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I was blessed last month by going through the entire year’s overview plans for each curricular topic taught by teachers in each class at Christ the Sower, looking for evidence that we are using the “What if Learning” approach in school. We think that this is a powerful and helpful way of approaching pedagogy from a Christian and ethical perspective. This little corner of a display on the topic shows the sort of questions that have been chosen by teachers. Some of these are straight from the What If Learning website, whilst others are inspired by them and the questions re-couched in order to address a particular need.

A good example of this approach was produced in Year 1 earlier this month, and it was an exploration of how wonderfully we are made, how good it is to exercise our bodies, and the impact on our wellbeing of doing exercise. The teacher’s key question was:

What if PE helped us understand how we were made?

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The thinking behind the lesson series was based in two scriptures – Proverbs 3:13 (God knows well what He is doing. He has established rewards for living wisely: A happy, long life. A good reputation. Guidance when you need it most. Health. Success. Even, dare we say, fatherly discipline. These are just a few of the benefits accompanying God’s wisdomThe Voice paraphrase) and Psalm 139:15 ( You know me inside and out, you know every bone in my body; You know exactly how I was made, bit by bit, how I was sculpted from nothing into something – The Message). Children were asked to comment on how PE made them feel, and the teacher compared the comments from before the exercise to those afterwards. DSC02486Given that these are Year 1 children, there are some wonderful insights about lowering levels of stress (“playing badminton helps me stop thinking about other important things”), how to lose yourself in a physical activity (“I liked bouncing. I was really high up. I wanted to carry on for a long time but it didn’t feel like it, because I was happy”), contentment through exercise (“Skipping makes me feel happy”…”It makes me feel happy when I hoolahoop, because I move my body to make it swing round”), growing in challenge and competence (“I feel happy playing badminton, because I am doing more than I did last time”), rejoicing communally in an activity (“When the music was turned on I started to dance straight away. I was excited, my head was telling me to carry on and we danced together. I smiled and felt surprised because other people were doing the same thing”). Perhaps best of all were two comments showing how doing PE and using their bodies impacted on mood after a child had allowed their conduct to slip!

I felt sad when I couldn’t use my favourite equipment because of my behaviour, but when I heard the music I have started to feel better and even danced and it made me forget about being sad. I like music and did zumba.

I was sad I couldn’t go on the space-hopper because I’ve lost Golden Time. After that my mind was telling me that I don’t want to do anything else. I was sad and bored.  When I went on the space-hopper my mind was happy again. I had lots of fun and played tag.

I love this approach – not only does it allow ethical questions to take centre-stage when we allow them, but it also reflects fully the Christian anthropology that we need to use when dealing with children as created beings.

The questions that underpins this approach for us is the one in the big bubble in this picture: What if we could find a way of teaching and learning that honoured our deepest beliefs about children, families and community life?

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I have a different question, though. This one has been buzzing around for a long time, is heavily influenced by the thinking on education posited by Wendell Berry, and has resonances from agrarian education, first-nation schooling in Canada and from some of Keri Facer’s work on beanpole families and how to maintain good relationships intergenerationally. This is the question:

What if…we were to be guided seriously by the knowledge our grandparents had and which our parents have lost?

I think that this is an excellent question, and one that bears much study. In a school like ours,  it would serve several purposes:

  • Historically, it would open our eyes to the lives of our great-grandparents (from whom our grandparents presumably gained their knowledge and wisdom), with all its differing contexts and pace of life
  • Culturally, it would take us away from our relatively monochrome western schools culture back into the past, to a thousand older and less technologically-similar cultures from across the world.
  • It would force our grandparent community to think hard about what they treasured about their schooling and their home lives, and help them see the relevance of that to their grandchildren.
  • It would raise, in our esteem, the heritage of learning that existed as a foundation for our own.

It has been said recently (can’t put my finger on it but it was a Tory politician in the last month or so) that our children are the first generation to be significantly more poorly educated than their grandparents. I have no idea whether this is right. It is certainly a very stupid thing to say, given the way that learning and knowledge has changed in two generations.

What it does make me think of, though, is the wealth of learning that our grandparents have, whose value they may not know, but which contains handed-down skills, home crafts in wood and metal, languages and dialects, gardening and farming knowledge, religious knowledge and spiritual understanding, baking and cooking, family knowledge and traditional stories and songs, books and stories that were loved and then forgotten – a whole plethora of knowledge. Combined with that is the wealth of knowledge of what places were like before now, when life was less mechanised, slower, and when forms of communication allowed for longer periods of time in between. This is not in any way a search for nostalgia, but a rich recognition that in rushing toward some mythical future techno-world, we lose completely useful learning and practical skills that once were common parlance amongst our forebears.

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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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