Posts Tagged ‘education’

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!

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!

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.

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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