Part 1: Let’s start at the very beginning

Posted: June 18, 2013 in Curriculum, Fixing school
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Let’s start at the very beginning, as Julie Andrews tells us it is a very good place to start. I think any discussion about school and education needs to start with:


Why do we learn? Disregarding the fact that we are usually coerced by external forces (parents, government): why do we decide to learn about something? I have narrowed it down to three possible motivating factors:

1. It is necessary for survival

2. It is necessary to achieve our goals

3. We are interested

Learning about construction

Learning about construction

We can see these three motivations at work in our children all the time. There has been some discussion in the field of language acquisition about the reason behind the language learning window (the age at which you will learn a language fluently) being so early on in life, and the assumption is that it is necessary to learn to communicate for survival. I am sure this is true: when you are too short to reach the fridge, how will you get your supplies unless you can ask “Milk, Mummy?” The second motivator I can see at work in my daughter as I type. Her goal: reaching Daddy’s shoes. How will she get there? She must learn to crawl.

It is the third factor, interest, that I find the most beautiful to see. It flows from our individuality. I have loved seeing my son grow up and develop preferences, learning to choose: I like this but I don’t like that. The things he likes, he has an insatiable hunger for. He wants to find, practice, rehearse, explore and celebrate them. His favourite is still numbers. He spots them on the signs over supermarket aisles and calls them out, spurring me on to find the next number in the series. A walk down a long street is interesting because he finds that each house has a number: there’s 21 and there’s 23. But Mummy, where is 22? This prompts a discussion on house numbers, the postal system and odd and even numbers. He searches for and spots numbers and letters in every day life, encountering numeracy and literacy in their natural habitat.

Child-led vs adult-led curriculum

When I was teaching, the question we were always asking ourselves was: how can we get the students interested in what we want to teach them? To start the new education, we need to turns this around. How can we teach what children are interested in learning? Children are intrinsically motivated: we need to learn not to squash this, but to help them with our experience and knowledge to learn what they want and need to know.

Now I can hear you shouting: But Judith, there are things they have to know! They will not be able to function in society if they can’t read or write or do basic maths! Maybe your son loves numbers and letters at 2 years old, bully for you, but my son’s main interest is bashing things with a large stick!

First of all: chill out.

Second of all: remember that there are three motivating factors. Maybe maths and English don’t immediately feature in every child’s interests (though it may be there if you look more closely), but it will become clear to them that they are necessary for survival (to quote Michael Macintyre: “Now, if you can’t remember four numbers, you can’t buy food.”) and for achieving their short and long term goals.

Writing numbers on the pavement with chalk: unprompted, untaught

Writing numbers on the pavement with chalk: unprompted, untaught

If you wait, they will get to a point where they want to know. We must let go of the idea that children have to learn certain things at a certain time, in a set order. We also need to trust our children. As I said before: they have been designed for learning. They want to learn. Their in-built motivation will eventually lead them to the things they need to know.

A set curriculum, that prescribes what needs to be learned in what order, squashes motivation. If we are anxiously trying to cram in our own targets for our children, diverting them away from what they are naturally exploring at the time, we will be harming the possibility of them becoming interested in the things we so desperately want them to learn. Perhaps initially, the National Curriculum was drawn up sensibly, by studying what children need to know to survive and achieve their goals, observing at what ages they learn which skills, observing the stages that they go through before they are secure in certain skills, and recording these. Recording is fine, it helps us see what is usually the case. But you cannot use this to prescribe how every child must learn. If anything, the observation that children tend to go through certain stages to get to certain points, and observing that they tend to have certain interests at certain ages, should give us the confidence to trust children, to take a step back and let them discover what they want to learn about at each stage.

We should be brave enough to let go of this fixation on controlling the order in which skills are learned, and on everyone needing to learn the same thing at the same time.

What is our role as teachers and parents?

I am saying we need to trust our children. However, I am not saying that we have no part to play. We are older. We have experienced and learned more than our children. We are a tremendous resource in our children’s learning – and they know this. Why else would they be driving you to distraction asking you questions all day long? “Why does that man have no hair? Can you eat a shoe? Why are the sun and the moon in the sky at the same time? What is colour?”

