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.







22nd Century children are here, now.

Across the country, many children will have started school for the very first time last week. Their parents and carers may have watched them toddle off, unfazed, into the Early Years playground, or fought to unpick their tiny clutches and re-attach them, like some reluctant koala, to the friendly but unfamiliar adult greeting them at the classroom door.

As we reflect on such milestones in childhood, it is worth pausing to gaze at the long road ahead. The majority of children starting school today will live to see the twenty-second century and more than a quarter of them will become centenarians. Artificial intelligence is likely to transform their future employment and may even assign the idea of ‘having a job’ to the history books. Domestic robots may run their household, manage their finances and even remember to put the bins out the night before collection; socialising will continue to be conducted mostly online, as it is already; the most favoured forms of entertainment will likely take place in virtual or augmented realities; and factual knowledge – that highly-prized and measurable commodity peddled in school since the days of Gradgrind – will be instantly available at the press of a button or the mere thinking of a question, when the answer will be dropped telepathically into the questioner’s brain by their life-long, simulated pet pooch, a descendant of Siri.

If the adult lives of the children in our schools today will be dominated by leisure time, as many predict they might be, how then are we preparing them for this new world? How are we helping them to protect themselves from information overload and anxiety or a lack of purpose and direction? How are we equipping our children with the self-discipline and creativity they will need in order to find meaning and purpose in an adult life of leisure, when robots take up the mantle of work and leave them with time on their hands?

Defining your worth by your work is a burden still carried by people of mine and my parents’ generations, and a century of antecedents before us. When I was at school in the 1970s and 80s we believed the myth that good things only came to those who studied hard in school, achieved good grades and then worked hard nine to five. The question, ‘What will I be when I’m older?’ hung over our heads and put a stop to playfulness from the age of about fifteen onwards. But ask an employee of a high-tech company today and I suspect the lines between work and play are blurred for them. Ask a creative entrepreneur and they will probably tell you that it is not how hard you work that brings wealth and opportunity, it is how you connect people together and then motivate them, how you imagine different futures, how bravely you embrace change and whether you can create solutions before others have even perceived a problem. AI can optimise but it can’t create, only we can do that.

If a revolution in education is coming, let it not only be based on what AI can do for us; let it be driven by what we can do that AI can’t. May it force us to re-discover the facets and capacities that make us human. May we redesign our schooling system so that it values creative thinking and innovation as much as literacy and numeracy.

For it may not be the children’s arithmetic, verbal reasoning or knowledge retention skills that enable them to prosper in an AI-dominated world – computers will always outperform us in all of these disciplines; rather, it will be their tacit knowledge that shapes the life stories they write for themselves: knowledge that is not so easily verbalised or measured, but gathered via our senses, learned through observation and imitation, and influenced by our cultural inheritance and life experiences. These are the things that really matter because they make us who we are and who we could become.

As a new school year begins, what a tremendous challenge for school leaders like me: to find ways of nurturing the ‘deep-down-things’ that make us human and that will ultimately bring success and fulfilment to the children who started school this week, long after we have all retired.

First appeared in my monthly column in the Bury Free Press, Friday 7th September 2018






Three truths about school

This is going to be controversial: school is about hard work, discipline and respect.

In the twenty years I’ve been teaching I’ve seen a transformation outside the school gates. Innovations in technology and global communications have transformed the way we work, shop, socialise and spend our leisure time. Such changes, inconceivable when I was a student, getting to grips with my ZX81, have prompted educators like me to cry for more creativity, innovation and independent thinking in schools. We must find and nurture the tech entrepreneurs of the future. We must tailor our teaching to meet every individual’s needs; we must safeguard children’s natural curiosity and develop a joy of learning, promoting a playful attitude to work; we must place happiness and well-being at the centre of our schools. We must celebrate and protect the wonder of childhood, because it is this that will spawn creative thinkers of the future.

There is nothing here that I disagree with, and most of it I’ve been calling for throughout my career.

