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Beneath the iceberg

In a recent TEDx talk I was fortunate enough to deliver, I suggested how there are two curricula at play in every school, every day:

  1. A visible, fixed curriculum made up of subjects, driven by the National Curriculum, and planned, taught and assessed by teachers.
  2. An invisible, dynamic curriculum made up of attitudes, behaviours and capacities, driven by a school’s culture and modelled by teachers.

Where the visible curriculum requires proficiency in knowledge retention, reasoning, applied logic and computational capacity, the invisible curriculum asks for instinct, intuition, inquiry and creativity. Where the visible curriculum delivers important but largely abstract, propositional knowledge and learned proficiencies, the invisible curriculum delivers experiential, tacit knowledge gained through our sensory experiences and social encounters.

Though we spend many hours planning, teaching and assessing the visible curriculum, it remains abstract for many primary children; it is the invisible curriculum that is real and it is influenced by children’s emotional state. As Eric Jensen says, how we feel is what’s real, it’s the link to what we think.’ if the visible curriculum delivers academic outcomes, the invisible curriculum delivers attitudes, behaviours and skills for life.

So what is driving the invisible curriculum? Or does it just ‘happen’ by virtue of multiple humans working, playing and learning together? Can it be codified? Designed?

It is driven by a school’s culture, the shared beliefs, values and customs that shape students’ emerging views of the world. And culture happens in school whether you like it, or know it, or not. Leaders are the cultural architects of their schools and teachers are the cultural architects of their classrooms.

Enough words already! Here is a graphic that I hope illustrates how the curriculum landscape and the cultural climate of a school co-exist. Both are essential elements in education, but currently one receives more attention than the other. Could this change?

View the TEDx talk here

Screen Shot 2019-04-15 at 15.24.47

 

Teaching for Creativity

Taken from my book, Teaching for Creativity (John Catt Educational: 2015), this short blog offers a simple, four-stage process for developing children’s creativity in schools.

According to Kneller (1965), creativity is too flexible and too capricious a phenomenon to be easily defined. But there has been no shortage of definitions for it in recent decades. Golden (2007) suggests that creativity is ‘a collaboration between your conscious and unconscious mind’. Jupp, Fairly and Bentley (2001) believe creativity arises from ‘a complex interaction between many different factors – knowledge and expertise, curiosity, motivation, information, time, stimuli and reward.’

Stein (1984) calls for freedom: ‘the freedom for study and preparation, the freedom for exploration and enquiry, the freedom of expression and the freedom to be yourself.’

Craft (2005) says that at the core of creative activity is ‘possibility thinking’.

And Sir Ken Robinson (1999) famously defined creativity as ‘having original ideas of value’.

For me, the nature of creativity – and how it can be developed in schools – is neatly illustrated in an object from my childhood – my Nanna’s button box.

My grandparents lived in Weston Super Mare and I fondly remember trips down the M5 with my parents and brothers, from our home in the West Midlands. We had no mobile phones, no iPads, no Xboxes and no computers. But I spent hours entertained by my Nanna’s wooden box of buttons – a large, rectangular open tray with a handle across the top. It was divided into several felt-lined compartments and each one housed the most extraordinary delights you could imagine. Shiny blue ones, pearly white ones, two holes, four holes, leather toggles, great big brass ones, tiny red spherical ones. Some so small you could imagine an elf sewing them onto a shirt, others so large they must have fallen from a giant’s duffle coat. And then there were the military ones, my favourites, with emblems and crests and royal coats of arms. I could imagine the places they’d seen, peering like eyes from the tunic of a sailor.

How I loved that button box. I’d spend hours rifling through it, listening to the clickerty-clack of the little buttons rattling in the tray, running my fingers through them like sand on the beach at the end of my grandparents’ road. Watching the colours as I blended them all together into a multi-coloured, chunky soup. Laying them out in rows and creating patterns across the floor. Threading them onto string and making my Nanna a necklace or my father a pretend wristwatch. Button men, button roads, button food and button jewellery. How could anyone resist their enticing appeal? I’m sure you could design a game app today offering buttons in a box, but you couldn’t run your hands through them.

