Little Questions for BIG Thinkers

There is no greater privilege for a teacher, or a parent perhaps, than being present when a young child engages in some deep thinking and a new dimension is unwrapped for them – when they realise that there is another way of viewing things, another angle, a fresh approach. Seeing the expression in their eyes when they discover that the world they’ve been inhabiting for a few years has other dimensions that were in shadow but are now illuminated for them – such moments are golden for us grown ups to witness. During my twenty years of teaching in primary and prep schools I always enjoyed running philosophy and thinking clubs for this reason.

Seeing things differently or approaching things from other angles gives children something they really need in learning – and certainly something they need at the moment during this lockdown period: it gives them space. Space is so important in learning: space to think, space and scope to come up with one’s own ideas and theories without fear of ‘getting it wrong’.

Philosophy provides this space precisely because there is rarely one correct answer to a philosophical question: there is always scope for different opinions. Philosophy builds brains, literally; it helps children to make new connections in their heads, and making new connections is what good thinking is all about.

In philosophy, a little question can be deceptively large. Take the following, for example: ‘Does a bird know that it’s a bird?’  Such a question leads to many more playful questions, few of which have a ‘correct’ answer, as far as I know, and all of which can occupy children’s brains as they metaphorically explore the cavernous space which the original question led them into.

Does a bird need to know it’s a bird? Does it matter? And if it doesn’t know that it’s a bird, well, what does it think it is? If it doesn’t know what it is, then how does it know how to behave like a bird?

If birds’ behaviour is essentially instinctive, handed down from generations of birds before them, then can the same be said for us humans who do know what we are? How much of our behaviour is driven by our being cognisant of ‘this is what humans do’ and how much of it is subconscious, driven by our instincts?

And then, of course, there is the question: Why should humans be the only species who are truly cognisant of what they are? Why us? What is so special about us? Why do we human beings possess an ability to understand what it means to be human, when other species do not have the same meta-awareness?

Or do they? How do we know?

In my new series entitled ‘Little Questions for BIG Thinkers’, I’ve been posing questions like this on Discovery Education’s free-to-subscribe YouTube channel. These are little questions to which there are some very big answers and lots and lots to talk about. They invite children to visit a place that has not yet been conquered – where there is scope and space to come up with their own theories and talk about their opinions without the worry that someone will tell them they’re ‘wrong’!

I hope you enjoy some BIG thinking with your children, whether it’s your own children at home or your students online. There are so many changes afoot in the way we interact and the way we learn, but two things will always remain: it’s good to think and it’s good to talk.

Little Questions for BIG Thinkers


Relationship Education

The new RSE Curriculum and what this means for primary schools

As Senior Director of Learning at Discovery Education, I am proud of our brand new programme, Health and Relationships, which empowers teachers in primary schools to deliver the new RSE Curriculum through high-quality films, informative learning materials, and extensive guidance for teachers, parents and carers.

As readers will know, the Department for Education has introduced a new curriculum for Relationship Education, Relationships and Sex Education and Health Education, commonly shortened to RSE. It will be compulsory for all schools to teach this curriculum in September 2020.

If you read some of the newspaper headlines or follow certain feeds on social media, you would be forgiven for thinking that this means children as young as five are now going to be taught sex education. This is simply not true.

As the guidance tells us, ‘The Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education and Health Education (England) Regulations 2019, made under sections 34 and 35 of the Children and Social Work Act 2017, make Relationships Education compulsory for all pupils receiving primary education and Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) compulsory for all pupils receiving secondary education.’

So, despite what you may read in the press or on social media, primary schools will not be required to teach sex education to young children. The sex education element of the new RSE curriculum is for secondary schools and parents have a right to request that their child be withdrawn from some or all of sex education delivered as part of this curriculum until three terms before they reach 16.

As part of the established KS2 Science curriculum of course, most primary schools already teach the life cycle of reproduction in animals, including humans. How our bodies grow and change from birth to old age, and the different challenges this brings for all of us, is an important part of a KS2 primary curriculum and should be taught without stigma or embarrassment. Giving children the accurate terms that are used to name external parts of our bodies, for example, is an important part of their education and need not be controversial.

The topics to be taught in primary schools under the new Relationships and Health Education curriculum include: Families and people who care for me; Caring friendships; Respectful relationships; Online relationships; and Being safe. There is an emphasis on treating each other with kindness, consideration and respect. The concept of personal privacy is also taught, alongside honesty, truthfulness and the seeking and giving of permission.

As a parent of four children myself, I find it reassuring that we are teaching character traits and positive personal attributes that enable young people to build healthy relationships with others and to lead happy and fulfilling lives, in safety.

