

So how do you get a group of children of various ages to become a team, a home, a family?

1. They need to have time together: besides half an hour at the start of each day, home groups could reconvene at the end of the day to chat about what they have done and get ready to go home. There could be an a time slot each week for home groups to meet together for longer. Time is the baseline, without time together it will never work.

Families go to the supermarket together and do the washing up.

Families go to the supermarket together and do the washing up.

2. They need to share a common goal and cooperate to achieve it: during sports days or other school-wide events the home groups will function as teams and compete against each other. This plays into the sports/football analogy. During their weekly slot, home groups could work on a big collaborative project that will be displayed to the school. It could be a play, or a craft project, or a big display or experiment. They could make a film together or write a magazine. This plays into the drama analogy. These kinds of big scale events and projects are the hot house in which group cohesion is cultivated. (I would advise against learning from the gang example, though…)

3. They need to share both special and every day moments: families have holidays together, they celebrate birthdays and Sunday lunches. They appear in photographs together, smiling and wearing silly hats. They share jokes and poke fun at each other. They play games and watch TV together. They hang out the laundry and mow the lawn. The home group can decide to have breakfast together in the mornings before sessions start. They bring cakes for birthdays and have parties to celebrate each other’s achievements. This is the glue that holds a family together.

What was your safe place as a child? How do you think school can help give children positive blueprints for family life? How can you encourage a supportive environment in a group of children of various ages? Help me improve my ideas!


Clean Slate
Catch up

For those of you who missed the first two instalment (tsk, skiving, were you?), here is a brief recap of the conclusions I have come to so far:

In Let’s start at the very beginning we established that motivation is the key factor in learning, and that people (not just children) are motivated to learn by (1) what interests them; (2) what is necessary to achieve their goals and (3) what they need to know to survive. This led me to conclude that the curriculum in the New School should be determined by children’s interests and that we need to let go of our obsession with prescribing what children should learn, and when, and in what order.

In How to structure a school, I suggest that it is ‘interests’ that should also be the guiding principle for school structure. The first phase of education should focus on widening children’s horizons and helping them explore and learn about as wide a variety of topics as possible, in order to establish what they are interested in. The second phase should maintain this, but increasingly shift towards narrowing focus and specialising, guided by the child’s ambitions for the future.

In part 3 today, I will look at what a school building might look like, and what lessons would be like, if the guiding principle was exploration and widening horizons.

The Sandpit

Yep. You didn’t think I’d reinvent school without involving a sandpit, did you?

IMG_8250sReally, the concept I am borrowing for my school-design is more properly called sandbox, and it is a style of computer game design. A sandbox game, rather than leading the player along a story line he can’t deviate from, allows the user to explore the world of the game in any way and order he likes, creating his own story. A very good example of a sandbox game is called Neverwinter Nights: the game has a linear story that you can pursue if you wish. However, you are equally free to completely ignore it and explore the world by yourself, meeting characters, going on quests, meeting other players and going on missions with them. Best of all, this game has a toolkit which allows you to build your own lands and quests for other users: you can do more than just play in the sandbox, you can adapt it and create new parts of it yourself.

How would this concept translate to a school?

The way I am imagining the new school is as a complex with inside and outside areas dedicated to particular topics. These could be traditional ‘school subjects’, but the lines delineating these could equally be re-drawn. The school day would be split up into a number of sessions (I’m thinking four), and children could choose which area to visit for each session with some guidance from a teacher. More about the school day and choosing sessions next week.

Quests in the Sandpit

Let me sketch for you how I imagine a session in The Sandpit School might look.

There could be an outside area (a bit of woodland, a cultivated wilderness or garden, whatever is most suitable and feasible in the school’s location) which is dedicated to exploring nature. It is safe and enclosed, the children can’t get out by themselves and they are supervised. There is a hut where you can find folders and books with pictures and information about the local wildlife, to which children can add their own fact sheets and photographs. The hut also has digital cameras, binoculars, camouflage clothing, fishing nets, jars for collecting specimens, notebooks, pencils, some laptops and a printer and dictaphones. There will be three or four adults in this area, two teachers and two teaching assistants, for instance.

Discovering nature

Discovering nature

When children go to this area for a session, they can either choose to explore a topic of their own choosing in small groups, or they can join in a ‘teaching expedition’, led by one of the teachers. Topics could include bird watching, mini beasts, growing vegetables or flowers in a garden area, bees, animal tracks, life cycle of a frog, photosynthesis, ecosystems or the water cycle, to name but a few. Choosing the small group option would be like going on a quest that interests you with a group of similarly inclined players. The teaching expedition would be like following the story line the game designers have prepared for you. The small groups who go exploring together would have children of various ages in them, and the older children would be encouraged to take some responsibility for the younger ones and help them on the quest. The teacher who is not on the expedition and the teaching assistants/parent volunteers would roam around the area, keeping an eye on the independent groups of children to keep them safe, help them if they get stuck and be available to answer questions.

Your turn now! In the comments, maybe you’d like to imagine other areas and sessions. What would the History room be like? The English room? Could there be a little train running around the whole complex, or would there be system of little indoor/outdoor roads that children could travel along with bikes/toy cars/tricycles, to practise road safety? Give me your ideas! And as always, please feel free to violently disagree with the whole idea.