When it comes to education (and children’s behaviour in particular), it seems that society is desperate for a ‘magic wand’. A neat, perfectly formed, and preferably instant solution that will solve all our problems overnight. Often, the magic solution will come couched in mysterious, esoteric language (I’m thinking ‘Transactional Analysis’ - huh, what that?) or it will have a registered trademark (Brain Gym® I’m looking at you with your fancy circled R).
A forthcoming programme in the BBC Two Schools Series (‘The Classroom Experiment’) shows ‘radical techniques’ being used. Hummm … radical, did you say? The Professor bans the children from putting up their hands and uses a random system (lollipop sticks in this instance) to decide who answers instead. Ah, I see, you mean the ‘anyone answers’ technique? I’ve heard that idea bandied about for at least the last five years (more interestingly, using a pack of playing cards rather than a set of lollipop sticks). And yes, it’s great in some situations, but it’s also completely hopeless in others. If I’m working with a bottom set full of disaffected teenage boys, they’re as likely to tell me where I can insert the lollipop stick as they are to answer my randomly asked question.
Centre stage in this ‘I’ve got a radical solution to solve all your problems’ approach comes the youthful Gareth Malone. Yes, the camera loves him. Yes, his ideas are great in theory. Yes, he seems like an awfully nice boy. But once again, this is not some radical new solution that will solve all our problems. And once again, there is no radical new solution that will do that for us anyway. I (and many other authors/trainers/teachers) have been advocating active learning, taking children out of the classroom, making lessons dramatic and engaging, bringing learning to life, for years. And the vast majority of teachers I meet already aim to do this, when they can, within the constraints of our education system.
The thing is, though, there is no magic wand and who would want one anyway? Classroom are messy, complex places, full of those strange, unique, magical beings called children. What works for one teacher, on one day, in one school, with one child, will often have little or no relation to what works for another teacher, on another day, in another school, for an entirely different child. Teaching and learning, behaviour management, classroom control: these things are about a hugely complex range of different strategies and approaches, rather than one single, unique solution. And thank goodness for that! I rather like it messy, you know.
I'm really fascinated at the moment by the notion of risk in the learning environment: how we control it, how far we should control it, how we can possibly find the right balance? As a society, we're becoming more and more risk averse - the threat that 'someone might sue' has lead to organisations slavishly following the 'rules', and forgetting that common sense is often the best yard stick of all. In the snow earlier this year, vast numbers of schools closed because of the risk that children or parents might slip over. But all this did was encourage those same children to head off to break their bones sledging down the nearest hill. Those of us who work in education have, to my mind, a duty to teach children how to be careful, how to calculate risks. And we can only do that if we allow them to take risks in the first place. Of course, these must be calculated risks. The other morning the children at my local preschool were using some real life cups and saucers, made of proper pottery, for their tea party. This was in the spirit of the Montessori approach, where you teach children to handle proper stuff, rather than all those plastic toys that are so risk free. But it was a calculated risk - the staff supervised them closely, and we didn't hand them a load of wafer thin champagne glasses and some sharp carving knives as well.
I went to a outdoor play meeting a while back, where someone from the Children's Society gave a fascinating talk about the Forest Schools in Denmark. What really caught my attention was the slide of a dead animal. The idea is that children are encouraged to bring in anything they find, and that includes roadkill, which they study and handle and just generally explore. The initial response from the group was 'ugghhh' and 'did they wear gloves?' (no they didn't was the answer). The next response was 'what on earth would Ofsted say?'. I have to admit, though, my over-riding thought was 'Why on earth didn't I think of that earlier?' Because a few months ago, there was a dead hedgehog on the lane just outside the little pre-school where I volunteer. I watched fascinated as day by day it attracted flies, which laid their eggs, which hatched into maggots, until the hedgehog eventually melted away into the ground. Now I'm kicking myself - what a missed opportunity! And how much learning our children would have got out of studying that lovely creature and its very sad demise!
During the course of my career in education, I've taken a good few risks. Sometimes they paid off, other times they didn't, but I've always aimed to give the children a measure of trust. Sometimes it works and they repay the trust you've shown them, sometimes it doesn't and things go wrong, students let you down. But that's no excuse for not doing it, because if they never get the trust, they never get the chance to prove themselves worthy. I guess the story of Flour Babies illustrates this point perfectly (go to the Lessons page on my website for details). The first time I did this activity was in a London school, with your typical mix of London kids. And they treated those bags of flour as though they were their own, real babies, taking the greatest of care of them for the entire week. Those babies had faces painted on them, cuddly toys, blankets, names. The students did me proud. The second time I tried the activity was in a school overseas, where the students came from much more privileged backgrounds. Within a few hours of handing out the bags of flour, there was a line of sobbing girls at my door, complaining that 'the boys have kidnapped our babies'. Hot on their heels was the caretaker, not looking best pleased. 'Come into the playground now please, Miss Cowley', he said. I rushed outside, only to find the flour baby massacre taking place. But I'd do that activity again, in a heartbeat (in fact I do it again at most of the training courses I deliver - you'd be amazed at how the teachers respond to the idea - not always good but definitely always interesting.)
I was looking for some quotes yesterday, about being brave and taking risks, to add into a keynote speech I'm giving shortly about transformational learning. There was a quote from T.S. Eliot which really struck a bell: "You have to risk going too far to discover how far you can really go." Yes it might go wrong/you might look stupid/the kids might think you're weird/someone might bang themselves/your classroom could get trashed (delete as appropriate) but be brave, dear reader. As Shakespeare memorably wrote, 'screw your courage to the sticking-place and we'll not fail'.
Elephants in the Classroom
You know that saying, about there being an 'elephant in the room': something everyone knows is there, but no one wants to mention? In teaching, there isn't just one elephant in the classroom, there's a whole herd of them, rampaging through the room. In this blog I plan to turn a spotlight on some of the unspoken and sometimes unpalatable truths about our noble profession (and the good stuff too). Because if we can't be honest about what makes a good learning experience, an effective school, or a good teacher, and equally what makes a bad one, then everyone loses.