I have thought a great deal about why I was so transfixed by those buttons – why hours would pass unnoticed while I was so absorbed, or ‘in flow state’ as we call it today. I’ve often mentioned that button box when delivering CPD training in schools and it’s astonishing the number of teachers who smile and nod their head. It seems I wasn’t the only one who liked playing with buttons as a child. There is an enduring fascination in childhood for sorting, shaping and creating.

I know now what I was doing during those trips to Weston. I was engaging in pure, unfettered creativity and there were four distinct stages to it.

PERCEIVING

Firstly, I was using perception. I rifled, sifted, flicked and clicked. I swirled them around and studied all the colour combinations and varieties. I studied them with great care and interest. Their differences intrigued me – so many variables in one wooden box. I used my senses to get to know them all, see and feel them, hear them clickerty-clack in my hand, become familiar with all the constituent parts of the creations that were to follow.

CONNECTING

Secondly, I made connections. I loved nothing better than dropping them over the carpet and sorting them into different categories, coloured or plain, two holes or four, round ones, toggles, odd shaped ones, plastic or metal. There was something very pleasing and therapeutic about the practice of sorting them into groups. I remember, years later, I found myself working night-shifts in a petrol station as a student. I used to tip the packets of cigarettes all over the kiosk floor just so that I could sort them out again. Their different coloured designs pleased me and they stacked up so well together – making an ideal Jenga substitute during the small hours.

SYNTHESISING

Back in Weston, there then followed a really exciting stage in my work with those buttons, the synthesis. I blended and connected and combined those buttons to create original designs and products, from sculptures and collages to roads, figures and jewellery. These were different every time and I was proud of them. They meant something to me and those buttons allowed me to give vent to my imagination in a physical way. The button box was a palette and I was the artist, synthesising the elements together with imagination and vision. It didn’t occur to me that there was a wrong way or a right way to build a button man, or a button chain – so I wasn’t afraid to ‘have a go’ and just see what I could make. It was the same with Lego – a construction toy with which I am still obsessed today. Back then, of course, I would grab any pieces I could find from the giant tub of crusty blocks and knock up a vehicle, a spaceship or a hobbit’s hovel from my imagination. Now, as an adult, I mindlessly follow Lego kit instructions and call it therapeutic.

PRESENTING

After the synthesis stage came the final part, the presentation. This was the much anticipated ‘tadaah’ moment, when I ran into the kitchen to my gran, pulled her by the hand into the front room and said ‘Tadaah! What do you think, Nanna?’ A rapturous response always ensued. Nanna’s arthritic hands were misshapen and twisted but I knew she had once loved playing with those buttons as much as I did and my elaborate designs never failed to bring a smile to her face.

The four stages of my button work were of equal importance, though I didn’t realise it at the time. All I knew was there was a procedure to it, a kind of ritual that I always followed, enjoying each stage, and especially the last.

Perceiving, connecting, synthesising, presenting. You need all four stages for creativity to flourish in schools. And my book is about how to plan for each of them in the classroom.

Teaching for Creativity, Andrew Hammond

 

 

Change the assessment and everything else can change.

From values and beliefs to mission statements, aims and purposes, the culture of a school is the symbolic glue that binds everything and everyone together.

If culture offers a blueprint for ‘how we do things around here’, curriculum provides the ‘what’ – a context for our activities and interactions. The two could coexist perfectly well if it wasn’t for a third element of school life, whose dominance acts like a brick wall separating culture and curriculum: I am talking about assessment.

Culture is built with community in mind. The aspirational words and phrases commonly found on a school’s website, in a prospectus and displayed in entrance halls and corridors, are there to promote social harmony, equal opportunity and synergy across the school’s community. These values-based appellations provide a script to leaders and teachers so they can promote positive attitudes and behaviours for learning.

Culture happens regardless of whether you have such words, and choose to use them, or not; but pegging out shared beliefs and values is better than allowing a culture to grow toxic through neglect. It would be ideal if a culture’s default setting were one of harmony and inclusion, without the need to actively promote positive behaviours, but sadly this may not be the case (as Golding’s Lord of the Fliesshows us). So we work to keep it positive.

