Why we need to slow things down

Not far from where I live lies the Shropshire town of Ludlow. It’s known for many things – food, medieval architecture, a castle to name but three. But what many people don’t know is that it is the UK’s first Cittaslow town. Cittaslow is a movement that originated in Italy as a rally cry against all things fast-produced. It has since evolved into a cultural trend known as the ‘slow movement’.

This trend has now crossed over into education. Last weekend, the Sunday Times ran an article in which it claims that more and more schools are turning to ‘slow education’ in the belief that deep understanding cannot be achieved by rushing. To quote from the article:

“The movement is a new approach to learning inspired by a book called In Praise of Slow by Carl Honoré, a Canadian journalist. Slow education’s academic guru is the British-born Maurice Holt, emeritus professor of education at the University of Colorado Denver. In Britain it is promoted by Mike Grenier, an English teacher and housemaster at Eton College. Its backers believe that how children learn is as important as tests and targets.”

The notion of teaching children how best to learn is a controversial one and there are many protagonists out there who take the view that it’s a wasteful fancy. As a headteacher I have grappled with this very conundrum for many years. Getting the balance right between traditional instructional teaching methods and a more progressive child-led approach is incredibly difficult. Not surprisingly, ex-HMCI Sir Chris Woodhead wades in expressing his concern in the article that the slow education movement’s approach (quite often it seems with an over-reliance on project-based learning) is a throwback to the 1970s and is an attack on the government’s agenda to raise standards. As a result, concludes Mr. Woodhead, we have created a generation of children (of which I am one) with gaping holes in their factual knowledge.

The challenge for the slow education movement is to get the balance right between the need to raise standards and being held accountable whilst at the same time removing the stress and pressures of hot-housing and testing. Can we create a system that has both? Can high stakes and league tables sit alongside creativity and nurture? We need to find a way that promotes the values of a slow education but at the same time provide opportunities that – according to Mr. Woodhead – allow students to submit to a body of external knowledge.

The Slow Education movement’s website acknowledges this but feels that we’ve already crossed the divide:

“Are you a teacher or head of a school who feels testing has gone too far? Do you wonder about life after levels? We within the Slow Education movement believe we are at a critical moment. There is a need to reclaim the importance of quality, creative teaching which enables students to think independently and cope with the challenges of life today.”

It’s certainly a worthwhile call to arms. However, as much as I subscribe to their underlying principles, I can’t help but think that in order to enable students to ‘cope with the challenges of life today’ then they need to be able to operate effectively within a frenetic and fast-paced environment. It’s a double-edge sword.

Three ways then to slow things down in your school:

1. Project-based learning. Often much-maligned but when used effectively and is purposeful and based on a child’s interests it allows pupils to engage in deep learning. I’ve written about PBL in a previous blog in which I emphasised the fact that PBL needs to promote critical thinking. Most importantly, it’s essential that learners acquire and apply relevant new knowledge. Where it goes wrong is when children have not been taught to think independently and so PBL simply serves as an activity to keep pupils busy. So yes, if delivered incorrectly, it serves no purpose and I can see why Woodhead raises concerns. However, providing PBL sits within a whole-school framework and is planned for meticulously ensuring that it promotes a broad and balanced curriculum, then as a tool for sustained school improvement, it’s highly recommended.

2. Learning in Depth. As a concept it’s very simple: To ensure that over the course of a child’s time in a school, no other pupil in the world is more expert about a specific body of knowledge than that child. Children in Reception are assigned a specific topic, such as ‘Pirates’, ‘Submarine World’, ‘Insects’ to name but a few. They then spend the next seven years mastering all that there is to know about the concept. The pupils lead the learning and have total control about their lines of enquiry. Once per term we run LiD days where children spend the day in mixed age classes (all the ‘Amphibians’ learn together from age 5 to 11). Facilitated by a teacher or teaching assistant, the pupils apply all their research, enquiry and thinking skills to master their learning and to take on the mantle of the expert. The fact that pupils have seven years to remain interested, inspired and enthused requires a slow pace with ample resilience, perseverance and determination on the learner’s part. It also requires excellent teachers who are able to take on the role of coach. Most importantly, pupils’ work is not assessed by a teacher and the only feedback they receive is from their peers through critique. Finally, for it to work well, pupils must be taught how to think, assess their work and that of their peers and to think actively in a social context. All of this needs to operate within an experiential and immersive curriculum that is sufficiently tight to ensure breadth, balance and rigour whilst at the same time being loose enough to allow for creativity and adaptability. You can learn more about Learning in Depth by watching its creator Professor Kieran Egan explain it here.