So again, children are designed to learn. They are intrinsically motivated. They naturally explore and experiment. And they naturally consult experts. This, again, is something we need to harness in the new education. We need to build on this and not undermine their natural reliance and trust by saying: “Stop asking silly questions and do this worksheet, we’re doing long division today.”

Here is what we can do:

1. We can provide varied experiences and environments that allow children to discover what they are interested in.

2. We can and must use our life experience to guide children in what is necessary for survival. Children have no concept of what might be dangerous and this is one thing you don’t want them to learn the hard way. We don’t need to schedule lessons about road safety though – while we take children out into the world to have those varied experiences, there will be roads. This is when they learn about crossing them.

3. We can help children break down their goals to see what it is they need to learn in order to achieve them. And don’t try to sneak maths in if it isn’t there, I saw that! Maths crops up all by itself in practically everything. You don’t need to cheat.

4. We can offer extensions of what the child is doing to expand what they are discovering. If they are pouring water into containers, you might ask which cup has more water in it. If they are playing with a tape measure, you could offer your foot for measuring, and then suggest measuring the child’s foot. However, if they insist that no, it is a snake, the correct response is: “Well hello Mr Snake.”

5. We can encourage their interests, whatever they are. Even if it is bashing things with sticks, as long as they are not breaking precious things or people, they can learn from it: how thick a stick needs to be before it won’t break when bashed against a tree, what else a stick can be used for (digging, prodding, pole vaulting), collecting more of them to build a hut or a fire, using one each for sword fighting and playing knights etc.

5. We can answer their questions seriously. Yes, it is cute when children ask crazy questions, and it is fun for us to give them a funny answer, but they really do want to know why. This is the start of an interest. We need to foster and encourage interests. If you respond to questions about the human body, about flowers and about the rain in all seriousness, you have the start of a biology lesson.

Let’s recap

There are many more questions to answer, of course. I am sure you want to tell me that we need to do more teaching than I have just outlined. You will want to ask me about how this works in a formal education setting. How you can teach a million different subjects at once without having one teacher to each student and a classroom the size of the world. You’ll want to say this is all well and good for three year olds but that this method is too slow for a sixteen year old to learn what he needs to know for his GCSEs.

Again: chill out. We’ll get there. This is only part one.

To sum up, this is as far as we have got with reimagining education today:

Children are intrinsically motivated to learn what they need to survive, to achieve their goals and to satisfy their curiosity.

Children recognise adults as valuable resources in their learning.

You can trust children to become interested in the things they need to know at some point.

It is not necessary for all children to learn the same skills at the same time or in the same order.

Join in the discussion! Leave me comments, and let me know if you want to contribute by writing something or linking up.


Many thanks to Helen Braid for creating this awesome logo!


  1. blueberetmum says:

    That is very interesting especially when I think about my own education system that was very rigid and focussed on cramming in as much as possible …Peanut way tot young for us to have to think about schools and education yet but it is a very interesting read!

    • judithkingston says:

      Thanks! How did you experience school – did you enjoy it?

      • blueberetmum says:

        I enjoyed the bits I was interested in which were languages and literature and pretty much memorised and swiftly forgot everything else 😉 I kind of did my own thing… But I wish someone had recognised my individual interests more! I still went on to study literature and languages and have been writing a lot and looking back it would have been nice to have gone to a bit more chilled out school and teachers who would trust more in my abilities…

      • judithkingston says:

        I think trust is a big thing that is missing in education at the moment. The teachers don’t trust the students and the government doesn’t trust the teachers – hence there is an awful lot of control and pressure and rule-making.

  2. Barbara says:

    When i trained as a Nursery/Infant teacher in the good old days way before National Curriculem, we began by studying children and reading up on child development. We were taught to start where the child is and lead them step by step as their interest developed. I Once developed a whole weeks work in reception class using a birds nest a child brought in from her garden hedge. Yes Maths Science English and imagination were all developed that week! We would choose topics for a half term and they were exciting enough to stimuate interest and learning in all subjects. A casual observor might think these children were ‘just playing’ but I knew playing is both hard work and learning for young children and the results each year showed just how much each child had learned in this fun way that encouraged curiosity and imagination. Keep working from your clean slate Judith but you will find your children already know so much and because you don’t stifle their curiosity thay will continue to be interested and excited by the world around them.