Curriculum gives us all something to do. The canon of knowledge and proficiencies which we deem to be worth acquiring are laid out neatly in year-by-year chunks. A syllabus is planned and taught in classrooms – providing an agenda for the day’s learning activities and interactions. It is an arbitrary list of topics and skills; we could have chosen anything really, and I am still scratching my head trying to understand why algebra enjoys so much air-time, but it’s supposed to be a level-playing field and the attitudes and character traits acquired whilst ploughing through the curriculum topics are as beneficial to the students as the content itself.

Schools are beginning to recognise the value of ‘dual learning’ – learning how to learn at the same time as learning maths or science or geography. Some call it learnability, learning habits or learning powers.

It is possible, then, to deliver a curriculum at the same time as developing the attitudes, behaviours and capacities promoted by the culture that surrounds it. There is nothing in the curriculum that prevents this from happening.

You can learn how algebra works at the same time as developing resilience; if you try to solve an algebraic equation with your learning partner, you can develop some collaborative problem-solving and communication skills whilst you are tackling it.

The problem is assessment– or I should say, our obsession with it. The aims of a school’s culture and the aims of its curriculum rarely coalesce when you add assessment into the mix. It seems that everything which takes place in a school nowadays has to have a visible, measurable impact on pupils’ own individual attainment and progress scores. The success or inadequacy of a school today is measured almost exclusively by its performance data – the number of individuals who have met national expectations. So the emphasis is always on individual achievement. And our assessment procedures are honed and hammered into a design that filters out anything other than quantitative data that helps us rank individuals’ attainment and progress.

You could teach geography in such a way that brings culture and curriculum neatly together: geographical knowledge and skills can be taught alongside cooperation, communication, environmental and social responsibility, and creativity. Topics you find in a geography syllabus can be the context for collaborative work; you can provide opportunities to research and plan together, deliver presentations and problem-solve to find creative solutions to environmental problems.

In the same way, you can teach grammar or punctuation in real-world scenarios that bring meaning and purpose, through mantle of the expert, writing in role as marketing directors or sales & advertising executives working as a team. Or you can teach mathematics through construction projects or young entrepreneur initiatives.

Good teachers do this all the time, but it carries a risk, because at the end of term, when the summative assessments come around again, pupils will not be tested on the collaborative or communication skills they have picked up, or the resilient ways in which they have pursued their curiosity, or exercised their critical thinking; they will be assessed on the curriculum content they can remember. If creative and collaborative learning activities do not ultimately deliver adequate knowledge retention, then they will be challenged. If pupils’ attainment scores are low, then the creative practices the teacher employed in class will be questioned, no matter how much they may have helped to instil the values espoused in the school’s culture at the same time, and no matter how much such creative teaching may have raised pupils’ engagement too. These benefits are not currently measured.

This is why some teachers teach only from the front and why learning objectives are often reduced to uninspiring sentences taken directly from NC programmes of study. ‘Today we are learning to… apply phonic knowledge to decode route words.’

Schools must demonstrate that every pupil has made individual progress; so assessment procedures, from marking books to setting exams and sorting and ranking the results, are designed to show the progress which each individual has made. Assessments at the end of a  topic inevitably influence the learning that is planned at the beginning of it.

Ours is not a curriculum for learning, it is a curriculum for assessing. It is not a curriculum-based assessment, it is an assessment-based curriculum and the aim is for every individual to make progress.

But the worlds of work and leisure beyond school do not work in this individualistic way.

Take sport. The result of a rugby match is not calculated by tallying up the number of tackles or catches each individual player has made and whether these have risen since the last match. Neither is the success of a drama production measured by calculating the number of performers who did or did not remember their lines. One hundred percent of them could remember their words and it wouldn’t necessarily make a good performance. Similarly, the success of a business is not measured by how much progress each individual employee has made compared with their own progress scores of the previous year or the progress scores of employees in a neighbouring business.

The same is true of any community: it cannot be built only on the individual achievements and goals of its members. This is how society breaks down.

In delivering an assessment system that only tracks and reports on individuals’ attainment and progress, we undermine the benefits of working together. There is no synergy in an examination hall, only competition and fear. There is no value to society in creating a climate in which individual success matters more than collective responsibility and working together.

The curriculum is influenced by the need to asses its impact, delivering knowledge and skills that can be assessed efficiently and quickly. Over time, the culture falls in line too, so that it promotes independence over inter-dependence.

