Posts Tagged ‘guided discovery’

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

The Story so far

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

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

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

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

A Surrogate Family

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

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

The Desired Outcome

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

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

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

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

How to make it happen

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

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

This is why teenagers end up in gangs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clean Slate
Catch up

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

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

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

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

The Sandpit

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

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

How would this concept translate to a school?

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

Quests in the Sandpit

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

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

Discovering nature

Discovering nature

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

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

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!