Reinventing education: The Sandpit School

Clean Slate now has a blog all of its own! No more education posts will appear on Secrets of the Sandpit. Please click here to read and comment on this post and catch up on my latest thoughts on reinventing education.

Welcome to part 3 of Clean Slate, my initiative to scrap school completely and start again from scratch. The debate is gaining momentum, so I have decided to write a bit more frequently.

Clean SlateCatch 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.

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20 responses

  1. Firstly can I say that I LOVE the idea of a little train running around the complex! Definitely need one of those. What happens when children get ‘stuck’ in one particular zone? My son for example would probably stay in the maths room, or may never venture into the woodland area, despite there being mathematical elements to forest school. Adults would need to encourage those less adventurous children (thinking of my son) quite a lot, as I wouldn’t want him to miss out on those other experiences. I can imagine my braver, strong-minded girl loving this kind of approach though xx

    • The idea would be that there are 4 sessions in the day, and that you have to move to a different area for each session. So although you could do a maths session every day of the week, you couldn’t spend all day in the maths room. Also, the teacher would help you decide where to go next based on what you had been doing. So if you spent the first session in the Historical Home Corner making a medieval house, the teacher might suggest you go to the English room to read or write about the Middle Ages, or go to the Art room and look at some medieval art and paint your own picture etc.

  2. Pingback: Reinventing education: The Sandpit School | The...

  3. Pingback: Reinventing Education: How shall we structure school? | Secrets of the Sandpit

  4. I love these ideas! I want my kids to go to your Sandpit School. I’m a big History fan, so my History room would change each term and focus on a different time, and encapsulate all that the era was like to be lived in. There’d be dressing up every time, and then story time full of tales from those times, play games that the children would have played back then, a puppet theatre for re-enacting famous scenes from history, an arts and crafts section for scribbling down images from the times, a sandpit for ‘archaeological’ digs, music sessions in keeping with the time – I could go on & on, so I’ll stop there🙂 #PoCoLo

    • Yay! You’re hired as my history teacher! I LOVE the idea of a sandpit for archeological digs, and using puppets to re-enact scenes from history. Thanks so much for your ideas!

  5. A Lit & Art Room – children get to read books and perform their favourite parts or make a video or paint. Imagine them making puppets to make a show about Willy Wonka and his chocolate factory🙂 My dream school! x

    • Wonderful!! It could have ‘story corners’, with comfy cushions for reading, and a stage. And kids could learn to do lighting design and behind the scenes techy stuff for the shows as well. I like the idea of re-drawing the boundaries between traditional school subjects. Drama, Art and Literature don’t necessarily need to be separate subjects in separate rooms but could bleed into each other. History and Geography could share a space (and even launch into space?)

  6. I love these posts🙂. Great idea on the nature. I would have a music room with all types of percussion instruments and headphones for the children to listen to different genres of music and then play along🙂. Thanks for linking to PoCoLo x

  7. I too would love this to become a reality, such fabulous ideas. I’d love an arts room-creativity, self expression, but encompassing the other subjects like maths, English, science, construction, history, geography etc so that the ideas in other rooms could be brought together in creative form. But guided by the individual and his/her own abilities so no pressure to provide ‘masterpieces’. If that makes sense?

    • Yes of course, you wouldn’t want anyone to feel like they could fail at expressing themselves. Maybe it could be a courtyard in the centre of the complex, the Create Hub or something like that.

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  9. As the parent of an autistic child I learnt very early on that motivation/interest were the key ingredients for teaching EVERYTHING! A good example was teaching my son to tell the time. This was a key thing for him, because waiting for anything was an issue (I also wanted to stop him waking me up at 4am!) and he needed a ‘black and white’ way of understanding time. He was motivated to learn because it made things clearer and easier for him, but I also ‘upped the ante’ by buying a cheap wall clock and replacing the face with one I made on the PC with all the characters from his favourite cartoon show, ‘Wacky Races’ as numerals. He learnt in no time (if you’ll excuse the pun!) and was the only kid in preschool who could tell the time by a traditional watch or clock…

    Temple Grandin’s (that name might not mean very much outside of autistic circles, but it’s well worth a Google) whole education was based around her obsession with cows. Until that point she had been assumed ineducable. 😀

    • What a perfect example! I have two cousins with ASD and they certainly thrive on being taught through their interests. I’ll have to look up Temple Grandin, that sounds like a fascinating story.

  10. Pingback: Reinventing Education: The Role of the Teacher | Secrets of the Sandpit

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