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:

Motivation

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.

cleanslate2

Many thanks to Helen Braid for creating this awesome logo!

 

I love Penelope Leach. I’m going to come right out and say it. My love affair started long ago when I was in my early teens and I found one of her parenting tomes, cracked spine and well-thumbed, on a shelf in my parents’ junk room. Once I’d discovered it, I often snuck in there in unguarded moments (somehow I felt this was an illicit activity) to find out how to bring myself up.

When I was about to become a parent myself, I randomly decided to read everyone but her. I think the memory of the seventies-style cover of the book my parents owned made me think she must be Old and Out of Date. So I read Gina Ford (talk about out of date!) and the Baby Whisperer and Dr Miriam Stoppard. It wasn’t until I was seven months pregnant with baby number 2 that I found “Your Baby & Child” by Penelope Leach (in a very modern-looking binding) in a charity shop for the appealing price of £1, and decided to see what she had to say. I have been dipping in and out of her book every since, mainly reading about toddlers, and everything she says just makes such perfect sense.

Here is something I read in a section on how to join in with toddler play that made me rethink my life:

“Try, sometimes, to arrange unlimited time for [your toddler’s] games. Many toddlers have to nag ceaselessly in order to get a grudging game from an adult and then they spend most of the 10 minutes allotted to them waiting for the dread words: “that’s enough”. You cannot play with him all day but […] do try, sometimes, to seem willing or even eager, to play yourself, and let him have the luxury of going on until he is ready to stop. He learns by continuous repetition. If ball-rolling is on today’s agenda, he may need to roll a ball for 20 minutes at a time.” (Penelope Leach, 2003, Your Baby & Child, p. 408.)

(The fancy referencing and the elipsis and such are for you, Dad.)

I read this and realised that I am always limiting my playtime with the Toddler. I will play with him for a little bit, but I am always plotting an exit strategy to get back to Important Things like the washing up or Twitter. As an excellent parenting course I attended put it: I am always half-busy. Never with my mind completely on my children, or completely on something else, but always doing both at once and not giving my best, full attention to either. This is not something to beat myself up over, though of course I do, because it is normal. There is not enough time in the day to spend every second completely focused on either the children or the house work or being self-employed, because something will end up not done. You have to multi-task sometimes.

However, I decided that I can, once a day, give the Toddler my unlimited time and attention for something he wants to do, and not stop until he wants to stop. I have tried it with playing his favourite game, Doodlebugs, which is actually very enjoyable. It is no hardship to spend 20 minutes playing Doodlebugs, or playing football, or drawing numbers on the pavement with chalk. And the thing I secretly fear – that he will never ever want to stop – is not true. He does eventually tire and want to do something else. Just not as quickly as I do. But that is okay.

I am not just telling you about all this to show how I am growing as a parent and a human being. There is something in particular that struck me about this passage from Penelope Leach’s book: “He learns by continuous repetition. If ball-rolling is on today’s agenda, he may need to roll a ball for 20 minutes at a time.” (Leach, 2003, p. 408) (for you, Dad) The reason my Toddler – and, it turns out, any toddler – wants to play or do the same thing for hours on end is not because he is obsessed, not because he is a bit boring, but because he is learning. 

A case in point: This weekend, the Toddler was playing in the garden while my husband was cooking on the barbecue – this was a fascinating new phenomenon. To observe it better, the Toddler ran inside to get an apple and installed himself on a garden chair with a good view of Daddy.

“Doing, Daddy?”
“I’m doing the barbecue. What are you doing, S?”
“I’m doing apple.”
[pause for munching]
“Doing, Daddy?”
My husband said they must have had this exact conversation about twenty times in a row. When the apple was gone, our son ran inside, got a pear and carried on where he had left off, except now he was “doing pear”. Daddy, being a good sport, was very happy to keep going for as long as the Toddler wanted to. What was he learning? I imagine he was learning about chatting, about turn-taking, about how you can use the verb ‘to do’ to describe an activity, but primarily about how you ask and answer questions, which is a relatively new feature of the Toddler’s language.

