‘Not doing’

 

Tempus fugit. And it flies filled, yet liberated from the frantic programming which drove our days in school.

As quickly as time flies do moods change: highs are checked by the reality of coexisting and finding space for ourselves as individuals within this new rhythm. I have had moments – a number of them – of doubt and worries, as I knew I would. These moments (or, more accurately, these nights; naturally, they usually come typically and frustratingly, at night, worries queuing up to plague me while I try increasingly frantically to sleep), are however, inevitably inverted fully by a conversation, an article, a podcast which convinces me yet again that this decision is right.

This absolute security is driven overwhelmingly by the growing body of evidence – psychological, anecdotal or fuelled by developments in neuroscience – that continually challenges preconceived notions about the ways in which children learn and seeks to move on or overturn the prevailing system of schooling. Over the last week, by way of example, I have been inspired, reassured and motivated by articles such as Jo Boaler’s research into the ways in which our brains are wired to think mathematically, by books such as Cathy Davidson’s Now You See It, and by the Education Futures Podcast interviewing Peter Hartkamp in Beyond Coercive Education. Collectively, such reading and listening, supported by the unprecedented speed at which modern life is being radicalised by technological advances, reinforces my belief that ‘schools’ as we know them are on their way out. That is not to say that learning in communities won’t form part of the future of education, but these communities will look radically different from the way in which they look today.

This is not going to happen quickly, for one simple reason.

Risk.

Risk in innovation is good. Risk in business is usually calculated. Risk in banking… well, I won’t go into that one. But Risk, with a capital R, in education is unfathomably daunting. It’s daunting because people are afraid to take the Risk to ‘not do’. To ‘not do’ could define broadly what being outside mainstream education looks like.

Risking and thereby ‘not doing’ is daunting, for the simple reason that this Risk is perceived to be playing as at dice with our children’s future.

Inside mainstream education there is an overwhelming drive to ‘do’ rather than to ‘not do’. By ‘doing’ I mean these sorts of things: putting children in after school clubs, in breakfast clubs, slotting in extra lessons to catch up, extra lessons to get ahead, following after school clubs held at school with extra curricular clubs in the neighbourhood. Schools themselves drive this: if children are perceived as ‘behind’ (behind expected levels of attainment which have been determined at a national level, which define learning as linear, ascribe educational milestones to specific ages and fundamentally hold schools and de facto children accountable to test scores), those children are given extra lessons to catch up: they are put into more lessons, given less freedom, less play time, less autonomy in an effort to fit them into the (outmoded, in my opinion) system, which insists on boxing children into a post-industrial revolution educational model. They are put into these extra lessons because the system wants them to fit into a particular model, a model which insists, as Sir Ken Robinson reminds us frequently and eloquently, that children enter school at one point, travel through a system of specified milestones and are churned out the other end with a specific set of frequently tested, easily measurable body of knowledge. The knowledge so frequently tested and with which these children are equipped is, however, increasingly criticised by those in industry and business, who report regularly that graduates are ill equipped to work in the modern world. That knowledge has been gained all too often at the expense of developing far more difficult to measure soft skills, such as critical thinking, resourcefulness, resilience, the desire to continue learning, creativity, innovation, curiosity, empathy, self awareness, self regulation…

So, here are some examples of what ‘not doing’ the education system looks like.

 

 

It looks like taking our time to get to places, so we can leave on a Friday (a school day, in terms time), to stop off at Stonehenge on our way down to a weekend away with friends. We walk through the fields to the stones. Three children, equipped with three audio guides, listened to thoroughly unsynchronised, thereby allowing me to listen to the same audio in triple delay, gleaning nothing on my own and instead delighting when the children turn to me with nuggets of information – what the mounds around us are, who and what are in them; why that stone was called the blood stone; where the sun rises at solstice. We sit in the sun and the children draw: H’s sketch tries to take in the stone circle itself; P is interested in how the stones were put there and draws a diagram. We take our time wandering back, picking daisies. We stop in the visitor centre and watch the seasons change in the projected stones in 360 around us.

Not doing looks like exploring maths, art and nature as we draw out the Fibonacci sequence, then translate it into art and a Fibonacci view finder. We spend the day spotting the Golden Curve in art around the house. We take it outside to see if we can spot it in nature.