I am more concerned about what is being taught to young children outside school, in the world around them. The uncomfortable truth is that children of primary school age today are surrounded by sexually explicit material in the songs they listen to, the programmes they may watch and the conversations they may participate in on social media. Popular television programmes still considered to be ‘family viewing on a Saturday night’ are now rife with sexual references and innuendo. Seeing children write out the lyrics of their favourite pop songs fills me with concern, such is the explicit nature of the content and messages contained within them. I worry about the premature adultification of children and the loss of innocence in childhood. One cannot ‘un-hear’ what one has heard, or ‘un-see’ what one has seen. I don’t believe that school is making this worse, rather I think it can play an important role in providing reassurance and comfort to children, in full partnership with their parents and carers – the most important educators in their lives.

One can only imagine what some young children may be thinking when they return to school on a Monday morning, having spent the weekend watching programmes, listening to songs or engaging in online conversations that expose them to adult content, and it is only right that they have the chance to ask questions freely. How schools handle those questions is crucial and children should be able to express what is on their mind in the safety of a school environment. If teachers were unable to receive any questions relating to sexual behaviour I am certain that the children would look elsewhere for answers, and who knows how reliable those answers would be.

But there is a difference between being open to all questions from children and formally teaching them content that is inappropriate for their age and stage in life. In primary school there is no requirement to teach pupils sex education, but teachers have a duty to respond when questions are asked.

As the DfE’s guidance says, ‘Children of the same age may be developmentally at different stages, leading to differing types of questions or behaviours. Teaching methods should take account of these differences.’ As a teacher for twenty years, I often encountered questions that were not appropriate in a whole-class setting, but they still needed to be dealt with in a one-to-one or small group setting.

What I find encouraging is that ‘the focus in primary schools should be on teaching the fundamental building blocks and characteristics of positive relationships, with particular reference to friendships, family relationships, and relationships with other children and with adults.’

A good school is built on love and respect, just as a family is. This has always been a mantra for me and I have said it in every leadership role I have held. We begin with love and mutual respect and we work outwards from there. I am pleased then to see a focus in the new curriculum on how families of many forms provide a nurturing environment for children. ‘Families can include for example, single parent families, LGBT parents, families headed by grandparents, adoptive parents, foster parents/carers, amongst other structures.’ Removing all stigmatisation of children who come from different home circumstances is vitally important, and this is a key theme within the new curriculum.

Few schools would not include tolerance and respect of others’ faiths and beliefs in their core values. Schools already promote equality, of course. Teachers have a duty to explain how some cultures and faiths have different beliefs that deserve respect, and this is encouraged within the new curriculum too: ‘In all schools, when teaching these subjects, the religious background of all pupils must be taken into account when planning teaching, so that topics that are included in the core content in this guidance are appropriately handled.’ Guidance is provided for teachers so that they are able to deliver the curriculum sensitively and respectfully. For example, schools may wish to reflect on faith teachings about certain topics, and the ‘protected characteristics’ of a person, defined under the Equality Act 2010, must be respected.

As a former teacher and headteacher, I think the guidance accompanying our new programme, Health & Relationships, is as important as the curriculum content it delivers. Equipping busy teachers with the advice and guidance they need to communicate effectively and sensitively with parents and carers is of paramount importance to us. I welcome our new programme and I am excited for the good work it will do in helping children to recognise the importance of maintaining positive relationships, showing tolerance and respect for others, and growing up healthily and safely. I wish the programme had been available when my own children were in primary school.

For more information on Discovery Education Health & Relationships, do get in touch. I will be delighted to tell you more about it.


When character is forged

The unique bundle of character traits and proclivities known to me as ‘Andrew Hammond’ was assembled and packaged up in my early childhood. It was in the jostling precinct of primary school where my likes and dislikes, hopes and fears, talents and failings were hammered into shape and case-hardened. My perception of the world and my place within it had set in my subconscious mind by the time I had reached eight years old, I am certain.

Here I am, aged forty-eight, and though the receptacle may shows signs of aging, the character it carries hasn’t changed one bit. The same strengths and positive traits continue to bring me fulfilment, just as familiar frailties and fragilities bring me the same old anxieties. These drivers and characteristics coalesce to create what I recognise as ‘me’.

Like most grown-ups, I profess to being in control of my decision-making, of the choices I make and the routes I take. In reality, I am driven by a fusion of sub-conscious lessons I learned forty years ago, back when my malleable, impressionable inner-thoughts coalesced to form the blueprint of me. Since then, I may have picked up some knowledge and developed some new skills and competencies, but there are many things I have had to ‘unlearn’ about myself in order to progress.