    • judithkingston says:

      I think the rest of school has a lot to learn from the foundation stage/early years. Often the kind of learning I envision does happen in nursery but as soon as they hit Year 1 BANG they are slotted into desks and have to do Real Work. I wonder if there is a way to carry on desk-less, curriculum-less learning post-nursery. And I mean all the way up to A-level.

  3. Wow – really interesting thinking and might I say, quite brilliant

    • judithkingston says:

      Why thank you! Let me know if you have any thoughts you want to share or link up on the topic in future instalments!

  4. I’m loving this series!!
    I have been really surprised by the questions that my daughter naturally asks. She suddenly became aware of time and now every activity must be attributed a time. She seems to be trying to get her head around the concept and the practical application of time. These seem to be beautiful windows to explore something that is very real and important to her.
    There have been wide reaching questions that have brought up an incredible variety “can we find a rock as big as the moon?”. This led us to talk about space, size and perceptions. But mostly I am astounded that she naturally has this enquiry. I have really underestimated children (and my daughter) and their natural curiosity.

    I wonder how this would all translate in a school environment? How would you manage many children perhaps all at different points of enquiry? Could you fulfil all ‘educational needs’ by just following their lead? I’d be interested to read child-led education literature. Do you know any?
    I recently spoke to someone at work whose children were educated in a pupil-led school (1960’s) by a radical Principal. I can’t recall but from some very rudimentary searching I wonder if the school was influenced by John Holt:

    Last point before this crashes your comments section! – The main thing I would like my daughter to appreciate is that every subject, everything, is related to something else. That may sound obvious but I clearly remember being 17 and a French teacher talking about how a French poem I liked was influenced by the economy of the time and how this poet/poem in turn influenced film making in France. This made everything I was learning more relevant and important. There is a context for everything. This also brings new interest to everything we learn.
    Phew. Okay. Yay. Love this series. 🙂

    • judithkingston says:

      Yes! Hurray! Thanks for commenting at length! I was hoping you might, as I remember your Montessori posts and was wondering if you might be interested in linking up, if you had thoughts.

      And in this series I am hoping to come to a model that will work with many students all learning different things. I think we just need to really really start with a clean slate and throw out: classrooms, sorting children in classes based on age, 9am-3pm school days, schedules, subjects etc. I don’t know, maybe by the end of this I’ll decide to home school my kids, but I do like school and I think there is a place for sitting at a desk and doing worksheets – just on topics that you have chosen to study.

      I think the key may be in having (access to) a vast amount of resources, including computers, ipads, a large library, a forest, a vegetable garden, museums, interesting people with stories to tell etc. If a nine year old is fascinated by paintings, you want to be able to say, why don’t you have a look at this book here, come and tell me what you thought when you’re done. That;s one child learning independently for an hour, in which time you can set other children on a similar track but regarding different topics.

      Think I might explore the concept of how to direct interests into learning next! Then the learning space. Then learning speed. Then testing and recording. Hmmmm brain is buzzing.

      • Such an important topic. Home schooling, very appealing and very scary thought too, to have all that responsibility! It seems to becoming more and more popular. I know several people now who have chosen this route for their family.

  5. When I was at school in the 70/early 80’s it was all about textbooks and cramming information. I was lucky, I loved school, except Maths and thrived on reading and learning in that way. I can now see that for a lot of children, my brother included, school could be so much more interesting if you could work with the real world around you. Learning about WW1 could have captured his imagination if he’d have been able to look at pictures of our Granddad and learn about his part in the war etc.
    My son is 3 and half, and I would love him to have the same love of nature that I have (from my Dad) we spend lots of time looking at bugs and bees etc – how they move, what they do, where they live etc, He’ll naturally learn about Maths, English, Biology – all subconsciously.
    I have no idea about education these days – I will find out next year! But I strongly believe in making it ‘real’ and relatible to normal life. I hated Maths, didn’t get it at all, Dad spent hours trying to teach me at home, but I had no interest. Who cares how many litres of water are left in a bath when ……., I couldn’t relate to the situation.

