I’m in Washington DC at the moment and last week visited the National Air and Space Museum and the fabulous Wright Brothers exhibition. The exhibition offered an example of some excellent pedagogy (well structured investigative narrative, inquiry questions, multiple intelligences etc.) and would make an excellent teaching resource. I got thinking about what might be the barriers to using this as a resource, and how might they be overcome.
I know that it would have taken my pupils thirty seconds to get round the exhibition and then they’d have been queuing for the Coke machine and looking forward to the coach trip home. But, what if I could take a really small group that I knew well? What if this group were used to working outside of a classroom, so that there was none of the hyperactivity and aversion to any kind of ‘work’ that often accompanies the rare trips out of school? What if this group had studied the cross-curricular context of the exhibition prior to the visit and were working towards a project of their own choosing; maybe they were going to be building a plane or selling historical model kits? If all these ‘ifs’ were possible, how many more spaces outside of the classroom would be opened up as viable learning environments, and what an innovation in education that would be.
These are some thoughts on what might be required to make the above ‘ifs’ possible.
Firstly, teachers need to be responsible, and so accountable, for far fewer pupils. Last year I was in some senses ‘responsible’ for over four hundred pupils. In another sense, however, I was not really responsible for any. I would see my history students for two lots of fifty minutes a week and, even in my capacity as assistant head of year, problems could always be passed on; the burden of responsibility and accountability rested rather informally and without clarity on the combined shoulders of subject teachers, form tutors, heads of year, heads of department, the inclusion team, special needs department and the Head and her assistants. I suppose I only consistently nurtured, where at all possible, those pupils that I chose to. And I wasn’t really held to account for any of the nearly four hundred pupils. Just so long as I didn’t phone for ‘on-call’ too many times. The only real measure of accountability was the exam results of the twelve A-Level students I taught over two years. To be responsible and accountable for a group of students, you need that group to be small and to see them for longer than two hours a week. Form tutors, who are supposed to take a nurturing role, may see their form for only ten minutes each morning, and themselves have a full teaching timetable. As a teacher I wanted my time to count. It was infuriating that my time was so thinly spread between so many.
One innovation which might address this problem would be a reshaping of school timetables. Rather than five or six different lessons and teachers each day, what about timetabling only three longer periods? For too many of my pupils school passed in a kind of grey blur. For many it was a question of hanging on unnoticed, not really understanding, for fifty minutes until the next lesson. Quite apart from the inefficiency of many short lessons, unless there is real collaboration they have the potential to distort reality. Life is not divided neatly into subjects and knowledge is almost necessarily cross-curricular. You can’t understand the significance of the Wright Brothers without an understanding of social, cultural and technological history, physics, even some biology (the warped wings the brothers used are modeled on birds), maths, some geography and design technology would help. It is not that I’m against specialisation, but specific subject knowledge, skills and understanding could be taught far more effectively, particularly at Key Stage Three, through the kind of cross-curricular ‘projects’ that are commonly seen in primary schools.
We cannot teach in schools everything that an educated citizen should know. Let’s ensure, therefore, that our pupils learn how to learn. There are key skills required for this. We could efficiently teach, for example, how to collect data, analyse, observe anomalies or bias and evaluate, in a cross-curricular environment. Moreover, if we accept the importance of learning how to learn, we should acknowledge the unrivaled importance of literacy and numeracy. Within a simplified timetable there should be an uncompromising commitment to ensuring pupils achieve a minimum standard in literacy and numeracy before progressing. Without them access to other subject areas is impossible, or, if it is possible (I have seen some excellent ideas for EAL History teaching for example), then it is unmanageable. Even if it is both possible and practically manageable, ultimately, I would suggest, it is unwise to ignore the central importance of competency in words and numbers. However many levers to pull, buttons to press and pictures to look at, it would have been impossible to understand the Wright Brothers exhibition if you couldn’t read.
The benefits of a simplified timetable include the fact that it is flexible. Getting out of school, and making use of rich learning experiences available beyond the classroom walls, should be easy. The biggest obstacle preventing me from taking a class on a trip was the difficulty of arranging cover. Indeed, out of school visits, for this reason, seemed to be positively discouraged. That it is so difficult to take kids out of school doesn’t make sense on so many levels. The time, money and energy dedicated to ‘bringing a subject to life’ in a classroom, the efforts to make teaching ‘relevant’ and link schools to the community, appear almost utterly futile when you think what could be achieved if it was just a little easier to get out of school for a bit. Not only should it be easier to take pupils out of school, but it should be easier to bring other teachers into school. We should recognise that there are far more people that can teach, that have skills or knowledge to offer to young people, than are teachers. No, not everybody can teach a specific academic subject and not everybody can teach in a traditional classroom environment. However at every school’s doorstep there are parents and employees and enthusiasts whose talents could be utilised if only the right structure was in place to facilitate it.