Not doing looks like seizing the chance to immerse ourselves in art and visit the Hockney Exhibition. P takes the audio again and tells me about key paintings. H is fascinated by faces. They sit and draw again. P’s is bright, colourful, with bold lines and strong sense of Hockney. H takes the chance to think again about how you draw people. S’s sketch catches the eyes of other visitors. I offer it up at a relatively low price – cash in now on an early SD?

 

 

Not doing looks like having a home day because we are tired. Taking the bikes out, falling off and P wondering ‘why do you cry when you hurt yourself?’ I don’t have much of an answer, but I know that doesn’t matter. Because ‘not doing’ also means undoing all your preconceived notions of education. Not doing and being out of the system is about not expecting to know all of the answers, but rather fostering the curiosity that drives the questions. P returns to his own question later, adding in other physiological responses to pain. I am pretty sure the thought will resurface and reconnect at another point.

Not doing looks like joining in everyday jobs too. We have to nip to the shops but we remember the watch batteries need changing. The children are delighted to wear their watches again. P tells me that at school they had only started to teach him quarter past and half past. He wants to know how to tell ‘all the times’. I’m driving the car. He would rather like to know now. I think about how I would have taught this if I’d planned it: with a clock, with several clock faces drawn on paper plates, with coloured pens and moveable hands. I can’t do that, because he wants to know now. So I try to explain, without taking my hands off the wheel to gesticulate as much as I would like. The rest of the day is punctuated by P. telling me what time it is: the learning is happening because it is real, driven by him. It’s not finite, he doesn’t definitively know how to tell the time, though I imagine if I had tested him on it that day, he would have done fine. We have and will continue to revisit telling the time, and have done – while waiting for trains, buses and tubes, when wondering what time our friends will arrive, or how long the pasta takes to cook. We tell the time in real time.

 

Not doing looks like deciding they want to sew. P. makes a heart cushion ‘for the kittens’. He draws out the template, folding the heart in half (symmetry), cutting template and material, working out how the machine works. He’s off. He runs upstairs to find his Boys Craft Book, pulls out an old t-shirt and runs himself up a drawstring bag, cutting it to size (measurements). H flicks through craft magazines and wants to make a padded bag. We work through the pattern, measuring our materials, working out how we need to pin the pieces together and why. The sewing machine breaks. It’s frustrating. We turn to hand sewing for a while and P embroiders letters in chain stitch on phone cases that he has carefully measured out 2 cms wider and longer than a phone.

Not doing looks like taking the local preschool up on the invitation to share some of our Italian with the children there. H. leads a session, carefully introducing why we are there, including all the children in the session, thinking of activities that will involve them. They sing their hearts out – Italian nursery rhymes the tunes of which the children will know from English, followed by a beautiful solo by P. The preschool children would like them to go back to teach them numbers. H and P would be delighted, they say.

We’re not doing and, on balance, we’re loving it. We haven’t done many – any – worksheets and not a great deal of writing. It would be hard to mark what we have done against a set of prescribed metrics. I’m not sure the activities could be divided up according to subject silos and I haven’t a clue whether the children are a level 3, 4 or 5. Instead I know that we have created and made, food, art, woodwork and crafts. We have questioned, wondered and marvelled. We’ve been out in the real world and had real world conversations. My brother has a poster on his wall: ‘Do what you love and the money will follow’. I am considering making my own, slightly altered version: ‘Do what you love and the learning will follow’.

 

 

 

 

Early reflections

Just over two weeks in…. on the drive up north and a moment for reflection.

Things I’ve noticed:

Time is calmer, despite the fact that I have less of it to myself. We are allowed to follow a natural family rhythm. Although we have still had organised activities and appointments which have required some schedule to the day, we haven’t had the morning getup-breakfast-dress-getyourbagreadyNOW-Ihaven’tdonemyhomework-Ineedmybook-where’smyshoe?’ stress. We also haven’t had the end of the day high antics as both of them have needed to get the school day out of their system. Somehow, I feel that I have enjoyed being with the children, rather than just chivvying them from one task/activity/order to the next.

I can’t say that I have particularly found much consistent time for my writing, getting through my massive reading list and planning my dream ‘future school that’s not a school’, but I have managed to snatch moments to jot down thoughts and ideas and it has been delightful that there have been whole periods of time in which the children have been thoroughly immersed in an activity of their choosing.