But it is inter-dependence on which a successful culture is built, this is the paradox for school leaders.

For each and every one of its students to make good progress will always be an important purpose of school. But are there other facets that can be observed and reported on? What might other criteria be?

The principle focus of every SEO visit to my school seems to be the number of individual pupils who are on track to meet national expectations. This is not the SEO’s fault, that is his brief. But what if he came with a different script, one that looked at long-term as well as short-term aims? Could the SEO look at how our culture is working and delivering on the values we have?

Can we design an assessment system which monitors the attitudes and character traits we espouse within our school culture and for these to enjoy equal status with academic progress scores? Can we observe and track the children’s cooperation, communication, resilience and so on? Would such an assessment system bring benefits to the curriculum and to our culture? I think it would.

What kind of curriculum can deliver these attitudes and character traits? I would suggest that the curriculum we currently have need not change significantly – it is a syllabus, not a scheme of work, after all. But if teachers and school leaders knew that their school’s performance data included a commentary on the attitudes, behaviours and skills that are best developed within group work and creative challenges, then they would feel more confident to set up group scenarios and creative projects that would deliver them. And learning objectives would reflect more than just lines from the syllabus.

How you play your part, how you participate, what you bring to the table and what attitudes you display to others – these matter as much as your own progress trajectory and scaled score. Perhaps they matter even more. For when students leave school and enter the worlds of work, relationships, family and leisure, they will soon realise that these human activities are rarely measured in attainment and progress scores alone.

Change the assessment system, and everything else can change.

 

 

 

 

 

Digging deep into school culture

A culture is conceived when shared basic assumptions create a rationale for doing things a certain way. Often such assumptions are based on an identified problem that needs solving or a perceived demand that needs meeting. A solution is found and it shapes ‘the way we do things around here’.

Take education. When state schools were first conceived, there was a shared assumption that we needed to develop academic intelligence in children – our economy needed an educated workforce. It was assumed that to be academically intelligent or ‘learned’ meant being literate, numerate and knowledgeable. The skills that a white-collar worker utilised whilst seated at his desk were held to be of greatest value.

The remedy found was to design and then formally teach a standard curriculum of subjects, which comprised core knowledge and professorial skills, to all pupils and accompany this with formal academic qualifications that tested knowledge retention, literacy and numeracy. It was assumed that pupils could be incentivised to play the game through rewards if they worked hard and sanctions if they didn’t.

These assumptions gave rise to a deeply-rooted culture, in which, above everything else, each individual needed to make good academic progress. It was the driving force behind everything that took place in a school. And it still is today, nothing has changed. Whatever you do as a teacher, whether it is instructional, pastoral, creative, enriching or just plain fun, whether it is bespoke and tailored or universal and inclusive, it will always be held up against the same aim of enabling pupils to make expected progress. ‘Have you measured the impact of this learning activity? Can you demonstrate the efficacy of that teaching strategy?’ And just recently, ‘Show me the intent, implementation and impact of what you are doing.’ (The sub-text being if you can’t demonstrate a positive impact on your students’ academic progress then you shouldn’t be doing it).

These are the deep-down roots from which school culture has grown. Assumptions led to solutions which shaped the way schools were run, and still are today.

And every year thousands of students leave school with the misbelief that they are the sum of their grades. Of course they do. It is an unintended consequence of the system – or an intended one.

But those early assumptions are now proven to be flawed. Leaders of today’s industries suggest that such an unremitting focus on academic intelligence is not delivering what is needed in the workplace. Counsellors and experts in emotional well-being suggest that the drive for academic intelligence is having a detrimental effect on too many students’ mental health and creating a binary culture of success or failure. There are calls for more resilience, emotional intelligence, communication skills and creative thinking. Of course there are. The system was never designed to deliver on those things. It could have done, but shared assumptions and beliefs held by the architects of state education at the time were focused on other things: developing literacy, numeracy and academic knowledge.

At last, new shared assumptions are building – we are identifying some problems and we are reaching out for solutions, which will in turn shape our new culture. I for one cannot wait for the new architects of our education system (whoever they may be; few Secretaries of State for Education remain in the job long enough to make sustainable changes and even fewer have any experience of education beyond their own schooling) to identify the problems, find new solutions and then let these shape the way we do things in school.