Primary schools are the engine rooms of learning and growing, where the most value can be added, but also where the most damage can be inflicted. A good school is built on love and mutual respect. A caring culture allows strong foundations to seed, but a loveless, stressful environment for young children is toxic: brain energy that would otherwise be used to build synapses and make connections is diverted to coping with trauma instead, and so healthy development in memory, thinking and feeling is stymied through synaptic pruning. Difficulties we experience in later life can often be traced back to sub-conscious lessons we learned in childhood in response to traumatic experiences endured.

I was lucky. I have no recollection of significantly stressful surroundings, either at home or at school. But I have taught many children who have not been so fortunate and it continues to upset me when I see students forming negative impressions of themselves which may lead to poor mental health in their adult lives.

It is a school’s culture, not its curriculum, that has the most powerful effect on the way children view themselves and the world around them. It is culture – the way we do things around here – that shapes and case-hardens character.

When middle-aged educators like me furrow our brows and think hard about how we’re going to prepare children for an uncertain future, we like to use fashionable phrases like ‘the future of skills’ and ‘21stcentury skills’ (now twenty years old). We like to codify and systemise the preparatory steps needed for a time when our students are forty and we are eighty. We need a road map so that we can create a future-proofed curriculum with schemes of work. But discerning which skills will be most in-demand and which will have become obsolete is almost impossible, such is the pace of change and technological advancement.

What matters more is the climate we create – the caring culture in our schools – in which joy abounds, curiosity is untrammelled, challenge is embraced and creativity is allowed to prosper through a playful approach to learning. For the sub-conscious teachings children pick up in school about themselves, about each other and about what learning actually means, are the real obsolescence-proof lessons and the determinants of future success and happiness, more influential than the discrete skills we teach or the knowledge we deliver.

The question for me, forty years on, is not so much what I would say to the eight-year-old Andrew, but what he would say to me, if I listened to him. It would be unfair of me to expect him to offer a full exposition of the optimum learning conditions for a child, not least because he is only eight, but also because the really significant lessons he is learning are sub-conscious and won’t have revealed their impact to him yet.

If I could get him to sit still for a moment, I think Andrew would say, with excited eyes, ‘We’re havin’ a fun time. Have you seen the robot I made? You can make one too. Gotta go… bye.’

And I’d be happy with that.

Career advice from my son

My eldest son left school in the summer and is now in his first year at Manchester University. He was Head of School in his final year and he delivered a speech at prizegiving. He had not rehearsed it with my wife or me beforehand, and why should he? We had no idea what he was going to say when he mounted the platform and stood in front of the microphone. Knowing him, it was going to be something witty or rebellious, perhaps irreverent.

He turned to face his fellow students with a compassionate expression and said, ‘It’s ok. You have plenty of time. Don’t rush. It’s ok if you don’t yet know what you’ll be when you’re older. It’s ok if you don’t yet know what you will do. And it’s ok if you don’t know or how your entire career is going to map out before you’re even old enough to buy a pint.’

Well, that certainly made me think. GCSE and A Level choices weigh heavily on young minds at a time when career choices are far from clear. Any why should they be clear? It was the same when I was at school. I remember being consumed by the question, ‘What are you going to be?’. A better question might have been, ‘Who are you going to be?’

Careers are rich and varied, if we’re lucky. People try many different jobs before they settle on one that they may hold for a while. Change is healthy and the only permanence is that there is no permanence, to anything. We evolve, circumstances change, opportunities arise, our motivations and aspirations alter, and we seek out new things. Some of us are more curious than others, some are motivated by stable and predictable routines. Neither is better, neither is easier. If we’re lucky, and careful, the constants in our lives are our family and friends, not our job.

For my son to have reached the conclusion that you don’t have to choose a career before you’re even old enough to order a drink is so encouraging. He is his own man, architect of his own future and teller of his own story.

If only I’d had that same clarity at his age. Or even now! Like many students still today, I felt rushed into deciding what I would be. Career advice was an episode of Mr Ben: ‘As if by magic’ the career advisor appeared and I would try on various outfits and see which one suited me, with almost no knowledge of what the role involved. More importantly, I did not have enough knowledge at that early stage of what I wanted, what motivated me, or what engaged my curiosity and interest.

I was advised, like so many students back then, that you got a job, worked very hard and success would come; that the amount of money you earned and success you found were entirely commensurate with the amount of hours you toiled.