Some highlights from the last two weeks:

Bees. Distressed to learn that 20 species of bee population have become extinct in the last century, H and P decided to give two week’ pocket money each to help buy a Friends of the Earth Bee Saver Kit. Industrious as bees themselves, no sooner was the donation made, than bed time stories were postponed as they plotted a cake sale to raise money and awareness, and before I’d even made my coffee the next morning, P was creating guides to making your own bee hotel and H writing information leaflets. Even S was on board, decorating guides with stamps and bees. I agreed to the cake sale on condition that the children find the recipe, calculate quantities and costs involved. P was lucky enough to develop his bee hotel ideas in a mini apprenticeship with a friend’s father who is an incredibly skilled ‘amateur’ carpenter. Our kit has arrived and our home made tally chart is on the wall complete with bee identifier. Flower beds have been weeded and space made and our bee-attracting seeds are sown. Science, maths, writing and drawing all combined with intergenerational learning, family time and being outside.

 

Gravity. On our journey north,  we had the luxury of control over our own time and stopped off en route at the family home of Sir Isaac Newton, National Trust property, Woolsthorpe Manor. P couldn’t contain his excitement to see the bedroom in which Newton had used his prism and played with light. We sketched the famous apple tree lying on a blanket in the sun and the children had a chance to engage actively with the scientific discoveries in the excellent, hands on science centre. Long saved birthday money was spent wisely, only after calculating how much they would have left and as soon as we were at our night stop, P. made his windmill light generator. Learning happens thick and fast. It’s not always necessary to write it down in an exercise book to be marked with a red pen.

 

Eagles and falcons. On an early morning walk in the first week, P, who has enjoyed an alter ego as an eagle in the past, was musing on the possibility of having his own bird of prey one day. Great timing for us, then, that on our way up north we could spend a day at Thorpe Perrow Arboretum and enjoy two falconry displays. The peregrine falcon and Colin the Eagle sat on the bench next to us. Happy days.

Word play. You can’t plan for spontaneity. As a teacher in the classroom, there were days I would walk into class brimful with excitement, laden with resources for a technicolour lesson. I would walk out buzzing with the excitement from a tangential thought we’d taken as the children drove the lesson forward in an unexpected way. The technicolour resources would stand untouched: their ideas had been too good to miss. It’s hard to follow these moments in teaching nowadays, such is the pressure of the curriculum. Without the shackles of the ever-laden timetabled days increasingly synonymous with childhood, as children’s after-school time is programmed with clubs and activities designed to ensure they are never bored, we can follow tangents. Boredom is far from our enemy. From boredom comes creativity. Bored on the car journey home from London last week, H started talking aloud about ‘a family poem like that ‘A is an Apple Pie’ poem’. She started working it out. By letter ‘D’, P had joined in. By ‘J’, I’d decided this was too good to miss and we set the audio recorder on my phone. 45 minutes of focussed concentration later, we’d arrived home and H, P and S had co-created an alphabet poem with family members, attributes or memories for every letter, self correcting rhyme, rhythm and alliteration as they went.

Seizing the sun. I can see the freedom in their faces. We’ve taken our wheels out and cycled and scooted through these days of early spring bulbs. Out in the garden while I was cooking, they pulled the climbing frame from between the sheds (packed there when we went to Italy), realised it had rusted in places, but wasted no time problem solving. They wanted the slide, so they inverted monkey bars to help them make one.

 

Within all this, thanks to the support of a wonderful grandma, I’ve also been able to go to two meetings, the latter a debate on an alternative to Primary Assessment. The four speeches, including one each by the Head of the NUT and the co-director of the Cambridge Primary Review Trust, simply affirmed fully my decision to deregister the children from a system which in its insistence on measuring and examining according to pre-determined paths is systematically failing our children. The graphic depiction for a learning path is better compared to the scribbling doodles of a pre-schooler than the linear progression from level to level and competency to competency drilled into the documents of the current curriculum. KS1 SATs have been scrapped this year, but I fear this simply detracts attention from the reintroduction of baseline assessment at school entry; one has to continue to question a government which has announced another consultation on Primary Assessment, rather than responding to the views of the last one. Childhood doesn’t wait. They are growing now and the government needs to listen to the views of professionals and parents who are right to demand better for the next generation.

