Should children be able to skip a class?

matilda7

(c) Quentin Blake

“Is Back to the Future real?” my son wanted to know.

“No.” I said regretfully. “People don’t know how to travel through time yet.”

“Oh.” The Boy looked disappointed.

“Hey, maybe you will invent time travel one day!” I said.

The Boy laughed modestly. “I might need a bit of help,” he mused. “Maybe Daddy and I can do that next week.”

He is nothing if not ambitious.

But honestly, I would not be surprised if he did invent time travel one day. He has already worked out his own method of doing multiplications at 5 years old, and can add two digit numbers and reads books in two languages and draws world maps with “Rusher” and Mexico on them.

In the Netherlands, if a child is bright and has an autumn birthday, it is not uncommon for them to skip a year. Often this is done right at the start of a new school, so you don’t have to join an already estabished class and be both the youngest and the newest.

In the UK the accepted wisdom seems to be that having an autumn birthday is an advantage – it is better to be the oldest, especially for boys, they say. Also, moving children out of their age group away from their immediate peers is just not done.

However, there is definitely a precedent of a British child successfully skipping not just one, but several years. I present you with: Matilda.

I mean, seriously. Moving her up to the top class, despite her age, was clearly the best thing to do. Differentiation was a nightmare for Miss Honey, she was getting far too invested in that one student to the detriment of the rest of the class and, generally speaking, you don’t want your kid to resort to telekinesis in order to get rid of their excess brain energy.

I have been thinking about this issue a lot lately. On the eve of The Boy starting reception, I considered asking if he could go straight into Year 1, as he was already reading and doing Maths at about year 1 level. I was concerned that the school would not be able to help him on with so many other children to guide through the basics at the same time. I was worried about him getting bored.

All the people I spoke to about this said the likelihood of him being moved up was practically zero, so I decided to just resign myself to it and hope for the best. As it turned out, they have excellent extra support in Reception and the Boy has two or three one to one sessions in the week to stretch his literacy and his maths, to fill in the blanks that he definitely has and to move him along. I am delighted at how he is doing and his class teacher is brilliant. Also, he is making friends and the thought of him moving out of that group is sad – I am not sure he would even want to.

But the doubts are creeping back in. Reception has these extra resources, but what will happen further up the school? As a teacher, I have plenty of first hand experience of the wide range of abilities you get in a class, and what you need to do to make sure everyone is learning. I don’t have teaching assistants or extra pairs of hands in my class, so catering to the different levels is all down to me.

It is so easy to just let the capable ones be a little bit bored.

This afternoon I sat with a student who was really struggling. I wanted to help her get just one answer to just one question about a reading text. I was painfully aware that my top two students had finished in minutes and were just keeping themselves occupied. But I had to help the weaker student: if I didn’t, she would lose motivation and lose faith in herself and stop learning. If the stronger students are a bit bored now and then… what then?

My students are adults and very self-motivating.

My students pay for their course and have clear goals they are aiming for. This helps them carry on, even when they are not being stretched enough sometimes.

But children live in the moment. They might be planning to become a fireman or an astronaut, but they won’t relate their literacy or maths sessions to this goal. It is still too distant. The hit on motivation for a weak student, who is struggling with the task at hand, is instant and instantly evident, and teacher support can have an instant effect.

The hit on motivation for an able student who is not being stretched is very slow and very gradual. It is the dimming of a light as their battery is run down and not being recharged. And sometimes, as a teacher, you don’t even notice when the battery is flat. Because the visible effect will be that the able student will just slot into what the class is doing and be more easy to manage. It is so easy to let your gaze slide off this and heave a secret sigh of relief.

Ofsted is not going to put the school into special measures for this and social services are not going to come calling. They might not even notice.

My son is loving school and comes home full of stories and excitement every day. Also, he is not moving plates or furniture around with excess brainpower just yet. He is happy where he is. And I don’t think he is going to end up on drugs or in the gutter if he is not challenged, his love of learning is not encouraged or he is not allowed to keep learning at his own speed. But he might also never cure diseases or invent time travel.

What I’m saying is: the future needs the bright kids to be fully charged, not held back because it is easier.

There are of course many, many questions to be asked about this. Is moving children up actually the solution, or should the battery recharging just happen outside of school, at home? Is it more important to stay with your peers? And do we even want time travel?

What do you think?