But buried beneath the revolution in the way we live and work has been a transformation of a different kind and it’s one we don’t like to talk about much: the slow erosion of fundamental values which shaped the ethos of the schools and communities in which my generation grew up. There were malign elements, of course, that we’re all glad to see the back of – corporal punishment, for one, or prejudice of varying, cruel kinds. But what of discipline? What about hard work? Mutual respect? It is a brave headteacher who incorporates these seemingly old-fashioned values into their mission statement, the more common trend being for words like aspiration, creativity, independent thinking or self-confidence.

I continue shouting for a playful, enjoyable approach to learning, but I’m reaching the conclusion that such a mantra assumes that everything is functioning well outside school – that discipline, respect, and diligence are all instilled at home and in the wider community, thus leaving us creative teachers free to promote a spirit of enquiry and a joy of learning in our schools.

So I dare to say again, school is about hard work, get used to it. Your independence is important, but it’s not as important as the inter-dependence that comes from mutual respect. Creative endeavour is important too, but without self-discipline it is nothing. Far from shirking responsibility or self-discipline, the great thinkers, inventors and creative artists of the past only succeeded because of their hard work and self-discipline.

If increasing numbers of children lack role models in their lives outside of school, from whom they can learn a good work ethic, a sense of social responsibility and self-regulation, then surely it falls to schools to champion these values once again.

There are reasons, often tragic, why children lack such role models at home; I am not apportioning blame. As a parent of four children, I know that parenting is difficult, there is no handbook, and the scandalous cuts in funding for social care and family support – which I saw for myself as headteacher of a primary school in a poor community with large numbers of disadvantaged and vulnerable children – have meant that many children lack direction, a moral compass and often even the most basic care.

Yes, all children have a right to an inspirational education filled with creative opportunity, aspiration and teaching tailored for them, but so too do they deserve to be told – by someone – that hard work, self-discipline and mutual respect are important. If this message is not being delivered to them at home, or through the media or modern popular culture, then it’s school that can say it, no matter how unfashionable it sounds.

Discipline, hard work and mutual respect are words that seem outdated and some may even think they threaten creativity, well-being or character enrichment. I think they underpin them.

When such qualities are instilled in students, modelled by their teachers, schools can truly take off.



Four steps to Creativity

The Proustian phenomenon tells us that our sense of smell has more power than any other sense to provoke distinct and emotional memories within us. In his novel, À la recherche du temps perdu (In search of lost time) Marcel Proust describes a character vividly recalling memories from his childhood after smelling a tea-soaked biscuit. Memories, long-forgotten, can often come flooding back to us, when certain smells are encountered again.

A whiff of bacon and egg does it for me. I am always whisked away to Weston-super-Mare, aged seven, going for a morning stroll with my Grandpa. At the end of his road, just near the sea front, was a nursing home for the elderly and every morning the most luscious smells of full English breakfasts would blast out of a vent in the kitchen wall. The seaside, for me, doesn’t smell of seaweed, it smells of bacon.

Trips to Weston were always a sensory adventure. After serving in the war as a bomb disposal expert, my grandpa turned his steady hands to chiropody and his surgery was inside the house. The unforgettable smell of phenol and salicylic acid would always greet us in the hallway after my Nana had opened the door with a beaming smile.

But the most memorable part of our weekends in Weston wasn’t the chemicals or the bacon or the seaside. It was my Nana’s old wooden button box – a large, rectangular open tray with a handle across the top of it. 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. You could only 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 beyond the nursing home. 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 Nana a necklace or my father a pretend wristwatch. Button men, button roads, button food and button jewellery. How could anyone resist their enticing appeal?

If you want a definition for what creativity is, then you need look no further than your grandmother’s button box. I have thought a great deal about why I was so transfixed by it – why hours would pass unnoticed while I was so absorbed. They call it being in ‘flow-state’ these days. 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. There is a common 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 I believe there were four distinct stages to it.

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.