If we were to re-imagine what school is for, we would probably not begin with knowledge retention, literacy and numeracy skills. This is because we would look to the future and consider what skills, attitudes and aptitudes will be required at work, at home and in the societies and communities that surround us. Problem-solving and innovative thinking would probably rank highly, if future generations are to solve the problems we’ve bequeathed to them: an unsustainable population, dwindling resources, climate change, and so on.

If we were to identify different priorities to those of before, like social responsibility, environmental awareness, innovation, how to manage leisure time, creativity and problem-solving to be important aims for our education system to deliver on, just imagine what kind of enriching culture that would lead to.

I can continue to make significant changes to the culture in my school, as I am striving to do every day. I can continue to shout from the roof tops that it is our community values, our shared ethos and our habits for learning that are the things that really matter around here. But until major architectural work is carried out in the offices of the Department for Education by persons far cleverer than me, the cultural changes I make in my school will not take root at the deepest level. They are built on other, older roots – the roots that took hold when education was conceived a long time ago, in a different age, with a different purpose in mind.

Times can change, systems can evolve, old problems may not even be problems any more, as new ones emerge, but the solutions that were found in the past still dictate the way we do things now.

 

Culture before curriculum: a learner’s reality

A twelve-minute TED talk to a thousand people can focus the mind. I was fortunate enough to deliver one yesterday at the annual TEDx event in Royal Tunbridge Wells.

Distilling twenty years of teaching, authoring and training into a short talk was a challenging but worthwhile experience. I can talk for a year and a day on what I think matters most in education, as can anyone who works in schools. But as headteacher of a large community primary school, time is at a premium and brevity is good.

Précising some three thousand spoken words into a short article now is equally challenging, but as I often say to the children in my school, challenges are good. So here goes.

My talk was entitled ‘Culture before curriculum: a learner’s reality.’

Much of the learning that actually takes place in a primary school happens at a sub-conscious level, beneath the surface of the visible curriculum; it is empirical knowledge, inextricably linked to how children feel, what they think and what their senses are telling them. The social encounters they have, good or bad, the things they hear, see and feel around them are programming their sub-conscious, shaping their character and forging their model of the world. In this emerging learner’s reality, they are forming preferences and inclinations, finding what makes them comfortable, fearful, ambitious, nervous, happy or motivated, and all this takes root in their mind and programmes how they will react for the rest of their school career and on into adulthood.

Primary schools are the engine rooms of education. They are the crucibles in which characters are forged. My own character was formed by the time I was seven. My inclinations, hopes and fears, dreams and ambitions, things I thought I was good at, things I thought I’d never be good at, have all remained the same, forty years later. How I conceptualise ‘Andrew Hammond’, who he is and what he can and cannot do, has not altered. I’ve just grown older.

Those who set the national curriculum for primary schools have missed how young children actually learn. The national curriculum is compartmentalised into subjects, each one delivering propositional knowledge which must be consciously read, remembered and regurgitated (the 3Rs) and skills and proficiencies that must be consciously acquired, perfected and performed. There is no question that this type of conscious learning is important and needs to be valued in schools. I needn’t worry; conscious learning yields a convenient measure of attainment and progress, which leads to sorting and ranking, so it proliferates in every school and enjoys a high value.

Sub-conscious learning on the other hand – of the type which takes root and shapes a child’s character and view of themselves and the world – is experiential, influenced by their senses, emotions and untrammelled imagination. This is the learner’s reality. It is dynamic, multidisciplinary and multisensory; harder to plan for and much harder to assess. But it is sub-conscious learning that leads to real growth. And childhood is fundamentally about growing.

These two types of learning could happily co-exist in school if it wasn’t for one factor: nothing stunts growth more than sorting and ranking.

The more we teach, test and measure in schools, the more we stifle growth. This allows a myth to take hold and become a self-fulfilling prophecy for many students: that what a child shows he knows in an exam is an accurate measure of his ability as a learner. It is not. A child may leave school with the misbelief that they are nothing more than the sum of their grades, but they are more than this. So much more. Conscious learning has eclipsed their sub-conscious growth, or even worse, shrivelled it.