Virtual Birthday and Clip Show

Happy 1st birthday, Secrets of the Sandpit

Happy 1st birthday, Secrets of the Sandpit

I realised today that I missed my blog’s first birthday. It was a few days ago I think. Although I am a little late, I didn’t want to let this milestone gone by unmarked, and so I present you with the dreaded “clip show” episode. You know the one: you sit down with a mug of tea and some biscuits/chocolate/crisps/cake to enjoy your favourite show, and instead of a proper story you get little snippets of episodes gone by to remind you of what has gone before. Annoying, right? Well, buckle up because this is a ‘greatest hits’, if you will – the best, most relevant, most ignored or most read of Secrets of the Sandpit. Celebrate its birthday with me by taking a look around and reminiscing on the first year of my blog’s life. May there be many more!

Sandpit. Best thing ever.

Sandpit. Best thing ever.

So, to start at the very beginning, you can read my very first post here, in which I explain what the “sandpit” is all about. A year ago when I started this blog, the Boy would express his extreme excitement about The Best Things Ever by exclaiming “sandpit!”. In fact, if you look in the side bar you can see my running log of things that elicited this response over the past year. Faithful readers will have noticed that the list stopped growing about six months ago. He has sadly grown out of “sandpit!” and now just tells us “love-a guinea pigs” or “That’s a fun filled fest!” for special occasions. He has grown up so much over the past year, and his language has developed massively. I marvel every day at how long his sentences are getting and how complex, at his awareness of his own bilingual-ness and his ability to express his emotions in words. My Boy is three and is becoming a whole grown up little person.

My blog has changed over the past year as well. Like most people, I started writing with only a vague idea of what the ‘flavour’ would be. It began as a more durable log of funny things the Boy had said and done, not wanting all his best material to get swallowed up by Facebook. In fact, sometimes my posts were actually no more than a slightly longer status update.

Soon themes began to emerge, though:

* The Girl, who is only a month older than Secrets of the Sandpit, inspired me to  share the reality of breastfeeding in the hope of helping other Mums who were having a very tough start but nevertheless wanted to carry on, as well as pregnant women who wanted to be properly prepared.

* I started using my blog to follow my Boy’s language development, especially how he was coping with growing up bilingual.

* I also began a monthly children’s book review, as a way of sharing my love for children’s literature. The first one is here but you can read the others by clicking on ‘Children’s books‘ in the menu at the top. Keep an eye out for the next instalment this coming Monday!

* Then I went a little bit crazy and decided to reinvent education, which I got so excited about that I started a whole separate blog about it called Clean Slate. As The Caterpillar says in Alice in Wonderland, you should start at the beginning, and when you get to the end, stop.

* Thursday became poetry day courtesy of Prose for Thought. It has become one of the highlights of my week, turning my thoughts on family, sleeplessness, changes, identity, God and Weetabix into poetry, experimenting with form, verse and imagery.

* Other voices turned up and wanted to put their two cents in, like the Boy on play, the cats on the rules of the house and the Girl, updating us on the l33t skills she is learning in Life Game.

A year in, how is Secrets of the Sandpit doing in the playground? Well, like her author, she is not the most popular kid in school, but she has a group of faithful, close friends she hangs out with on play dates and sleepovers, that she can turn to for advice and pass notes to in class when the teacher isn’t looking. She also had one amazing day of fame when my Guide to Cbeebies was picked as Mumsnet blog of the day and a gazillion people dropped by to read it.

So happy birthday, Secrets of the Sandpit! I look forward to what the next year will bring.

Thanks for the cake, it was deeeeeeeelicious.

Thanks for the cake, it was deeeeeeeelicious.

Meet all my blog-friends over at Vic Welton’s place for her weekly Post Comment Love.

Breaking News! Clean Slate blog goes live!

I bet you were all waiting with bated breath for my next post about reforming education. And you were right to, because this week’s instalment is all about reverse psychology and how we should back off with our feverish attempts to popularise English and Maths.

So where is this revolutionary post?

It is on the brand new Clean Slate blog. I decided my thoughts on education were getting a bit too far removed in tone and purpose from Secrets of the Sandpit and deserved their own platform. So please continue to read my thoughts on parenthood and my poetry on here – but for my initiative to scrap school and reinvent it from scratch, please head over to
 photo cleanslatesmall_zps4419ae1e.jpg

Reinventing Education: The Role of the Teacher

Clean SlateClean 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.

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?

Read More

 

Reinventing Education: The Mentor and the Family

Clean Slate

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 back to Clean Slate, my initiative to scrap school and start again from scratch.

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!

Read more

 

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.

Read more

 

Reinventing Education: How shall we structure school?

Clean Slate

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 this instalment of Clean Slate, my initiative to scrap school and start all over again. 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.

Read more:

 

Reinventing Education: Let’s start at the very beginning

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.