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 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 (it broke the monotony of a night-shift). Their different coloured designs pleased me and they stacked up so well together – making an ideal Jenga substitute during quiet shifts.

Back in Weston, there then followed a really exciting stage in my work with those buttons, the synthesis stage. 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 besotted even now. Back then, of course, I would grab any pieces I could find from the giant tub of crusty blocks and knock up a vehicle, spaceship or hobbit’s hovel from my imagination. Now, as an adult, I mindlessly follow Lego kit instructions and call it therapeutic.

After the synthesis stage came the final part, the presentation. This was the much anticipated ‘tadaah’ moment, when I ran into the kitchen, grabbed my Nanna, 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. My book, Teaching for Creativity, is about how to plan for each one in your classroom.

Teaching for Creativity is the second title in the Invisible Curriculum Series, published by John Catt Educational. Click here to view it.


What it means to be human and what that means for schools

Leonardo da Vinci, the greatest polymath of them all, and surely the best champion for human potential, described himself as an omo sanza lettere – a man without letters, without an education.

There may be young Leonardos in my class today. He was, after all, and quite reassuringly for all of us, ‘only human’. But it would be hard to spot a Leonardo or Leonora from the attainment or progress data available to me, for the way in which we measure intelligence is so narrow that it would hide the voracious and prolific creative talents of another da Vinci. How would we know? Neither the models of assessment adopted, nor the methods of teaching and managing behaviour employed in schools are receptive or conducive to creative impulses and disruptive, rebellious thinking. A young Kant or Descartes would be equally hidden too; metaphysical or existential musings are rarely given airtime when you’ve got SATs to prepare for.

The multiple intelligences so eloquently described by Howard Gardner, and so deftly demonstrated by Leonardo centuries before, seem absent in all but the most enlightened examination systems upon which most school curricula are built. The 3Rs of reading, remembering and regurgitating marginalise more creative geniuses than they empower.

Computational capacity reigns king. Rationality is what counts, because it can be counted. That is to say, intelligence in school today is universally measured via logic and reasoning tests. Even English papers have been reduced to multiple-choice format these days, prejudicing the creative thinkers in my class who would otherwise have used some creative thought to extrapolate, hypothesise, empathise and infer authorial intent. ‘Don’t think about it, go for the obvious, logical choice’ is the favoured strategy, so I’m told. There’s always a formula you can learn, a rational method to be applied; you can score highly if you practise often enough, even increase your IQ by a few percentage points. Another blow for the young Byrons or Brontes in my class.

Perhaps it was with some irony that Alfred Binet, father of the IQ test, concluded that ‘Intelligence, like love or beauty, is immeasurable.’ Why then are we intent on measuring it, and in such narrow ways? As we stand on the brink of artificial intelligence dominating our lives, isn’t it time to re-discover the full extent of human intelligence, beyond our capacity to process information and apply deductive logic?

Children enter school blissfully unaware of how clever they really are; but they leave school with a rigid and fixed notion of their ‘intelligence’ or lack of it. Using a narrow set of criteria, school asks us ‘How smart are you?’, when ‘How are you smart?’ might be a better question. Can you experiment, adapt and improvise? Can you embrace ambiguity and make sense of it? Can you assimilate, innovate and invent? As Piaget said, intelligence is what you use when you don’t know what to do.

Reducing the ability of students to their capacity to apply logic and rational thought in response to binary questions, puzzles and patterns, and against the clock too, is to deny what it means to be human, and to set us up perfectly for being usurped by AI. And it’s pointless, because no child can compete with the computational capacity of the smartphone permanently attached to their hand.

If we define intelligence as the ability to process information rapidly and apply inductive or deductive logic, students will calibrate their own intelligence accordingly, and forever do so. What’s more, they will compare themselves unfavourably with the barrage of artificial intelligences that come at them.

Leonardo teaches us we are missing the point if we calibrate our capacities and potential in this limited way. I don’t know what his measured intelligent quotient would have read. It depends on how he was feeling that day, whether he was distracted or not, or feeling dreamy, or fidgety, or inventive.

