It’s hard know where to begin with this post on the Festival of Education at Wellington College. Since I’m still feeling riled by Toby Young’s comment about child centred education being “balls”, that would seem an appropriate place to kick off – articulating what I really meant to say rather than the nervous, anger-induced comments that instinctively flowed from my mouth at the event. However, there are far too many positives to think about, rather than dwelling on ridiculous and ill-informed comments by people with their own agendas. I’ll keep that one on the back-burner for a while.
Let’s begin at the place where the festival actually started for me; 9.00am on Day One in the Spiritual Room with Hywel Roberts – total joy!
If Mssrs Gove and Young and their various acolytes and cheerleaders need to question the drive, passion and ability of those who are wholly focused on the needs of the child (child-centred definition!) then they’d have done well to sit in this aptly named room listening to the dynamic and engaging Mr Roberts. It’s very rare that we would plug a book before reading it, but if “Oops! Helping Children Learn Accidentally” is written in the same style as the author’s spoken voice, with the same clear and positive message about learning, then it’s a must-buy for those who are genuinely interested in making learning relevant, creative and motivating for young people.
“Are your lessons worth behaving for?” asked Hywel. “How can I link things together to make more sense for children?” was another question posed. We need “questions to cultivate imaginative learning” was another statement.
Hywel Roberts advocates the sort of questioning to encourage enthusiastic learning that should and could become instinctive for every practitioner, if they’re allowed the freedom to think for themselves and are no longer constrained by having to ‘cover’ a heavily prescribed ‘knowledge’ curriculum.
I loved his anecdote about teaching a group of KS3 “disaffected” boys using Michael Rosen’s “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt”. As someone who has frequently advocated using great picture books with teenagers, this in itself was good to hear, but the way that Hywel clearly engaged his learners in such an imaginative way was so heart-warming to hear. These lads, involved in Hywel’s lesson because they all had behaviour and attendance issues, sat together and were immediately impressed by Hywel’s ability to read a book upside down – showing them the pictures as he read. At the end of the book (where the family traipse past various obstacles to get away from the fearsome bear), Hywel asked these (now) not disaffected boys what they should do about the bear. The first response was, “He needs a behaviour plan!”
These young men all had behaviour plans. It was what they knew. Addressing “naughtiness”, in their experience, needed a plan. So they started from what they knew and worked out a plan of behaviour modification for the ferocious bear, which in turn made their own behaviour plans more meaningful.
Brilliant! Make learning relevant and who knows what can emerge from a seemingly unengaged and uninterested mind.
For more information about Hywel Roberts and his work, go to www.createlearninspire.co.uk
To move straight from this session into Guy Claxton’s “Battle of Education and how to help teachers change their spots” was another delightful challenge to my capacity to think and to hold on to all the thoughts generated.
Be questioning, be adventurous and work with others, were his first messages. Allow creativity to thrive. Move from evaluation to encourage self-evaluation. Enable active learning and empathy, not passivity. Encourage mindfulness not mindlessness.
We need to consider the sorts of skills we’re hoping to instill and develop in young people, and which the English system of education is currently doing very little to promote and nurture. We need to consider the skills and attitudes they need in their future lives.
Guy Claxton asked his audience to consider radical developments in Singapore and its “Teach Less, Learn More” policy which we’ve mentioned regularly in this blog. He said we really must understand that the ‘content’ of learning is less important than attitudes and independence of mind, and that we can’t remain neutral about this.
He cited the problems encountered by many of our young people when they go to university. They’ve been so protected and directed in their learning, thanks to the straitjacket of prescription, that when they arrive at a place where they’re expected to have an opinion and an ability to express it, they often find it difficult to think for themselves and to articulate their thoughts. They may have a satchel full of A* and A grades at both GCSE and A-Level but they often can’t think independently.
It reminds me of the character in Evelyn Waugh’s “Scoop”. William Boot was a child who couldn’t think and therefore responded literally to everything asked of him. In a fit of annoyance his mother asked him to “turn over a new leaf”, so he bewilderingly wandered into the garden and did just that. It may seem far-fetched but this is what is happening to some of our children – so caught up in amassing ‘content’ (aka ‘facts’) that they can’t think independently. What more important objective of education is there than the ability to think independently and critically?
Oliver James’ talk, which began with a reading of Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse”*, was another highlight of Day One. His research into the nature/nurture debate, and the primacy of nurture over ‘DNA effects’, is fascinating. We are not fixed entities, slaves to our DNA, with no ability to steer our own course – as long as our upbringing and education equip us with a rudder, sails and stabilisers. He stressed the need to make sure that we are enabling and encouraging all manner of learning in everyone, and particularly between the ages of 6 and 13, which is where so much of our important learning can accelerate, assuming there’s a firm foundation already in place.
As a trained and experienced primary practitioner, one has to ask the question – why is this phase of education so often seen as the poor relation when the majority of research indicates that it’s at this time that the child learns more? It’s during their primary years that the child’s brain is developing rapidly in order to analyse, to memorise, to empathise, to recognise and develop their skills and their interests, to develop their values and recognise the values of others. Why do we so often clog up their developing and curious minds with tedious and trivial tasks that stymie their ability to think, to question, to imagine, to create, to seek information for themselves? It’s crazy, counterproductive and unacceptable.
The secondary sector has the ‘kudos’ of providing young people with recognised qualifications but the groundwork for academic success takes place long before eleven year olds pass through the gates of their “high” school. And it’s not just academic success that is founded within the primary sector. This is the time when children begin to find out who they are.
Oliver James addressed the issue of parenting and the need to encourage such things as play, authenticity, two-way communication with the ability to receive (listen) as well as articulate thoughts and feelings verbally. He said we must be very careful to consider what children need (whoops, Mr Young – back to that child-centred approach) and maybe, even if Mr James didn’t say it in so many words, perhaps we really ought to ensure that our initial teacher training considers very carefully what is offered in the way of contemporary child-development education.
The head of Wellington College, Dr Anthony Seldon, was on hand to personally thank Oliver James for his excellent contribution, and to stress the importance of his observations.
So far, this only takes us to lunch time on Day One. Additional posts on these speakers, and on those we enjoyed on Friday afternoon and on Saturday, will be on this blog over the next few days and weeks. For now we’d like to say a huge thank you to the organisers of this festival, and for this celebration of education. As one of our colleagues said, “who needs Glastonbury when you have this Education Festival!?”
Education is important to all of us. Getting it right is, in our opinion, the absolute priority of the moment. The setting of Wellington College offers many delights. It’s an inspiring environment that has been carefully designed and managed, but it’s something that many more children and young people should be able to experience.
At the end of the day we took a short walk to wind down and refresh prior to the long drive home. Passing through woods and colourful, blossoming rhododendron bushes, we enjoyed a lake full of lilies, a family of Canadian geese, and an array of paths crying out for exploration. The willingness of this school to open up and share its premises, facilities and expertise (and not just for two days a year) is something that other schools in the independent sector would do well to emulate. Its determined focus on aspects of learning beyond academic success – personal, social, emotional and spiritual – is something that others in both the public and the private sector would do well to consider.
*Philip Larkin – This Be The Verse
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.