Many moons ago, I was introduced to the work and thinking of Ken Robinson, one of my great educational heroes. I have bored plenty of people with his quotes and his thinking and many of those I have spoken to will have seen his fantastic RSA Animate video.

I was reminded of him obliquely at some training in London that Verity Stobart and I attended yesterday, on the revised framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage. If you are interested, this website will direct you to what you need (and a whole lot of stuff you don’t). The thought about Sir Ken sprung from the fact that in England we have this knack of chancing upon something truly wonderful, enthralling or even overwhelming, then measuring it! And if we don’t measure it, we organise it then engage in ideologically-obtuse debate about it. What we don’t do often, or at least we haven’t done since the middle of the 19th century, and what Ken Robinson urges us to do, is so to shift our viewpoint, to change the paradigm from which we approach things, that we radically improve things for children.

About two years ago, he spoke at a TED seminar in the US on the subject Bring on the Learning Revolution. I have just listened to it again, as every so often I need to stand in front of those who teach me and learn again, at a deeper level, what it is I, as a leader of a wonderful and vibrant school, need to know and think. Not that I don’t think for myself, but I need feeding. This stuff feeds me. I quote the bit that helped me this evening:

We have sold ourselves into a fast food model of education, and it is impoverishing our spirits and our energies, as much as fast foods are depleting our physical bodies…

…the reason so many people are opting out of education is because it doesn’t feed their spirit. It doesn’t feed their energy or their passion. I think we have to change metaphors, to go from what is essentially an industrial model of education, a manufacturing model, which is based on linearity, on conformity and batching people…we have to move to a model which is more based on principles of agriculture. We have to recognise that human flourishing is not a mechanical process, but an organic process. And you cannot predict the outcome of human development. All you can do is, like a farmer, create the conditions under which they will begin to flourish. So when we look at reforming education, and transforming it, it isn’t about cloning a system…it’s about customising education for your circumstances, and personalising education for the people you’re actually teaching.

Towards the end of the talk, Robinson harks back to something that happened earlier in the conference and quotes from a WB Yeats poem, written to Maud Gonne, the great love of his life, entrusting to her his hopes and desires:

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,

Enwrought with golden and silver light,

The blue and the dim and the dark cloths

Of night and light and the half light,

I would spread the cloths under your feet:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Ken finishes the talk with this challenge:

Everyday, everywhere, children spread their dreams beneath our feet. We should tread softly.

I know that this hardly comprises original thought, but until we see the productivity of education as the secondary rather than the primary purpose of learning, we will forever be in thrall to what Sir Ken calls the “industrial model”. The deep worry about this is that whilst there is a thriving and wholesome group of educators and thinkers trying hard to put this into practice, we will forever be partly hamstrung by the requirement to feed the industrial machine. That an inspection team does not want to see children at Christ the Sower as children but as producers is evidence enough that nothing in the thinking of those who purport to be “reforming education” has changed at all. They are reforming within the limitations of their model, without having either the courage or skill to remodel what education could be. It means that local authorities and the inspection service are pressed into taking roles akin to those of the actors on the Truman Show, for those who know that movie. It is little wonder that there is developing a deep cynicism about educational reform in the UK. Where it has been bravely tried (such as in Wales) it has been inadequately funded.

People enter education (as teachers, I mean) nearly always because of an inspiration and calling to do so. Children have their minds expanded by a teacher and want to be like him or her, or a young woman sees a need and realises that this will be her life’s call, or somehow God gets it into someone’s spirit that they are to give their lives to the education and transformation of the life chances of young people. I have lost count of the number of people who have said to me in interview “I always wanted to be a teacher”. This is a deep and noble calling, and should not attract the brickbats and jibes from the uninformed, whether in government or in a school’s parent body. Teachers long to improve, in my experience, and long for it more when they are envisioned to do so and begin to see the possibilities of what they could do with their calling. Today, for instance, a whole gaggle of Year 2 teachers, parents, children and TAs left the premises in two coaches to go to goodness-knows-where south of Bletchley (the children were unsure!) and spend the heat of the day in pond-dipping, catching insects in meadows, digging around in woodland and absorbing their lives in the deep pleasures of nature. Yesterday, Year 5 were absorbed fully into the imaginary worlds of books with a storyteller who spent a morning feeding their spirits and growing whatever the inner parts of the mind and heart are called. Beautiful activities led by people with beauty in their lives.

This is why the developing cynicism in the politico-educational world looks more ugly on a teacher than it does on the members of many other professions, because teachers generally have had such a strong sense of moral purpose, something that contains within it that certain beauty, so that the cynicism wreaks more havoc on their spirits than it does on, say, builders or car mechanics or members of parliament, whose cynicism may only, with luck, affect bricks or carburettors or members of the opposition.

So, to teachers, I would say – hold the line. We have to live with a government that is wittingly or unwittingly destructive of the human spirit, reducing children to batches and learning to numbers, yet we have to pour ourselves out for those we are called to, improving our skills, deepening our expertise, expanding their horizons, treading softly around the limits of our children’s dreams, until we become the pastor-teachers that our children can feed from.

And meanwhile, let’s work for the kind of teaching and learning that feeds our own spirit, our own dreams, and those of our children.


About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011, looking to make education effective for the whole child and keeping a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for all our children. The views on this blog are all my own, and not in any way those of the school I lead!

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