So what can be done about it? In continuing to promote conscious learning should we just hope that sub-conscious learning for growth will follow on? We have no choice about teaching the national curriculum and I believe passionately that every child has a right to access a core curriculum of academic knowledge and skills, like literacy and numeracy. But not to the detriment of their own growth. We need to achieve both.

The answer lies beneath the surface, beyond the league tables and it’s called school culture: how we do things around here. It is the culture of a school, its ethos and core values, that help to shape and form a child’s view of themselves and others. The life-long lessons children teach themselves sub-consciously through primary school are impacted positively by the social norms and customs we build around them – the tone of our discourse, the nature of our relationships and the shared values we hold. Teachers are cultural architects in their classrooms.

Life is long but childhood is short and we need to stop calibrating it. For as long as measuring and testing continue to dominate education, it is to school culture that we must turn to preserve children’s natural growth. Culture is the compost in which character is grown and potential takes root. How we do things in my school is as important to me as the measurable outcomes we produce.

 

 

A New Year’s resolution: to be there.

No one, not your spouse or partner, your best friend, your colleagues, your relatives or your neighbours, will value time spent with you quite like your own children do. To them, just five minutes of your undivided attention, are worth a whole day of half-listening.

Like a lot of busy parents holding down full-time jobs, my wife and I juggle work with family and we never reach the right balance. We are fortunate to have full-time jobs and very fortunate to have four children, so I am not complaining, but we should make time because they are getting older quickly – now eighteen, sixteen, thirteen and eleven. Within the blink of an eye they have grown from little ones to young adults and within another blink they will soon be off to university, work and independent living. They will have homes of their own and I’ll still be shouting ‘dinner’s ready’ up the stairs.

I look through the family albums and I see so much we have done together. But I am constantly puzzled by how few events I can actually remember. I am there in the scene, arms around my children, smiling at the camera, sitting in our tent eating spam in the middle of a Yorkshire field, perching on a quay side eating Devonshire ice cream, or huddling on a windswept beach in Suffolk. I know was there, I have proof; our house is adorned with ornaments and pictures brought back from family trips.

It is not that I have a particularly poor memory; the problem is this: I was always there in body but seldom there in mind. I was often thinking about other things – usually a book I was working on at the time, a course I was about to run, or the familiar stresses and strains of a career spent in teaching and school leadership. But at least I was there.

Being there in body is not enough. I need to be there in mind too. I have to attend – listen, pay attention, respond meaningfully, remembering at all times that I am making memories. I have always said that a family holiday is not really for us adults; it is for making memories that the children will remember when they are older. I still believe this is true and I am pleased that the children have childhood experiences they can remember. But I should have been making indelible memories for myself too. For when we grown-ups retire from work and start reflecting back on our lives, how many of us will conclude that we should have spent more time at work and less time at home? And of the time we did spend at home, how many of us will wish we hadn’t concentrated so much on what our children were saying? Think about it, what else could possibly have been more important? How many of us would rather their memories of work were more vivid than their recollections from home? Colleagues will forget us as soon as we’ve left, but our families never will.

Perhaps it’s due to that inconvenient truth that many of us are more polite at work than we are at home. Family life does not require us to act with professionalism, no matter how much more we love our families than we do our colleagues – no offence intended, I have super colleagues! I can sustain interest at work far more readily than I can at home. When a line manager or colleague gives me instructions, I can listen intently, or certainly give that impression; but when my wife gives me instructions, she knows full well it is going in one ear and out the other. Sometimes I don’t even pretend I’m listening.

Twenty years we’ve been married – twenty years of conversations and I can’t remember any of them.

But I can attend and concentrate at work when I have to. I can chair a meeting at work and recall with reasonable clarity what was said in it. I can give a child at school my undivided attention and remember a comment they made to me months later – it is my job. But ask me what my own children said to me at lunch yesterday and I struggle to remember the detail. Why is that?

Showing and telling to an appreciative audience is an important part of a child’s growth and development, not to mention their self-worth. I know this because I say it at school all the time. Children need and deserve a captive crowd to whom they can show and tell their achievements. But as a parent I worry if I’m a cardboard cut-out audience. I smile and make positive noises at the right moments, whilst thinking about something else.