A Clean Slate

As regular readers may remember, I have been getting on my soapbox about education and how it needs to be completely reimagined. Having devoted two posts to what I feel is wrong, I am now ready to start putting it right. Every month I will write a post building up a picture of what teaching and learning could look like if we dared to start with a clean slate – which will also be the name of my project: Clean Slate.

If you have thoughts and ideas, if you would like to contribute by writing a guest post or linking up something relevant from your own blog, please let me know. At the bottom of any Clean Slate post will be an index/bibliography of other posts that help build the New Education. 

So, 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!

Read More

Time to Learn

Can’t Stop Teaching

I believe in transferable skills. I think nothing you learn is wasted. I spent my summers as a teenager keeping my father’s online bibliography updated and later that knowledge of HTML got me the kudos I needed to be asked to teach my peers computer skills at university. This experience then got me a part-time job in the UK, where I finished my degree, and that experience in turn looked good enough on my CV to get a teaching job in an FE college fresh from my English-as-a-Foreign-Language teacher training. In fact, the position vacant was for teaching IT to immigrants who were learning English. The job was just meant for me.

IT classroom

Old classroom

Anyway, I am now no longer teaching English or IT. I am now teaching an 8 month old and a 2 and a half year old about the world. I teach them about food: what it tastes like, how to eat it, what society expects of you vis-a-vis cutlery, what the meals of the day are called, how eating lots of snacks before a meal fills you up so you’re not hungry for the meal anymore, that food comes from a shop where you have to pay for it before you’re allowed to tuck in and that it requires preparation at home, during which time Mummy is very stressed and cranky and unlikely to look favourably on repeated requests for bread sticks.

I am also teaching them about gravity, balance, the economy, road safety, speed, concentration, delayed gratification, time, seasons, distance, rhythm, rhyme, sharing, turn taking, friendship, missing people, disappointment, unfairness, saying sorry when you’ve messed up and that brushing your teeth is non-optional.

Oh, and I’m probably also teaching them English and IT.

And it struck me the other day, that there are many techniques and skills that I learned as a teacher that are very useful in parenting as well. I’ll share a few with you here:

1. Let them try things out for themselves: Don’t jump in and do the puzzle for them, impatient for it to be done, or worried that they’ll be scarred for life if they can’t do it. Give them a fair chance to try it out for themselves. They’ll ask for your help if they need it. Your confidence in them will give them confidence in themselves.

New classroom

New classroom

2. Keep instructions short and to the point: Imagine you’re a beginner, learning a new language, and the teacher says “Now, what I want you to do today is- basically, we’re going to learn about the past tense, which is talking about the past, and to do that I’d like you to sit with a friend, or just someone next to you, why don’t you find a partner, or maybe I’ll just split you up into pairs, we’ll start here…” You get the idea. You’d probably panic and possibly run out of the room. Toddlers have the language, but not the patience to listen to lots of waffle. They have playing to do. “Coat, please,” is about long enough for an instruction.

3. Make praise specific: I clearly praise my toddler a lot, because he praises me back. “Well done, Mummy,” he tells me when I have switched on his favourite TV show. But just “well done” is meaningless. If you want your praise to have the desired effect – that is, to affirm and encourage the good thing your child did – you need to make sure they know what it is they did that was so good. “Good painting” is okay; “I love those colours, they’re so bright” is better. “Good boy” means very little; “Well done for giving Tom back his truck” will help your toddler know what it was about his behaviour that was good.

4. Model best practice: If you’re a teacher trainer, you’d better be a good teacher yourself. If you are teaching IT, it doesn’t look good for your students’ knowledge of hardware to be more up to date than yours (as I found to my detriment…) If you are teaching your children how to live, you need to model best practice. I know. This is tough. But if you want them to handle the cat gently, it is not good for them to see you chucking him out the back door shouting “And don’t come back!”. If you want them to share their treats, they can’t see you refusing to give him and Daddy a piece of your ginormous chocolate bar. (All true examples from real life). By all means, get angry, be mean, hormonal, stressed, anxious, tired. Just model for them how to deal with those emotions positively, and how to apologise for the less than ideal things you do when you are feeling them.

I had to battle constantly to remind myself of these principles when I was teaching; the same is true now that I am a parent. Just knowing what might be good practice doesn’t mean you do it automatically, sadly. But every now and then, I will remember to give specific praise before I’ve opened my mouth, or I will remember after an angry outburst that I am meant to model for my son how to live, and I can apologise to him for shouting and tell him I love him.

How about you: what transferable skills have you got from your Career Before Parenting that you fall back on now?

Time to learn

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