 

Links
morethanascore
savechildhoodnetwork
letourkidsbekids
toomuchtoosoon

A New Journey

14 March 2017

It was the fronted adverbials that did it. For every jittery moment I had in considering the next leap we were to decide to take as a family, fronted adverbials, expanded noun phrases and spelling lists involving such vital everyday words as ‘quoits’ continually resurfaced in my mind. In the dark hours of the night these thoughts confused themselves with Gradgrind’s exacting definition of a horse, (‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive….’*), and I would wake with resolve. Education has to be about more than this, right?

I was on the edge of tears when I handed the letter in and spoke to the children’s teachers. I actually like schools. Correction, I like the potential that learning in and being part of a school community has to offer. I like shared values, collaborative learning, the energy and inspiration of the most passionate teachers. I like access to resources, shared spaces, singing together, performing, assemblies. I like my children finding role models in other adults. I like the idea that one moment, one teacher, one idea can be a turning point in a child’s life. I like celebrating beautiful work through displays, I like choosing themes and exploring them through myriad connections. I like proud parent moments. And possibly more than that, I used to like proud teacher moments. I liked mentoring children, discovering new ways of helping things to click. I loved those light bulb moments. I loved it when I’d managed it and they’d been inspired.

In short, I am not anti-school.

But I am thoroughly disillusioned with the way in which the system is moving. Happiness classes being trialled for 8 year olds, stress and children’s mental health disorders costing the NHS £105 billion a year, children needing to be ‘school ready’, and the red thread linking all the reports, articles, comments… the red thread is the constant need to test, to measure through testing, to drive results upwards and forwards, at the cost of – of learning being defined by a symbolic badge, demonstrating little more than the ability of a small being to regurgitate specific information at a fixed moment in time in response to a specific question. Education has been reduced to the acquisition of a grade, of passing a test, of getting a certificate.

I want children to learn more than how to guess accurately an answer that is in my – or the examiner’s – head. And I feel the imperative for this ever more acutely when I see the rate at which the world around us is changing. As technology disrupts every area of our lives, the primacy of a knowledge-based education has to be challenged. Ironically, even as technology such as a translation ear piece reaches accuracy which will radicalise communication, mainstream education takes a step backwards, insisting on rote learning of facts, on drilling and testing. It’s the old fashioned model of children as empty vessels waiting to be filled with predetermined information, rather than the consideration of children as naturally curious, naturally ready and hard wired to learn, to question, to inquire.

I recently read a perfect analogy for the futility of constant testing: weighing yourself daily doesn’t make you lose weight. Precisely: weight loss can be sought more reliably by moving more and eating less. And testing will not lead to better results any more than weighing will lead to weight loss. Better ‘results’, or more accurately, better outcomes, or children who are better learners, more eager to learn, more able to ask pertinent questions, more inquiring of mind will be and are the natural results of environments which give children opportunities to do what they do naturally and very effectively, namely, to learn.

A few weeks ago, H. came home and told me that ‘you can’t “crash quietly into a tree.” Excuse me? H. insisted that no, you cannot, under any circumstance write the descriptive phrase, ‘“I crashed quietly into a tree”, because, Mummy, a crash is noisy, so you can’t do it quietly.’ Why not, I asked her? If you wrote that for me, I would be delighted – perhaps you would be trying to express the terrifying internal silence as your life flashes before your eyes just before the crash. No. Her teacher had said you can’t write it. So you can’t.

I don’t have issues with the teacher, for whom I actually have a great deal of respect. I take issue with the fact that creative writing has become prescriptive, and at such a young age. It was bad enough at GCSE when we taught children to write for a specific reason (writing is grouped into a purpose, fitting neatly into a pithy triplet – to argue, persuade, advise or to inform, explain, describe; any child who veered off into imaginative territory which didn’t fit the marking criteria would miss the grade, however engaging, stimulating and original the work), but at least at GCSE there is the hope that you can tell the more creative students just to play the game this once and then get back to their interesting writing. H.’s comment was an insight as to why September generally began with Year 7 English classrooms filled with the same exciting simile: “I ran as fast as a cheetah.” To this is creativity in writing reduced.