If a revolution in education is indeed coming, let it not only be based on what AI can do for us; let it be driven by what we can do that AI can’t. May it force us to re-discover what it means to be human, just what and where our potential is and how best we can unlock it in the formative years of school.

Michael Gelb (1998) suggests seven Da Vincian Principles for us to emulate if we want to ‘think like Leonardo Da Vinci’. Of the seven, Sfumatomay be the most significant if we are to unlock our creative potential. Gelb describes this as a willingness to embrace ambiguity, uncertainty and paradox. Sfumatomay well be our most highly-prized capacity and one which cannot be emulated by a machine.  But where is the uncertainty in a formally taught, rigidly timetabled curriculum?

Schools are places in which calculations and rational decisions dominate, and for this there will always be a more efficient and more advanced learning partner in technology. Robotics will soon outperform us in many areas of our lives, including school. But the skills in which technology far exceeds us – reading, processing and applying information – are themselves recent phenomena and not, in any way, attributable to the fact that we find ourselves in that elite club of species still in existence on the planet. We did not survive this long because of our ability to read or solve mathematical problems. Our longevity is due to the deep-down-things that make us human – those ‘harder to teach/harder to measure’ qualities factory-fitted in all of us, like creativity, instinct, intuition, curiosity and so on.

Einstein tells us, ‘The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.’ Intuition allows us to ‘know’ something before we have analysed it rationally. It bridges the gap between our conscious and non-conscious mind. To intuit something is to subconsciously draw on one’s myriad sensory perceptions to reach a notion of what is going on around us, how we should respond and what we should do next. Intuition is a compass. The problem is, our rational mind often overrides any instinctive impulses and we reach a different conclusion based on reasoned analysis. Though rationality is precious, it can mislead us; it gives us a false notion of what human behaviour is. Take listening for example: if you were asked to listen carefully to something, you would probably lean in, lower your eyebrows and frown. None of these actions help you to hear better. No more than sitting still behind a desk helps you to learn better. These are false constructs and we believe them.

Leonardo might tell us that an education should be an aesthetic experience, but right now it’s an anaesthetic one, where sensory perception has a lower value than rational thought. Students in school are told to focus and remain ‘on task’. An ability to concentrate is highly prized in classrooms – and this means shutting off most of our sensory receptors in order to attend to what the teacher is saying to us, or to read carefully the text in front of us. ‘Stay in your learning bubble.’ ‘Manage your distractions.’

Try as I might, I may never aspire to the concentration levels of the computer sat in front of me. It doesn’t fidget and it doesn’t procrastinate. It gets on with the job. If it has senses at all, they are primed and ready to do a specific task and are not open to distraction. The student who can work like a computer – receiving, processing, retaining and recalling information efficiently and without distraction – will sail through school examinations. But for most us, data does not enter our central processing unit in 1s and 0s only.

There is more to being human than data-processing.  Our senses equip us to deal with the unexpected hazards, challenges and beneficial opportunities that float past us daily. To anesthetise students from such experiential learning is to reduce their human potential before they’ve even found it.

We have Aristotle to thank for the notion that we humans have just five senses. Pleasingly, we have many more: chronoception (our sense of time), thermoception (our sense of heat), equilibrioception (balance), nociception (pain) or proprioception (touching your nose or ear without looking at them), to name but a few. But even if we took just the standard five, with such powers of perception we are functioning at a level never attainable by AI, not because any of these sensory receptors aren’t in themselves able to be artificially simulated – I am sure they are/will be soon – but precisely because of the way they perform together in a glorious symphony of interpretation, emotion and thought. But sadly all too often, rational, logical thought trumps these innate skills.

With all this rapid reasoning in school, to describe someone as ‘very sensitive’ is not to pay them a compliment. And to pause in a discussion, in order to think in a measured way, is to render yourself ‘slow’, vulnerable to an early diagnosis of poor information-processing ability. Perhaps this is why so many of my students these days precede every verbal utterance with the word ‘wait’.

