The beginning of a new month, a new school year and a new set of challenges or opportunities in the shape of a new National Curriculum.
We’ve finally had a summer that has lived up to its name – with sunshine, warmth and a clear distinction with the seasons on either side. In recent years, the traditional “four seasons” pictures illustrated something that many of our young people had never really experienced. Showing a photograph of a person struggling in a swirling wind with leaves falling from the trees and rain beating down could easily have been identified as the summers of 2006 -2012 with very little respite, and yet we still plodded on with “facts” about the seasons that bore no resemblance to children’s own reality.
“Now is the time”, we said in our last post, and now really is the time to ensure that the curriculum that we offer to our children and young people is relevant to them, based upon and developing from their actual experiences. Our examinations and our schemes of work should resonate with children and their life experiences.
On the radio this week Professor Alison Wolf suggested that all students who didn’t achieve a ‘C’ grade GCSE for maths and English should study and retake the exams until they attain the expected or desired result. Why? – because without these grades, young people will be deemed inferior and possibly unemployable. Really?
With the school leaving age being raised we should continue to support young people with their study and application of maths and English but the most important aspect of their learning is how they are enabled to use their knowledge in the real world, not the grade they receive. A minority of children will require yet more study in order to retake exams and achieve a grade they will actually need to further their future careers. Whereas every young person can benefit from a non-academic approach to becoming better writers, readers and mathematicians.
As a primary practitioner, I happen to think that I was a better maths teacher for not understanding the subject as a child, because I had that experience of just not ‘getting it’. Due to this I could empathise enormously with the poor child in front of me who didn’t really understand the concept I was trying to teach, and we worked together to make it as relevant as possible.
Good teachers do this, and sometimes they’ve felt very restricted by the content of the National Curriculum when they’ve known that some of the concepts and objectives have little relevance to their students’ lives, now or in the future.
Ironically, Mr Gove has enabled us to ensure that “now is the time” to make sure that our children’s learning is relevant and experiential. The Secretary of State himself has said that the National Curriculum has been slimmed down to free teachers to make study relevant for young people. Admittedly, he’d like any ‘spare time’ to be filled with facts and the reciting of Dryden, and any schools with a notice to improve may feel more restricted, but as a profession we should use this time wisely. We should practice what we believe and look at how we can make learning inviting and exciting for our young people. We should use this time to be imaginative and creative, ensuring that we find ways of making learning relevant and challenging.
We should be using the local environment and getting children out and about as often as possible. We should be asking them what they want to learn, and invite them to construct part of their learning experience, and we should embrace the individual’s needs and interests.
It sounds like hard work, and yes it is, but the benefit of engaging the learner in meaningful learning is a reward in itself that is well worth the effort. Besides, if the learner is fully involved in shaping their learning experiences then they’re more likely to be fully engaged in lessons. Furthermore, if Mr Gove wants our children to retain facts, then we have to make those facts meaningful too.
This summer, I had the pleasure of taking two young girls to a National Trust property in Surrey. Over a month later, the five year old recounted our visit and talked about going to see “Mrs Greville’s” house. I doubt whether she would have been able to retain the owner of Polesden Lacey’s name had she merely read it in a book and not experienced the pleasure of being taken round this house by a woman dressed in full Edwardian attire – and then trying on various clothes of that time for herself.
Later in the summer, I listened to a young 12 year old explain his interest in science. He’s a fortunate lad who has a mother who is willing and enthusiastic enough to take him to places where his formal learning can be enhanced – thus excursions to the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff and the Greenwich Observatory. He described in very clear terms how this had been important to him and finished his account with a terrifying comment…… “I just wish I could learn what I wanted to learn in school”.
Well, why can’t he?
Now is the time to “carpe diem” – seize the day and help children to see that the rules and rituals of learning aren’t set in stone (‘i’ before e except after ‘c’!) and can be as individual and various as the seasons of the year. We have been gifted opportunities to make a curriculum that is personalised and relevant for all of our children – one that develops all of their intelligences.
We’re feeling very hopeful about the new school year and are available to support any school that wishes to plan a new curriculum that fully provides opportunities to develop a child’s social, personal, physical and spiritual intelligence as well as their intellect and their ability to be instinctual. We hope that schools throughout the country will use this time to consider the many occasions when learning can be taken out of the classroom and made more meaningful to our young people. We look forward to hearing from our colleagues in schools about how they’ve used the “freedom” afforded by the Secretary of State to create a lively, ever-changing curriculum that means that our children are learning what they want to learn.
We wish everyone a peaceful, harmonious and creative new school year.