So I arrive at a point in which I am by turn petrified, ecstatic, excited. I feel liberated and freed. We have stepped out. Out of an institution and into a story which we will co-create. I am under no illusions: there will be whole chapters in which I will be exhausted, distressed and questioning why I haven’t just sent them all to school to give myself a break. There will be whole chapters in which I will struggle to be teacher and mummy and still find moments to be Amy.

I hope I will remind myself in these moments of the following:

  • Before the children went to school, they actually learned a great deal. All of it without any direct instruction. They learned by imitation and experimentation, by trial and error. They learned to sit, then crawl and onwards to walk and run. They learned to speak and once they could, a whole new world of questioning was theirs. They learned lots of right and when they might have transgressed the boundaries to wrong. They learned masses about their own small world and a great deal about this massive world around them. They noticed and compared, commented and thought. They decided what and how they wanted to play.
  • I have questioned from day one whether teachers at the school really know my children or are really able to help them flourish and develop their talents. Aged four to five, H. used to create poetry books in her own time, carefully stapling pages together, writing short poems and illustrating them. This stopped with the onset of Year 1. I have wondered about a system which hasn’t the time or inclination to nurture the interests of the children within it. I’ve wondered why my children are being told to write in a prescribed way when they are in the full throes of creativity.
  • I have always been surprised by the teachers telling me what my children are capable of, as if I don’t know and then telling me what they think she/he can’t do, simply because they haven’t been privy to the insight I have.
  • Slavishly following catatonically boring reading schemes has done nothing to inspire either of my oldest two children to read. In my humble opinion, it has achieved nothing but the opposite, reducing  the fascination and wonder of words to a mind numbing linear process of decoding.
  • Although I am aware that my children would, more than likely, have left school largely unscathed and with fond memories, they would also have left thinking that learning is only learning if it is validated by a test and a mark. They would have left thinking that learning is work, to be got out of the way before the real stuff – play – can happen. The distinction between work and play was already apparent. Play was happening at home and work happening at school. Play was become what ‘I choose to do’ and work is what someone ‘makes me do’.

This is not the route I saw myself taking, but I hadn’t accounted for quite how comprehensively the national curriculum and the obsession with testing can pervade an education system. It’s another unknown and another potential risk. Today, though, the sun was actually shining brightly – quite literally. The sky was cobalt blue. It felt auspicious.

*Charles Dickens Hard Times

How P. Will Beat the Captain and His Hired Sportsmen*

I am forced to do exactly what I’ve been harping on about for all these years.  The force is self induced: the choice to put myself in this situation was taken entirely freely.

I am being made to consider what it really means to say that in England, children learn too much, too young and my guinea pig is P.

For years I’ve struggled with an education system which brings children in at the age of four and pretty quickly subjects them to tests, from the faintly annoying to the utterly absurd.**

For years I have thought it at best risible that there can be 364 days difference in the ages of children who are arbitrarily put into a class based on their age on 1 September from which point they are measured against one another, regardless of well-intentioned teachers’ attempts to the contrary.

 

So, on a blind wing of faith, we came to Italy, a bizarre conflation of the ridiculous (a clunking, archaic state system) to the sublime  (pockets of progress, change and innovation such as Reggio Emilia). We chose Italy thinking that we would be liberated from the shackles of the English system and we would worry about inevitable adversities later.

It would have been virtually impossible to appreciate fully, until we lived it, quite how comprehensively Italy would throw P. into a radical ‘slowing down’ of his formal education. Thus  last September, when his English peers were sitting at desks, heads down, P found himself ‘back’ in materna, ‘only’ dealing with the challenge of learning a new language, in a system which is adamant that children should not learn formally until the age of six.

It means that P. is, to all intents and purposes a year ‘behind’.

He is a year ‘behind’ where he would be, or would have been forced to be, had we been subject to the English education system. He is a year ‘behind’ the parameters, standards, deadlines and requirements of a system obsessed with measurable standards. So P. hasn’t been forced to read and write so called number sentences, interpreting ‘mathematical statements involving addition, subtraction and equals signs’, he hasn’t been forced to sit down on a chair, at a table, to ‘describe position, direction and movements’, or ‘count in multiples of two, fives and tens’.