Speed isn’t everything. Deep learning requires time, and so too does relationship-building, problem-solving and creating something original and of value. The speed with which can we process information, and the time it takes for us to retrieve and apply logic and reasoning skills is not indicative of our natural ability – no more so than an academic score in an exam is an accurate measure of a learner’s ability either now or in the future. This is a myth peddled in school. What a child shows that she knows in response to a given set of questions is held to be an accurate measure of her ability as a learner, both now and in the future. This is wholly flawed thinking but it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy if we let it.

This begs the question, ‘What is learning?’ which leads us to ‘What is the purpose of school?’

I know what the purpose of school is not. It is not to sort and rank students by their academic ability. The purpose of school is to facilitate human growth, but nothing stifles growth more than being sorted and ranked. When students are being ranked via their academic ability, the resulting anxiety and fear of failure not only stifles their creativity, it slows down their information-processing speed too – the very thing which formal education seems to treasure.

Artificial intelligence can streamline so many aspects of education, from admissions, data storage and information management, through to marking and reporting. Intelligent tutoring systems will automate feedback given to students and this will no doubt be very appealing to over-worked teachers, myself included. But as teachers, it is our emotional intelligence, combined with our past experience of working with children, that enables us to recognise, instinctively, when a child is suffering from low self-esteem or a lack of motivation in the classroom. And it is difficult to see how that can, or should, ever be replaced. It is our sensory perception that gives us that all-important, all-seeing eye in the classroom. As model learners, it is our humanity that exerts the greatest influence over the outcomes we see in school.

In order to preserve and develop the full spectrum of human facets through school, we need a paradigm shift in the way we talk about learning. We need a new script. For the language of learning used in most schools is reductive, placing too much emphasis on our ability to think rationally, and solve problems logically and analytically. The way we interpret certain words, most frequently used in our learning commentary, may be so reductive that it impacts negatively on the learning itself.

Take the word resultsfor example. It is so often conflated with the word performance. As a parent of four children, I was often seated on the other side of the table at those speed-dating, 5-minute parent/teacher sessions. When I asked the question, ‘How has my son performed this term?’ I was usually told, ‘He performed well he English, he achieved an A. He performed very well in Mathematics, achieving an A*. He performed quite well in French, with a B, and not so well in Geography, achieving a C.’

The question I asked had been misinterpreted here. I enquired about my son’s performance, but I was only told the results of his performance. I was offered no commentary at all about the performance itself – the learning habits, attitudes, behaviours and perspectives that make him the learner he is; nothing about his creativity, his intuition, the ways in which he collaborates with others, his communication or his character.

When learning performance is reduced to alphabetical or percentagised results, we are left none the wiser about the hidden learning that lies behind these grades.

That’s why I devised the Hidden Learning Program. It is the script with which teachers can identify, monitor and comment on their students’ attitudes, behaviours and skills for learning. I hope it will help us to shed light on the invisible things that make us human. Those facets and perspectives that lie beyond the grade – beyond pupils’ verbal reasoning and intelligence quotients.

Do get in touch if you’d like a discussion about how you can become a partner school and trial the program with me. This is not a sales pitch, because the program is free. I want to work with like-minded leaders and teachers who can see the hidden potential in their students and want to do something about it.

Read more about hidden learning in the Invisible Curriculum Series by Andrew Hammond, published by John Catt Ltd




The value of play

Snow swept across my school overnight and left it closed today, lying under a blanket of white. Living alone on site, I’ve had plenty of time to gaze out of my classroom window and reflect on snow-covered days spent in my garden in the 1970s. We built a full-size igloo once; it lasted for days. I hope very much that my students are all at home in their gardens doing the same and playing freely. After all, there is no homework set for them today, as the treadmill lies tantalisingly still for a brief moment in time.

Days like today remind us of the true value of home, family and most of all, play.