When I am ready to stop working and stop stressing about other things, when I am ready to be a fully interactive and appreciative audience for my children, they will be children no longer and that worries me. Perhaps that is the way it is and always has been for us parents. It is why grandparents are so cherished by their grandchildren.

It is possible I have done myself a gross injustice here – my wife thinks so. There have been plenty of times when I have not been thinking about work and instead have been thinking intently about my children. And that’s just the point. While they talk to me, I look at them, cuddle them, worry about them, wonder if they are healthy and happy, wonder how they’re getting on at school, wonder if they need a haircut, worry if they’re not eating enough, or eating too much, worry if anything is worrying them – and all this while they are still talking to me. Perhaps there is always a sub-text or a distraction within every conversation you have with your own children, precisely because of these parenting worries that you cannot switch off when you focus on their faces. But all they really want is for you to listen!

As another year begins, I will resolve to make space in my busy diary to stop, look and listen. I will make special effort to be there and remember.

Published in Bury Free Press, Friday 4th January 2019

 

 

Concentration of a different kind

We often hear today that children’s attention spans are shortening. ‘They just can’t sit and concentrate for half an hour, like they used to!’

I question this. Most children can still concentrate for thirty minutes, but they chop it up into five chunks of six minutes and run them concurrently. I’ll give you an example: one of my four children operates his X Box controller like a Jedi-master. I’ve seldom seen a human so deft, his eyes darting across the screen like guided lasers, while his fingers and opposing thumbs twiddle and twist with pin-point accuracy. But this is not the extent of his skill; at the same time as playing his game, he can communicate with a distant co-player through his headphones, search for cheat codes on his mobile phone, balance his shoe on the end of his toes, swing to and fro on his chair and argue with his sister.

Does he have a problem concentrating? I don’t think so.

As a middle-aged father I encourage my son to adapt to my world, whilst secretly trying to acclimatise to his. We meet somewhere in the middle.

Silence rarely exists in my son’s world; there is always white noise. It is a multimodal landscape through which he navigates with the precision of a SatNav. Conversations with him are rapid, words are used with breathless efficiency. He seeks and finds meaning quicker than I can process a question.

Does he have a problem processing information? I don’t think so.

Multiply my son by thirty and you have a typical class. If each student has the same capacity to juggle quick-fire tasks, that is one hundred and eighty different things all happening at the same time in the same room. Not only can many children juggle tasks in this way, they crave the the busy buzz such juggling brings. That is not to say they should all be given so many concurrent tasks, it would be impossible to manage! But neither should we require them all to focus on just one.

Is it time to re-think the way we teach? Is it time to consider what learning looks like? Is there a difference between learning and just doing? Are educators like me teachers, coaches, facilitators or orchestral conductors?

I could try to encourage my son to focus on one thing for an extended period of time, try to strip him of his penchant for multitasking, not least for the purposes of passing an exam, but I wonder whether this will help or hinder him in the world he is going to inhabit – a world in which communication, interaction, occupation and leisure co-exist like never before.

But nothing beats a good story. He can gaze, transfixed, for hours at a cinema screen if the film is engaging enough; he doesn’t move. Perhaps this is because the film is simulating that familiar landscape in which he thrives – short bursts of action, dialogue, music and sound effects, with rapidly-changing camera angles and plot twists. Is this a clue to how teachers, the lead storytellers in the room, should hold their pupils’ attention?

How do we re-create this experience in the classroom? Should we even try? Should school be the last bastion of monologues and soliloquies from the front? Should my school be a sanctuary from the rapid race outside its walls?

Has the function of a school descended into being the place where my son learns to sit still, listen quietly and raise his hand at the appropriate moments? I don’t believe so. School is for growing minds and developing character and perhaps the optimum growing conditions in which this happens have changed.

When I was at school there was no internet, no mobile phones, no satellite television, no video games and no digital radio. The learning tools in school mirrored the leisure tools at home: books, cassette tapes, video recorders, comics and magazines, face-to-face conversation.

But the world of home has changed. Have schools caught up yet? Perhaps they should race ahead and provide a vision of what is to come?

Or is the true function of a school to be a conduit between the past and the future, anchoring children, just like my son, somewhere in the middle.