    • judithkingston says:

      That’s it, isn’t it, it all needs to relate to what we find useful and interesting, otherwise we’re not going to want to learn or remember it. Thanks so much for joining in with your thoughts and experiences!

  6. This was a fascinating post, and really interesting for me given that we have just chosen our daughter’s first school, and my husband and I come from 2 very different systems – he was privately educated throughout, and my education was a mix of West Indian state schools (very strict, corporal punishment etc), and British state schools, mainly grammar or faith schools. We’ve arrived at a choice that we are both happy with, much to our surprise, however we’ve gone via looking into free schools, private schools, state schools – and your viewpoint is completely original from our POV. Really interesting. Thanks for linking to #PoCoLo – and it was so lovely to meet you and your lovely girl!

    • judithkingston says:

      Lovely to meet you too, and thanks for all your help at dinner. Sounds like between you you have a very wide and interesting range of school experiences. I’ll be interested to hear how the choice you have made for your daughter works out. Hopefully she’ll enjoy it! If not, I’ll let you know when I’ve started my own school and she can come there. 🙂

  7. redpeffer says:

    You know what, I absolutely believe in everything you are saying. I hate the way we have to place our children within an institution that’s main aim is to quantify. What ever happened to added value? I am completely in favour of child led learning. It can be done with quality and achieve high standards-motivated learner’s will always achieve to their potential. I remember teaching Access and A Level English Literature. The difference between the two groups was vast. The adults in the Access group were completely engaged because they had chosen to be there. Whereas the A Level group was like getting blood from a stone-they may have ‘chosen’ the subject but had no interest.
    I have SO much to say on this subject, honestly I could go on and on and on…..! Sure I have the odd thought I could contribute, if you’re interested?!

    • judithkingston says:

      Yes please!! Just let me know how you’d like to do it. You can write a guest post, or write something on your own blog and I will add the link to it at the bottom of my own Clean Slate posts.

  8. […] my last Clean Slate post, a lot of people asked me if I planned to home school my children. In short: no. Does that make me […]

  9. Utterly fascinating post and such a breath of fresh air.

    We’ve recently started to home school our daughter. Lots of reasons, but a huge part of it is our disillusionment with the education system’s tendency to package up creativity and wonder into a little ball and stuff it into a box marked ‘later’. Asking questions is discouraged, pursuing an area of interest (at least beyond the rigid confines of the curriculum) is impossible, moving ahead of your peers is frowned upon. Take: one child who views the world with curiosity. Add: a pinch of structure and a cup of attainment tables. Mix with: Ofsted. Bake for 14 years or so, and serve with disappointment and boredom.

    We’ve been thinking about how best to home educate for a while, and I have to confess I’m incredibly drawn to self organised learning. I assume you’ve come across Sugata Mitra and Sir Ken Robinson but if not then look up their TED talks, particularly Sugata Mitra’s. His ‘hole in the wall’ experiments show just how successful learning can be when children are left to pursue their own path.

    It might also be worth taking a look at the Heartwood Project (, somewhere that we’re going to be getting far more involved in from now on. It started out as a parents’ home education support group but is evolving into a more formal school environment, albeit one in which individual self organised learning is key. If nothing else it may give some real world examples of how this can all work in practice.

    Anyway, thanks again for this. I agree with absolutely every word, and I’d love to link up.

    • judithkingston says:

      I love Ken Robinson’s TED talk! It has been one of my inspirations for this initiative. I haven’t seen Sugata Mitra’s but I have heard of the Hole in the Wall experiment – will have to watch. Haven’t heard of the Heartwood project, thanks for the tip! It sounds amazing and like the new school has already started! Will check it out ahead of my next instalment.

      I’d love for you to link up, just pass me the link you’d like me to mention.

  10. Eeh Bah Mum says:

    Wow. Lovely thoughtful post.

  11. […] Part 1, we looked at motivation as the key factor in […]

  12. […] 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 […]

  13. […] Part 1, we looked at motivation as the key factor in […]

  14. […] 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. […]

  15. […] my last Clean Slate post, a lot of people asked me if I planned to home school my children. In short: no. Does that make me […]

  16. […] about it called Clean Slate. As The Caterpillar says in Alice in Wonderland, you should start at the beginning, and when you get to the end, […]

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