Free play, of the kind I experienced as a child, seems to be on the decline, replaced as it has been by purposeful, often target-driven activities that result in something – a music certificate, a karate belt, a winning goal or a coveted pass in a school pre-test or 11+ exam. The intended aim is clear and it drives the activity. Apparently children respond to targets.

I spent my school nights and weekends riding up and down the street with the kids in my neighbourhood, or digging holes at the bottom of the garden, or building futuristic modes of transport out of Lego. Yes, I played rugby for my local club and I worked hard for my badges in Scouts, but I spent just as much time battling boredom at home with invented games that pushed my imagination outwards.

Of course, such anecdotes are branded nostalgic now. They make me seem old – a misty-eyed romantic, perhaps even naïve. Children don’t have time to play idly these days, there is much to do! They need to be kept busy!  And playing outside is so dangerous. (Perhaps it seems dangerous because no one else is playing outside).

I praised a child in class recently for producing two pages of creative writing in double-speed during a short lesson. He replied, ‘Well, you see life’s short, so you have to get on with, Sir.’

Whilst I admire his industry, this troubles me. Who dropped that little thought into his head? Who gave him the impression, already, that life’s not a rehearsal and you have to seize the day and ‘get it right’. God willing, life is long but childhood is short and to hurry children through it seems criminal. The cruel irony is that the most fulfilled adulthood is built on a childhood freed from the pressing need to prepare for being a grown up.

I’ve always battled with a contradiction: I think school plays too significant a role in children’s lives, and yet I’m so very passionate about the value of school. Though none of us intended it, the language of learning in school – achieving, succeeding and making progress – has seeped into children’s leisure time too.

But time has not sped up. Minutes and hours are the same length that they were when I was a child. We are still given the same amount, God willing. It only seems like time is in short supply because now we have to account for each minute and an afternoon of playing needs to result in something. But I fear this is how childhood melts away.

Most of the ‘results’ of my leisure activities as a child were hidden from view. They were qualities like resilience, resourcefulness and friendship. They were roots that grew beneath the surface, or foundations upon which I would build an adulthood. I didn’t know that I was preparing for my grown up life when I was struggling and failing to make the Lego model I had in my mind, or trying hard to stay friends with the difficult boy next door, or digging for hours in the garden and finding nothing.


Just like snow, childhood is fleeting. It was never intended to be here forever. I worry for the adults of the future whose childhood was diarised and micro-managed. They may not be so rooted in resilience and resourcefulness now. They not be as happy.

But school can, and should, be a champion for childhood. We can reassure children and their anxious parents that time spent playing is okay; in fact it’s essential. And you don’t always have to account for it; the impact will be seen later.

I hope it’s snowing again tomorrow. I’ll go outside and make a snow-angel.



Lesson planning, da Vinci style

I only read educational theory books these days, which seems blinkered, I know, but I enjoy them. That’s not strictly true – I read other books too, but like a boomerang, the inferences and interpretations I throw at them always bounce back to education somehow.

Of all the titles shoehorned into my shelf, there is one that contains more post-it notes and scribbles than any other; it’s tatty now and well-thumbed. That’s because it stands head and shoulders above the rest, in my opinion. It’s not a book on education, per se. It does not refer specifically to teaching and learning, assessment or classroom layout. Neither does it call for an educational revolution or paradigm shift in the way we teach, like so many do.

The book is Michael Gelb’s How to think like Leonardo da Vinci. I know it sounds like another personal growth guidebook, of which there are many these days, and it is, but it’s a good one and its relevance to my daily work as a teacher is significant.

I’ve always been obsessed with Leonardo and I’m sure I am not alone. Filled with an unquenchable curiosity and, in his own words, ‘impressed with the urgency of doing’, he is the archetypal polymath, the best example I know of someone who busts the myth that we have left-brain or right-brain tendencies. He is beyond categorisation, a genius in each of the fields he worked in. His legendary sketch books are both works of artistic genius and ground-breaking landmarks in science and engineering.

