Future Proofing Our Schools? – More on Positive Thinking

3D Eye is a great believer in positive thinking, and a recent edition of Radio 4’s series called Positive Thinking was well worth a listen. The title of the programme is Future Proofing Our Schools.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000tcb9

Are we future proofing our schools? Do we need to? Is the future a threat? Or is it a time of great opportunities that ought to be embraced? Regardless of the future – is the present a time of great opportunities that we need to embrace? Should schools in post-covid Britain treat this as a time to retrench or a time for great leaps forward? What have we learned from lockdown and several months of remote learning?

A great deal of discussion now centres around the threats and the opportunities we can either see or those we imagine in information technology, including smartphones, which many if not most pupils now seem to possess.

A row has blown up today around Gavin Williamson’s latest article for the Telegraph:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-56663010


“Mobile phones should be banned from schools because lockdown has affected children’s “discipline and order,” the education secretary has warned.
Gavin Williamson told The Telegraph phones should not be “used or seen during the school day”, though he said schools should make their own policies.”

First of all there’s an insinuation here that discipline and order have somehow broken down in our schools – for which there’s not the slightest shred of evidence. To the contrary: the vast majority of schools are places where there is a good atmosphere and a positive ethos, good conduct and good discipline. This is according to Ofsted and according to teachers up and down the country.

Where does Mr Williamson get his information and his ideas? Our guess would be the usual suspects – the well-known think tanks and the headteachers who have made a reputation from “cracking down on discipline” – whose schools are proud of their harsh treatment of pupils who infringe the rules on school uniform and of pupils who dare to speak to one another as they move around the school. The kind of headteacher who regularly appears on the BBC – the Today programme, Any Questions and Any Answers. They always have all the answers.

By way of contrast, this edition of Positive Thinking highlighted a school whose headteacher, Rob Houben, believes in preparing children for THEIR future – not the future of the country, its businesses and its current industries. (This is not to say business people don’t see the need for major changes in our system of education. A great many of them do. See our previous articles on the recommendations of the CBI and the British Chambers of Commerce.)

The Agora School had four founders, including Rob Houben, who saw the need to “lift education to a higher level”. The school gives its pupils access to technology all day long, and of course many pupils have their own smartphones, tablet computers and laptops. The pupils are taught the need to seek reliable and verifiable information that can inform their thinking and their understanding of themselves and the world around them. They are taught to use the internet and the worldwide web in a good and safe way.

Mr Houben, like many excellent headteachers, rejects the Victorian model of rote learning. He insists we need a curriculum and a pedagogy that enable schools to become “creative laboratories” that nevertheless equip pupils with access to vast amounts of the world’s information and knowledge.

Other features of the Agora school include:
* children and visitors who feel welcomed and “amazed”
* children who work at their own pace on their own projects
* creative spaces throughout the school
* language learning through and throughout their studies
* regular debates on the news and current events
* silent reading for at least 30 minutes every day
* visits from various experts
* staff that have time to observe and assist children
* continuous assessment that is informal and diagnostic
* avoidance of low self esteem caused by excessive testing and low test scores
* avoidance of “kids who don’t care and kids who care too much”
* learning that’s personalised and children who have freedom to spend time on their own challenges
* self-chosen goals that make learners feel “happy”
* pupils who are constantly learning how to learn and how to be independent learners who set their own learning goals
* children who leave school with an intention of being lifelong learners

Does the Agora School suffer from poor discipline and bad behaviour? It most certainly does not.

Also taking part in Positive Thinking were Peter Hyman, co-director of Big Education and co-founder of East London’s School21 (see our previous posts), Sugata Mitra, Professor Emeritus at NIIT University, Rajasthan, and Iesha Small, Head of Change for Education at the Youth Endowment Fund.

All three agreed that the world needs self-directed problem solvers and those who can show initiative – not students who have been micromanaged, herded around and denied any autonomy.

Sugata Mitra spoke about his Hole In The Wall project in 1999, in which street children were allowed and encouraged to teach themselves how to use a computer and navigate the internet – an experiment he’s repeated in classrooms in Gateshead. These children were also encouraged to “ask big questions about things that puzzle them”.

We know from our own visits to School21 that Peter Hyman and his colleagues believe that everyone should be an apprentice – a very important relationship for learners of all ages. Mr Hyman says young people lap up “exploratory learning” in excited ways. Access to technology “should not be controversial” and schools should train students to use it whenever it’s useful or needed. His other points were:

  • our system of education needs real change
  • It’s important to personalise learning to the real needs of children
  • We should work from their aspirations and their interests
  • our exam system is not fit for purpose
  • it’s unfair to expect 16 year olds to sit 30 GCSE exam papers in one month
  • Ofsted is not fit for purpose
  • We need to change the parameters of the debate about education.

So there we have it, Gavin Williamson, who is not destined to be one of our great Secretaries of State for Education.

Postscript 1


An Agora was a Greek market place – “where people gathered to debate, interact, see new things and get inspired by others.”
“A school should be like a creative laboratory, where people can make anything that comes to mind. All the fascinating objects you see in our school – we just made them with our kids.”
“A school should also be a bit like a Buddhist monastary – a place where people can feel ease.” Also a place of contemplation where virtue can be cultivated through the consideration of human values.

Postscript 2

Parents should ask themselves whether their children would be better off in an exam factory full of didactic cramming, or in a creative school. Especially if the creative 21st century school gets test results at the age of 18 that are equal to or better than ‘traditional’ schools. Plus an education that equips them with the skills and attitudes needed for their future lives, including the ability to think imaginatively and creatively, the ability to learn independently, and the multiple intelligences that give them high levels of empathy, personal insight, high levels of sensory input and intuition, etc. So many things you can’t measure in high stakes timed tests and exams. The enjoyment of school is an even bigger bonus, especially for those who are less gifted ‘academically’ and far more gifted in other ways. Life skills matter too.

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