Archive for the ‘Curriculum’ Category

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.

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.

Today we will look at how best to structure a school, so I hope you’re sitting comfortably and you’ve got your notebooks ready.

Do we actually need school at all?

After 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 a hypocrite? I’d say no, but then I do have a tendency to lie to myself so maybe I am a little bit. The thing is: I think we are doing school wrong, but I don’t think the answer is to scrap school and for everyone to educate their own children in their own home. I want to scrap school and rebuild it from scratch. Not everyone has the time, the patience or the inclination to home school, but everyone does need an education. Also, over the course of human history we have gone from a situation where most people knew how to do most things (sew, cook, make fire, make shoes, ride a horse, build a shed, kill a rabbit etc.) to the situation we have today, where we have specialists for each individual skill, making us dependent on each other for our every day necessities. This means that no one adult can provide their children with access to all the skills they might need or fields of knowledge they might want to explore. We need to team up to educate our children. Thus, I feel there is a need in society for such a thing as school.

NB: I should add that this doesn’t mean every child should attend school. I am all for home education by people who are able and willing to do it.

A guiding principle

So, let’s roll up our sleeves and make a school. Last time we established that children should set the curriculum themselves, led by their interests, survival needs and ambitions, guided by adults. We said we should trust children in this, and that we should let go of our obsession with everyone learning the same thing, at the same time and in the same order.

At the moment, schools are structured in order to achieve what we are trying to avoid: children are grouped according to age; each

Unconventional use of Megablocks, but why not? Child-led learning

Unconventional use of Megablocks, but why not? Child-led learning

year they have to achieve certain targets which have been determined as appropriate for their age; at certain set points in their school career they have to sit nationally standardised exams.

As Ken Robinson says in his excellent TED talk: why are we grouping children by ‘year of manufacture’? What does that have to do with their learning?

An alternative would be to group children according to ability, but I think not. That means frequent and plentiful testing, embarrassed nine year olds in a maths class full of five year olds and a strong emphasis on how outside arbiters are  judging what you are doing. Of course, some people thrive on this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there should be no testing or no competition. I just don’t think it should be the underlying principle for the structure of a school.

The reason I started by writing about motivation was because it is key. I said we are motivated to learn through our interests. Therefore, I propose school should be structured to encourage interests.

Survive, Explore, Specialise

I know the Early Years and Foundation Stage curriculum is very good at encouraging interests. Children learn through play and are given the freedom to follow their interests in a structured-but-free environment. However, my new school will go from early years right through to 18. So I would like to outline a way for this excellent start to be developed through primary and on into secondary education.

At primary level, the main aim will be to encourage children to explore. They should be given the opportunity to find out what is out there in the world that they might want to learn about. There is so much to find out about. It will take all of primary school to discover new things and learn a few basics about them. In fact, exploring should not stop at 11 or indeed ever, and should remain a part of school right up to A-levels (or whatever we choose to replace them with).

The aim of the exploring school years would be to widen the child’s experience and to help them discover what they are interested

Biology happens here

Biology happens here

in. Along the way, they will of course be learning about the topics they become fascinated by. They might come out of this phase with an extremely detailed knowledge of the American Civil War, Pre-Raphaelite painting and the workings of the combustion engine, some basics on the topography of South-East Asia and plate tectonics and a smattering of Japanese. And that would be an entirely acceptable outcome. I can guarantee you that in addition to this, they will also have learned to read, write and do maths. They will have needed to, in order to find out about their favourite topics, and so they will have been motivated to learn.

I would go even further and say that, whatever statistics might tell us, this is the actual outcome of education already. We may have “taught” every child the prescribed topics for science, maths and English, but they will still come out of school remembering only the things that captured their imagination and forgetting the ones they had no love for. So we might as well go with it.

At secondary level, then, exploring will continue. However, it will be joined and gradually over the years overtaken by specialisation. The aim here will be almost the opposite of the first stage, that is, to narrow the child’s field of vision so they can deepen their knowledge and focus on the skills necessary to achieve their goals. Please note that is their goals, not ours or the government’s. As school continues, the child will start to see a pattern emerging in what interests them – something we can help them with if required – and this can lead them to decide what they might want to study further, or what they might like to do for a career. They can then start to focus their school time on acquiring the knowledge and skills they will need in order to be able to fulfil this ambition. Again, the transition from exploring to specialising should be encouraged and guided by teachers but led by the child (who is by now a teenager). If, like me, they change their minds a lot, or are interested in many things, they should be given the option to either keep their options open for longer, or to put in extra hours in order to go deeper into more topics than the school day would normally allow them to.

Alongside this, for the entire duration of school, there are skills to be learned that are necessary for survival. They are different at different ages. A fourteen year old is usually pretty solid on not-touching-hot-things and tying his own shoelaces, but will need to learn about drugs, sex, peer pressure and staying safe online. I don’t really want to use the word, but yes, these are Basic Skills. Life Skills. In the New School, there will not be a set time each week for children to work through a booklet on the survival skill of the week. They will be dealt with as they come up. More ideas on this will follow in a future post, but for now it is enough to highlight that these skills will be the ostinato that accompanies a child’s entire school career, woven in seemlessly to reflect the fact that this is normal living. Not rocket science, but nevertheless important.

Let us pause

There is much more I need to say on this topic. We haven’t even got to organising children into classes or the school space yet, but my word count shows me that I have already gone on for longer than most people are prepared to read for online. So I will sum up my conclusions so far and leave the rest for next month.

Here they are:

1. In society, there is a need for collective education by teachers in a place other than the home. 

2. The guiding principle for structuring school should not be age or ability, but what interests the children.

3. School will start with the emphasis entirely on exploring the world to broaden horizons, then move slowly and increasingly to specialisation, narrowing children’s learning down in order to deepen their knowledge. 

4. Certain skills necessary for survival will be taught throughout, not timetabled, but in a natural way, as they come up.

Please do join in the discussion in the comments! Disagree with me? So much the better, tell me your views and we’ll make school better together.


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!