He hasn’t been made to write stories according to requirements to inform, describe, imagine, explain or whatever arbitrary writing objective has been chosen that day or week. He doesn’t have an assessment number or letter marked beside his name. He hasn’t sat down to toil over English language incongruities that could confound the mind of a boy who would rather consider the nautical purpose of the buoys he sees floating on the sea than concern himself with the illogical spelling exemplified in this sentence.

P1170692

Instead, out of school, in the long holidays and in weekends which we have reclaimed as ours, P. has climbed rocks at the rate of a mountain goat, explored rivers, built dams alone or with friends, working collaboratively or independently, he’s found some little mission and worked out how to solve it.

IMG_2506

He’s wondered over the changes wrought by nature through the seasons. In doing so he has – unbeknownst to him, started to play with Heraclitus’ philosophy of continual flux – wondering if it is possible to stand in the same river twice. He has wondered how the sea can be salty when the rivers are not when the rivers flow into the sea. He wonders if lightening is sharp and what exactly is air?

He has dug the earth disturbed only by the constant singing of the cicadas in the trees above him. He has, he believes, communed with deer and eagles who have befriended him, his imagination always alert to the possibility that the former could have eaten from his hand or the latter might have landed on the bench next to him. Coping with the loss of our own cat while experiencing killing of animals in the tradition of the ‘caccia’ as hunters circled the hills around us, we have talked about reincarnation. Teetering on the edge of high sensitivities, we have wondered about the potential of other lives and of what the idea of an afterlife means…

He has watched the stars at night, marvelling when he identified Mars above us and wondering what it means to be part of the solar system; he has interrogated what the idea of a black hole means: how could this world we know ever end if the star on which we rely burns out. He has tried to align his growing understanding of science with his sense of faith – how can humans not exist, if our spirits live on after we die, Mummy? You said that Zephyr’s spirit lived on. You said that we would go to the same heaven. How can there not be a world if we carry on as spirits?

IMG_8125

He has set up experiments with ice and water and challenged me to make vinegar react with bicarbonate to make his jet boat go, modifying constantly his own experiments. He has moved from one compulsive obsession to another, wondering how the boat we take to Elba floats on the water and then constructing his own fleet of ferries from Lego when we come home, displaying them according first to design, then to size.

He has started to uncover ancient Rome and the empire, standing in the amphitheatre at the Roman ruins local to us, he has interrogated the joys of a superlative acoustic space. He has visited Venice, experiencing its mesmerising beauty. Choosing his mask he engaged with the notion of disguise and playing, admiring the exploitation of subterfuge when Venice was a bustling port to the rest of the world.

IMG_2227

So, no, P. cannot yet write number sentences, or chant his multiples of two, he doesn’t know that the books we read together have been defined by the powers that be to have a specific purpose – to entertain or inform, apparently (it always amuses me how mutually exclusive are these definitions of the purpose of writing).

No, he cannot perform these prescribed tasks, because he’s been too busy playing. He’s been too busy tinkering with Lego or moving rocks by the river. He hasn’t watched the clock tick slowly in a classroom, his bottom wriggling with pent up energy, because he’s been too immersed in exploring, creating and pushing his boundaries.

So now, I have to have the courage of my convictions. I have to believe whole- heartedly in the very instinct that brought me here. And that means to believe that it will all come good, that the application of ‘formal learning’ doesn’t have to be imposed – too much, too young. I have to walk the talk of Finland, albeit I am doing it against the grain of the system in which we will ultimately have to operate.  I have to resist comparison to his peers, whose parents are my friends, and not succumb to the competition to be measurable and measured that is insidiously eroding the true meaning and value of learning. I have to believe that now, ripe with curiosity and bursting with questions, he will be best placed to allow the ‘formal’ learning to slot into place and overlay this year of constant play. I have to have courage in my own conviction that his intrinsic love of discovery will carry him through.

*It’s a slightly elusive title if you aren’t familiar with Quentin Blake’s tale of Tom, who spends his day fooling around, tinkering and playing and never doing as he’s asked. His stern, authoritarian aunt despairs of him, but guess who comes out trumps?

** Take the Year 1 automaton, sorry, ‘reading’ test, which requires children to decode so-called “words” which don’t even exist.