3. Ditch timetables. We seem to have a national obsession in primary schools with blocking learning into manageable bite-sized chunks so that we can create timetables to keep management and Ofsted happy. Remember those ridiculous calculations that we had to do for Ofsted back in the 1990s to show how many minutes of history or geography we were teaching per week? Woe betide any school that was a minute short. Numeracy and literacy hours didn’t help matters either. I understand that we have to stop learning at certain points during the day to eat and to go home. But other than that, leave them be. If your class are on task, in a state of flow and fully immersed in their learning then let them get on with it. It’s only managers that love timetables. Leaders don’t. So be bold and do away with them and go for a flexible timetable approach instead.

Being Secondary Ready

Judging by the response at the recent Westminster Briefings in London and Manchester, the concept of ‘Being Secondary Ready’ is a controversial one. Asked by the organisers to speak at the events on the subject, it was clear that Gove’s latest proposal to test and rank 11 year olds was a non-starter. So rather than go there full of doom and gloom and attempt to present how it might work in reality, I couldn’t resist the opportunity of seizing the moment.

For too long, we as a profession have allowed the curriculum to become a political battleground. Rather than huff and puff at the current plans, I appealed to school leaders to reclaim the curriculum and make it work for our schools. Whether an academy or not, the content of the curriculum is largely irrelevant if it is underpinned by a set of fundamental beliefs and core values. Heads need to go back to their schools and have discussions with pupils, teachers, parents and governors about what they believe to be the non-negotiables of a real and purposeful curriculum that is at the heart of a whole education. Regardless of changes to the national curriculum, these will always outlive any proposal by a Secretary of State. Pedagogical context is far more important than content and will always stand the test of time.

A good starting point is the school prospectus. Packed away as a PDF or stashed away in a box somewhere, the glossy brochure is likely to contain a very useful and relevant set of aims and values. They look great as a set but how often do we actually assess whether or not a child has achieved each individual one when they leave Year 6? We tend to be so driven by performance at SATs that we lose sight of the other more valid and valuable ideals. Almost every school will have an aim to do with ‘high standards of achievement’ which is obviously measurable. But what about the other more important ones such as ‘positive attitudes and values’ or ‘lively and enquiring minds’ and so on? We don’t of course dwell on these because they are harder to measure, but that doesn’t mean that we must abandon them. If anything, these are the really crucial ones that really and truly make a child ‘secondary ready’. Indeed, a recent survey by the City and Guilds showed that the majority of employers see vocational skills as being far more important than academic achievement. According to the report, half of the polled businesses/employers believe the current education system has failed to meet their needs. As educators, we have known this all along. We just need to convince the policy makers of its importance.

For me then, being secondary ready consists of 3 key elements. If pupils can leave any given school with these competences then they are well placed to become members of a highly productive workforce of the future. (And don’t get me going on PISA rankings and the ‘hothouse flowering’ of students who wither and fade as soon as they leave school.)

1. The ability to speak fluent Learnish.

In this particular school, pupils speak over 40 different languages. However, the one language that unites them all is ‘Learnish’. First coined by Guy Claxton, Learnish involves pupils being able to use the language associated with deep-rooted learning to help them build their learning power. Pupils need to Yearn to Learn so that they have a natural thirst and desire for knowledge and enquiry. Children must not expect immediate answers and instant gratification in the pursuit of knowledge. A pub-quiz curriculum is of no use to anyone. They need to  be continually involved in active JOBS  during a lesson (the Joy Of Being Stuck) that requires pupils to build up a mental sweat in order to become unstuck without turning to the teacher. Pupils need to relish and celebrate this moment in the knowledge that they will shortly be learning something new. Pupils who are secondary ready will possess the emotional intelligence to be able to acknowledge this feeling and thrive on it. They will roll their sleeves up, deal with the turmoil and get stuck into the learning. As a result, children need to be expert at meta-learning and use the language of Learnish to articulate not only what they’ve learned but more importantly how they’ve learned.

2. The digital pencil case.

Every child needs a pencil case where they keep all their bits and pieces to help them learn – pens, rubbers, calculator etc. These traditional pencil cases are very important, but in order to be a 21st century lead learner every child should have a Digital Pencil Case as well. Essential kit within their digital pencil case will include a one-to-one device to use at home and school giving pupils 24/7 connectivity. The device will include the latest innovative software such as the Microsoft Learning Suite and a range of Apps to support learning. By blending their learning children will have access to iPads, netbooks, laptops, green screens, iMacs and PCs as well as the more traditional methods. We need to teach our children to be digital lead learners and to be able to ‘Digiflex’ by choosing how best to learn at any given moment.