Part of me still agrees with this sentiment and yet part of me thinks it’s a pernicious myth. Success – whatever that means – is certainly about hard work, head-down grinding away, but it is also about building connections, forging relationships, collaborating, motivating others, seeing opportunities, innovating and creating. If you work very, very hard for many hours a day to satisfy your ambition – whether it is to make money or make a difference – how will you ever know if you have reached your ambition if your head is always facing the work? I know this to my cost; I have set myself a punishing work ethic throughout my career as a teacher and author and have rarely had time to enjoy the view, or enjoy my family. My children speak to me in rapid-fire-rounds of short sentences because they know that after a minute or two my eyes will always divert back to the computer screen. I am ashamed of this and determined to alter my behaviour before all four of my children have left for university and are no longer around to interrupt my work because they want to tell me something.

If I were to deliver a speech like my son did – which is unlikely because it would never be as good as his – then I would probably say that it is worth spending time discovering who are you going to become, before deciding what you will become. The world of work is a white-knuckled ride that can quickly shape and define us. Establishing who we are before we get on the treadmill can help. I often say to students that achieving what you want in life is almost always possible, if you want it enough. The hardest thing is knowing what you want in the first place – and that must not be rushed. My son was right.

In The Bury Free Press 8th November 2019







What makes a good teacher?

The Bury Free Press launched its Best Teacher of the Year Award just recently, in partnership with Discovery Education. This is a tremendous opportunity to share what it means to be an outstanding teacher and I’m delighted to support this initiative.

How we identify the ‘best teacher’ will be an interesting challenge, to say the least. Some may say that the effectiveness of a teacher is a straightforward calculation – it’s the percentage of pupils in his or her class who achieved national expectations in standardised tests at the end of the year. Find out this number and you can then rank the teacher’s performance alongside all other teachers in the country who are teaching the same year group. Easy. Sorted.

But such a calculation only tells you half the story, or even less. It’s like saying the best baker in the county is the one who bakes the most loaves. Schools are not production lines, churning out standardised products that meet or fail quality assurance checks. Judging the effectiveness of a teacher’s ability requires more than a glance at the data. Yes, of course, a teacher is there to teach his or her students a syllabus of knowledge, skills and proficiencies sufficiently well so that they can gain academic qualifications. The teacher’s performance will always be judged against those learning outcomes. But the plain truth is that behind every academic result lies a real person, living a real life in a real context, making real progress in ways that stretch far beyond the data. Academic results are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to learning outcomes; there are deep down things that a teacher is influencing, shaping, encouraging in every child, qualities which are invisible to the data lens. If every child were identical – with the same skills, the same character and the same advantages or disadvantages – then judging the success of a teacher would indeed be very easy, just look at their results and ignore everything else.

But every child is different – with different attitudes, behaviours and backgrounds. Children learn, or don’t learn, depending on their emotional state at the time. They may hear and respond to some of what the teacher says to them in class, but not much. They may read and reflect on what the teacher writes in their books, but not much. They may even take on board the advice they are given in reports, but not much. The most significant impact any teacher can have on a student is found in the way they make that child feel about themselves. That is the legacy of a good teacher, and it may not be visible until long after they have left school. The seeds of self-confidence and self-worth are being sown by teachers right now, in classrooms across the region, but they may not be yielding visible shoots of growth for some years to come. As teachers we play the long game, even if those who measure our performance need instant results.

So how do we judge the best teacher, if their reach and influence is so invisible? I think there are some observables; there are signs which tell you that the teacher in your child’s classroom is good at what they do. They smile and project optimism at all times. They are calm, patient and understanding. They present the story of learning with expertise and a repertoire that enables them to connect with all the pupils in their class, whatever their learning differences.

But looking at and listening to the teacher will only tell you so much. The best way to judge a good teacher is to turn around and look at the children. Are they engaged and enthused? Are they collaborating and cooperating? Are they willing and able to share what they think? Do they feel safe and secure enough to dare to have a go? Are they bouncing into class looking forward to seeing their teacher?

The very best teachers use all their skills and experience to empower students to feel confident and ambitious as learners. They help them to see that there is a reason to bother, a reason to try. In short, they project unshakeable belief in what their students can achieve. Children will have ups and downs, always. They may be fortunate enough to be feeling confident and enthusiastic on the day of an examination, or they may flunk a test because of something someone said to them in the playground. They may have good short term memories and remember the correct facts and figures to score well in a test, or they may panic and forget the lot. But how their teacher made them feel in class – how they helped them form their mindset – that is what will shape the way in which they handle success or failure for life. It’s not just about what you know, it’s about what you do when you don’t know the answer. It’s your character that counts, even if it cannot be counted.

The best teachers help their students to be the best versions of themselves, in school and into adulthood. The best thing about being a teacher is that you can have a positive influence on children every day. The hardest thing about being a teacher is that you have an influence on children every day and you have to get it right.

I for one can’t wait to celebrate the good teachers in our region. To quote a much used cliché, they are all winners already.

In The Bury Free Press, Friday 4th October 2019