Gelb has studied Leonardo’s life more closely than most of us and he found seven critical principles by which he lived his life. These seven Da Vincian Principles offer the very best structure I know for how to teach children and unlock their creativity. Gelb’s book is not a manual for how to plan and teach, it is a guide for anyone wanting to experience a personal and professional renaissance, but I continue to recommend it to fellow teachers.

Whenever I share these principles during INSETs and keynotes, I embarrass myself by asking the audience to close their eyes and listen intently. Gradually they will hear the voice of Leonardo himself, whispering to them through the centuries, urging us all to pause and consider each principle and its relevance and purpose to our teaching today. (My great-great grandmother was Italian so I feel that qualifies me to do a dodgy impression of a whispering Leonardo).

So, imagine if you will, each of the following principles is being whispered to you too from the Master himself. These principles will not only change the way you teach, they will motivate you to continue to do this amazing, important and inspirational job: unlocking creative potential in your students and instilling in them the same insatiable curiosity and urge ‘to do’ that consumed Leonardo.

Principle 1: CURIOSITA (stay curious)

Our curriculum doesn’t have to be built on pre-packaged, ready-made knowledge to be read, remembered and regurgitated (the 3Rs).

If we place curiosita at the heart of our planning, we will seek more opportunities for dialogic teaching, open questions, slow reveals, problem-solving and shared journeys of discovery.

Curiosity is the driving force of good learning, the best intrinsic motivator of all. Children are factory-fitted with it from birth and a good teacher harnesses it whether her students are 6 or 16. Teaching knowledge while preserving curiosity may seem mutually exclusive, but through Socratic dialogue, we can allow each gobbet of knowledge learned to lead children towards another unanswered question.

Principle 2: DIMOSTRAZIONE (learn through experience)

Abstract, de-contextualised knowledge gained from a text book or digital resource will barely scratch the surface of understanding and deep learning for most students. Sedentary learning experiences that exercise only our eyes often fail to be memorable.
Immersing children in experiences that awaken their senses and invite them to get up and be pro-active always lead to better understanding. One of my favourite contemporary philosophers, A C Grayling, tells us ‘learning is not only the acquisition of knowledge, it is the acquisition of understanding’, and that’s different. Practical experiences, often al fresco, help to bring meaning and relevance to core knowledge, thus more deeply embedding understanding.  Empirical knowledge sits deeper within us than propositional knowledge to be remembered for an exam. Mastery requires application and experiential learning.

By planning for dimostrazione, we are not only considering what is to be learned today; we are curating a learning experience around it.

Principle 3: SENSAZIONE (sharpen your senses)

There are myriad ways in which children’s senses are being numbed today, through the barrage of banal information and inappropriate and gratuitous content that comes to them from all angles. In our rush to measure ability by IQ and computational capacity, we render sensitivity as superfluous, perhaps even a hindrance. To describe someone as ‘very sensitive’ is not to pay them a compliment, and yet it is our ability to use and interpret information through our senses which has allowed us to be part of that exclusive club of surviving species still on the planet. Our longevity is not, surely, due to our comparatively recent need to read, infer and deduce, to master verbal reasoning or apply deductive logic!

Children need to be reminded how to touch a petal, taste an apple, smell the sea or watch a kestrel in flight. Real experiences that tingle the senses cannot be simulated, no matter how advanced AR and VR digital technologies are.

Placing sensazione at the heart of our lesson planning will ensure that our learning experiences are engaging meaningful and memorable.

Principle 4: SFUMATO (embrace uncertainty)

This is my favourite principle, as it happens to be the thing that motivates me the most. Where some children and adults are unsettled by the unknown (in increasing numbers, I find these days), I am unsettled by the known routines that weigh me down. I may be an extreme case, happy as I am in chaos and disorder, but embracing uncertainty is a necessary life skill and one that we could, and should, promote more in schools today.

The school timetable is pinned down, lesson objectives are pinned up and learning is orchestrated for the children – where is the uncertainty in that?