By ‘flipping’ the classroom we can ensure that the learning of new content is completed at home using their digital pencil case and then extended and challenged in school. In much the same way as selecting a club from a golf bag to play a shot, the digital pencil case allows pupils to choose the most appropriate application to complete a task. When playing golf, you don’t need to use every club for every hole, but it’s good to know they’re there if you need them. It’s about being able to make the right shot selection at any given moment. The same applies to pupils who can Digiflex. Having access to a well-stocked digital pencil case is at the heart of being secondary ready.

3. A thinking toolkit

Regardless of the curriculum content, in a school where Learnish is the language of choice, children can be taught how to think from the moment they enter Nursery. This allows children to learn to yearn and be naturally inquisitive and tenacious in their thinking. Edward de Bono’s thinking hats and CoRT 1 tools ensure pupils quickly become resilient and resourceful learners who are able to capitalise, distil, imitate and revise. Teach children how to use TASC wheels and a whole new dimension to enterprise and initiative opens up. Thinking Actively in a Social Context not only does exactly as it says, but it also provides the perfect arena for the speaking of Learnish. Mastery learning, immersion and learning in depth all serve to equip pupils with the mental obstinacy and doggedness required to be powerful learners.

Irrespective of the curriculum  a school chooses to follow, be it academy or maintained, the above 3 competences will serve learners well and guarantee they are secondary ready. Of course, all of these will be irrelevant if a secondary school does not value and promote them on entry to KS3. Indeed, this was one of the main concerns raised by primary colleagues – being ‘secondary ready’ is all well and good but what if the local High School is not ‘primary ready’?

Never will the day come when we as a profession are able to agree what being secondary ready means, let alone test and rank it. It’s an absurd notion and means absolutely nothing to educationists. We shouldn’t even waste time trying to build consensus. Instead, let’s seize the moment and seek to steal an advantage by reclaiming the moral compass once and for all.


A piece of cake

The football season is now in full swing. As I stood on the touchline at the weekend watching my son play I asked the dad next to me how his week was at work. ‘Oh, the usual – same as it always is. Boring.’ I sensed already that the conversation was over but he then turned and asked me how mine was. ‘Oh, the usual – I stood in front of 400 kids and scoffed 16 cakes.’ As you do.

For a minute I thought it might have been the same dad who I told last season that I went to work one day dressed up as a medieval knight. Or as a smelly tramp. Come to think of it, it probably was the same man because he looked at me out the corner of his eye and walked off. I know now why nobody stands next to me anymore.

You have to be a teacher to really understand it. Trying to explain to non-teacher friends what you do is very difficult. Take the Medieval Day for example.  I could probably name 3 or 4 of my friends who would pay good money to be able to hire a costume and play at being a knight in armour for the day. Throw in a marquee, a medieval feast and a big battle and for some it’s a dream-come-true. But for the staff at VPA, it’s all in a day’s work. I sometimes have to pinch myself that I’m actually getting paid to do these things. Remember Dara at the TES Awards’ Ceremony? ‘It’s amazing they do any work in that school.’

This is why our curriculum is so Real, Immersive and Purposeful.  School really is the best party in town. Staff are not afraid to well and truly ‘Let RIP’ so the children are entranced and captivated by all that goes on around them. The opening Learning Challenge of the year always kicks off with the ‘Big Adventure’ and the hook of all hooks – the ‘Grand Day Out’. This year though, the trip alone wasn’t enough. Michelle Harrison, our Reception teacher and DT leader wanted to take it a step further and integrate – quite obviously – a trip on a fleet of vintage double-decker busses with baking a cake. Not necessarily the first cross-curricular link that comes to mind.

And so the inaugural ‘Bake Off’ was born.  And what a success it was too.  Pupils spent the week immersed in all things to do with cakes (quite literally). Each class had to use TASC wheels to research, design, create, bake and ice a cake of their own based on their ‘Grand Day Out’. They then had to ‘pitch’ it during the assembly prior to tasting. So we had cakes designed around  the Tudor Oak House, Moseley Bog, the local fire station,  a remembrance memorial and Bourneville to name a few. We had (failed) sparklers going off, drummers and even a minute silence. Our Business Manager tried to slip in a ringer but we saw through his guise and disqualified him for being slightly not in the under-11 category (even though it was by far the best cake).

Although the finished products were fabulous and flavoursome (cheese aside), the learning that took place before and after was amazing. I was invited to join 6M’s class at the end of their maths lesson following the judging. They confidently informed me of the mean, median, mode and range of the scores and how their learning had all been linked to their Grand Day Out. Their TASC wheels and CoRT 1 activities were perceptively completed and it was very difficult to have to choose one overall winner (thanks Mrs Mullaney).

A brilliant week in all, made to look so easy by the staff. And I haven’t even mentioned the sponsored Mini with the winning ‘Grand Day Out’ design on the roof.  So even though no-one talks to me any more at football matches, it’s great being a teacher.  Especially when you get to have your cake and eat it.