Thoughts from the Whole Education Conference Part One.
“There is more in us than we know if we could just be made to see it; perhaps, for the rest of our lives we will be unwilling to settle for less,” Kurt Hahn
It was this quote, which was shared at the end of the XP session, which exemplified the theme of the second day of the Whole Education Conference for me. How can we get students to understand what they are truly capable of through a curriculum, which is entirely driven through a set of narrow judgements of what leaners should be? The answer is we can’t.
Actually, the answer is YES. We can provide students with experiences which provide exceptional depth, a real sense of agency, an opportunity for students to engage with the real world, creating a sense of awe and curiosity as standard, a chance for all students to engage with work which is intrinsically valuable and truly beautiful.
Having been at the Cramlington Festival last June, I remember coming back, with such purpose. Then the doubts starting creeping in, just as the new national curriculum was being dug in, the constant threat of exams becoming more and more challenging. The amount students have to remember. Teach like a Champion. Seven Myths about Education. The bashing of progressivism. Sequencing and spacing.. My sense of purpose was preoccupied the narrative of raising standards and traditionalism. The verve I came back with after the conference was being eroded daily. The pressures of improving exam results, teacher quality, quick fixes, progress 8. All of these pressures took me far, far away from the distant galaxy that was Cramlington.
The Whole Education Conference came just at the right time for me. Just before I hung up my coat of dreams for a different kind of education. An education where a child’s character and work was as important as the pieces of paper they leave with at the tender age of 16.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m all for students having a body of knowledge which will serve them well. I’m all for cultural capital, but I also have a yearning for the students in my school to be great producers as well as consumers. To create beautiful, meaningful work. Work which transforms who they are. Work which gives students an opportunity to ‘go deep’, not just see learning though the train window as the curriculum train rumbles on ever faster.
Ron Berger stopped me in my tracks…. Well when he entered the auditorium really. He has an extraordinary presence, for such a short guy with a mullet. But he really made me think when he stated that people in the real world are judged on the quality of their work and their character, not on their ability to recall facts or perform well in tests. He said that we should focus on the quality of what students do and who they are. He then shared some of the extraordinary work produced by students in two Expeditionary Learning schools. A project on snakes (which you can find more about here). He shared with us one child’s beautiful work. ‘The Fer-De-Lance Viper’ by Gavin Briggs. On the screen was a beautifully drawn, anatomically correct snake, and the words of Gavin talking us through a day in the life of this snake. The words spoken by Gavin were extraordinary. His understanding, not just of the snake itself, but the habitat he dwells in, the other animals who share the riverbed of the Amazon, his deep understanding of how to put this scientific and geographical knowledge and the craft of his writing were exceptionally impressive. There is also a soundtrack accompanying his spoken words, created by the class with a variety of traditional instruments. Here was a project combining Science, Geography, Music, Art and English. It just filled me with awe. The awe of expectations, the awe of rigour, the awe of resilience and simply the awe of incredibly hard, commited and beautiful work.
Ron then explained that Gavin was 8 years old. His work wasn’t a one off. I have since read and listened through the whole e-book online. They are all of a similar extraordinary quality, all beautiful drawings, all carefully crafted scientific stories about snakes. I seriously recommend that you look yourselves. Then look through the process of how they got there. It’s all online, ready for inspiration. I defy anyone not to be moved by the sheer immersion, pride and perseverance on display in this classroom. I defy anyone not wanting their own children or of those they teach not to be exposed to this depth of excellence in the classroom. This is learning which deepens the knowledge not just of what they know, but what they can do and who they can be. I found it incredibly moving to see what students are capable of when you dramatically change the culture and approach to learning , it transforms the expectations of children, teachers and parents.
This second clip of an older group of students who researched local civil rights heroes, a project called ‘Small Acts of Courage’ brought most of the audience close to tears. The work these students had created was shared in a public celebration of the lives of these ordinary heroes. A book was made, speeches delivered, eyes were wiped. A truly moving learning experience which gave extraordinary value to those who worked on the project and those within their community.
This talk by Obi-wan, of the Rebel Alliance, sorry I mean Ron Berger of Expeditionary learning will live long in the memory. It was one of those moments that reinforces what side of the fence you’re on. It has helped me refocus what my role is (at least part of it). It has given me hope. A new hope (YES to the Star Wars references) that a whole education will not be lost in the mire of higher standards, Ebaccs and Progress 8. Yes those things are important. Hugely so, but so are the countless missed opportunities to do good work which reminds our students just how incredible they are and what they are capable of when we design learning to go deep. EL Schools are hugely successful, beating all their fellow district schools in the Common Core test scores, but they also have students leaving their school full of a deep sense of who they are and what they can achieve to do good in their communities.
If proof were needed that an education worth having is not just about passing tests, the EL model provides evidence that there is a real alternative to what works and what matters.