A while back, I wrote about the wonders of self-education. I have been looking on, in awe, as my son has taught himself to count and to recognise letters and their sounds, while I have spent my professional life witnessing British teenagers come out of secondary school unable to spell or do simple maths. The question I asked in that post was: what has gone wrong between the joyful self-education of the pre-school years and the antagonistic reluctance to be educated that you find in schools? Now I ask it again. It would seem that toddlers are built for learning. By instinct, they know what to do. They find something that interests them and they are not quite competent at yet, and they explore, experiment and repeat repeat repeat until they have mastered it. We don’t need to teach them how to learn. They know. In fact, we’re mostly the ones trying to stop them doing it.

So, let’s start the debate once more. What do you think? If we start from scratch and invent school as if it had never existed, what would it look like? How can we use what children are born with to help them learn? Should we have listened to Socrates? Or Montessori? Or just Penelope Leach? Tell me what you think in the comments and let’s re-imagine education!

PS: If you haven’t already, watch this amazing TED-talk by Ken Robinson on the subject.

Learning is taking place: even exciting new moulds could not measure up against the joy of just getting Mummy to make more numbers out of Play-doh

Learning is taking place: even exciting new moulds could not measure up against the joy of just getting Mummy to make more numbers out of Play-doh

The Toddler is like a sponge. He repeats everything we say and takes an interest in everything around him. He wants to know how things work, what things mean, where they go, what you can put in them and particularly what else you can do with them: the skin off a bit of pepper becomes a flag, a tube of soaps becomes a truck and his crayons can be rearranged to become a racing car.

His main love at the moment is numbers and his favourite is number 8. He will gleefully shout out any number he spots around the house or in the supermarket or anywhere else really, but number 8 deserves an extra dose of toddler-volume: “EEEEEEEEEIIIIIIGHT!!” he roars gleefully when he sees it anywhere. He also has very sharp eyes, as it can take Mummy and Daddy a little while to see where he’s spotted it.

It never ceases to amaze us what he is learning at this early age, and all with great enjoyment, prompted by his own interest. He can count up to ten and is working on eleven and twelve. He can count backwards from ten and adds “Blassoff!” for good measure. He recognises the numbers up to ten.  Best of all, he can make the number seven from Found Materials: he will nibble on a square of toast until only two sides are left, hold it up reverently and exclaim: “Seven!” He is also practising counting objects. Sometimes he is very good at it: this morning he pulled three of his books off the shelf and counted: “One, two. Three books.” Straight after that, he jumped from book to book and counted them again, but this time he got to nine. So not quite there yet.

And now, he is starting to discover letters. He knows that letters make sounds, though up until recenty not which sound belonged to which letter. He would scribble on the steamed up shower enclosure with his finger, spelling out: “m-a-m-a: Harry!” or “e-m-a: Maisy Mouse!” But suddenly, last week, the Toddler picked up one of his Cheerios and held it up for me. “O!” he said proudly. Since then he has been finding “o” all over the place. At lunch today, he curled a slice of red pepper around so the ends met and said: “o, Mummy!”

What strikes me most about all this, other than that my son is clearly a genius, is how much he loves discovering all about letters and numbers, in other words: reading, writing and maths. These are subjects that schools and colleges are battling to teach their students, from age 3 up to age 16. I used to work in a college, and the number of students who would come through the door at age 16 or up with shockingly poor maths and English skills was astounding. Yet my son, at 2 years of age, is going around educating himself. I’m sure he will be reading before he gets to reception.

I am not trying to say that my son is anything special – although clearly he is in the eyes of his doting mother. Lots of toddlers I meet are interested in numbers and letters, colours and animals, but also science: how things work, what they are for and what else you can do with them. My question is this: what has gone wrong between the unbridled enthusiasm for learning of the toddler years and the painful apathy of the school years? Why can we not harness the thirst for knowledge that our children show early on and channel it into learning Maths, English, Science and goodness knows what else they might be interested in? I think it is time to scrap everything and start with a blank page. It is time to re-imagine education.

I’ll get back to you once I’ve done that.