We need more problem-solving, unpredictable teaching, changes to the routine now and again, and unexpected experiences that turn out to be enjoyable. The only way to teach the children how to manage risk is to introduce some jeopardy; the only way to build courage is to create experiences that test courage.

As Maria Montessori said, ‘The more we do for our students, the more we take away from them.’

If learning is carefully structured around a lesson plan, the opportunities to develop the children’s sfumato is diminished; and yet it is this single quality that Leonardo – and many great thinkers and leaders ever since – have in abundance. It is their sfumato that makes them stand out, and succeed in the end, because they are happy to endure the dark chaos that always precedes the light bulb ‘eureka’ moments.

Principle 5: ARTE/SCIENZA (whole brain thinking)

Leonardo, as I have said, was the ultimate polymath – the embodiment of whole-brain thinking.

Timetables in school necessarily compartmentalise learning into subject silos. This often leads to students (and their parents) ranking which subjects they are best and worst at. Can you imagine Leonardo’s response to the common sentiment often heard at parents’ evenings: ‘Oh, James is just like his mother, into maths; I’m no good at maths, I’m the creative one.’ Or ‘Lucy certainly takes after her mother, she’s the artistic one; I’m an accountant.’

Fortunately the practice of labelling an eight-year-old in school a left-brainer or right-brainer has been rightly trounced these days and we recognise that we all have extraordinary capacities, whether latent or manifest. Thinking creatively or thinking analytically are both facets of being human.

 Principle 6: CORPORALITA (stay fit)

‘Healthy body, healthy mind’ is a mantra these days, and yet if you were to measure the amount of sedentary learning in school I’m sure it would eclipse the time spent up and about. We teach from the neck upwards and give the impression that our bodies are vehicles for getting our heads from one meeting, or one classroom, to the next.

I favour somatic learning – the dances and rugby hackers I use to teach otherwise abstract concepts, which I have written about in previous blogs. Getting the children up and active will always have ultimate benefits on their learning. Though obvious, this is not always evident in the way school days are filled for the majority of learning time. ‘If you work hard on your maths, we may go outside this afternoon.’

Incorporating some corporalita into our planning will lead to more active learning experiences and a fresher, keener disposition for learning when we return to the classroom again.

Principle 7: CONNESSIONE (recognise connections)

As I said earlier, school days are timetabled in a tightly structured and compartmentalised way, often. Long periods of uninterrupted learning are plentiful in Early Years but are often pruned back hard when children enter KS1 and KS2. By the time students reach KS3, cross-curricular topic-teaching is a distant memory of toga-wearing or re-enacting civil wars outside. It’s all about the textbook now and designing revision timetables with different coloured highlighters.

Making connections is a fundamental part of getting cleverer. If we incorporate connessione into our lesson planning, we will be giving the children opportunities to literally build synapses and forge more links between disciplines and skills. This is how intelligence is made.

There is nothing finer than a child in my English class interrupting and saying, ‘Essay writing? Oh, we did that in History yesterday!’


Whether Michael Gelb intended to write a manual for how to plan and teach, I don’t know; his book is not written for teachers specifically. But it has become my most trusted guide when planning schemes of work and ensuring that, rather than teaching creativity out of my students (as I’m often told by commentators that we teachers apparently do), I actively plan for it.

More than this, keeping Da Vinci in mind when planning lessons allows me to be aspirational for my students – reminding me of the many facets of the human brain, the sheer scope of our potential as humans and the myriad ways in which talent can manifest. Gelb’s Da Vincian Principles are an antidote to the narrow and specific way we define ‘intelligence’ in schools.

Education should be an aesthetic experience but so often it is an anaesthetic one. Perhaps that’s why Leonardo left school so early and from then on described himself as an ‘omo sanza lettere’ – a man without letters.

There will be a young Leonardo in my classroom today, I’m certain. There may be several. I want to ensure that they succeed because of their education rather than despite it, and this begins with how aspirational my plans are for them and the richness of the learning experience I build for them. Many of the learning outcomes we’ll see are unknown right now, and that’s the exciting part.