Where's your head at?

Project based learning, thinking on learning and amazing Art projects

April 14, 2014
by Pete Jones

The Holiday of a Lifetime

This year has been a very tough one philosophically for me. The skills, content dichotomy has been tormenting me all year. I have read countless blogs, read some great books and I totally agree knowledge comes first. Skills cannot be built in thin air. This however does not mean I feel the traditionalist call to arms for me is wholly welcome.

So. Reading all these blogs, plodding my way through my ever increasing reading list and watching at arms length, the continual spats on twitter regarding what really matters, my own standpoint has been shaky at times. I see great merit with learning a body of knowledge to use as a springboard to critical thinking and creativity. But I also see enormous value in project based learning, cross-curricular units of learning and what has been coined ‘expeditionary learning’ by Ron Berger.

There was a wonderful podcast of a conversation between David Price and Ron. On the arguments of learning just a vast body of knowledge, Ron uses the analogy of his parents first holiday. His father had worked hard all his life and on retirement, his mother and father took a trip through Europe, stopping at various places, taking a myriad of photos to encapsulate their experience. They never stopped anywhere for a great deal of time, they never really experienced a great deal of what Europe has to offer. The train swept the couple along, without time to really explore their surroundings and to take in the view, to admire and understand what they were seeing. On their return from their holiday of a lifetime, they showed Ron their photos, arguing which castle was in which province, which grand building belonged to which city. Ron questioned whether their understanding would have been far more profound and valuable if they had got off the train, walked the streets of Rome, stopped for a real coffee, eaten gelato, even dined in an Italian home. The opportunity to ‘Go deep’ as Ron mentioned was such a missed opportunity. The views were intoxicating, a true glimpse of what was on offer, but no more than a glimpse and it left these two weary travellers more than a little confused as to what they had seen and where they had been.

Two days ago, I had the enormous pleasure of visiting one of our feeder primary schools on an open day. As with almost every primary school you enter, the displays were stunning, full of colour, vibrancy and intrigue. But soon, it was more than that, the closer I looked, the more learning I saw. The more consistent excellence I discovered. This was even more evident when I walked into a year 5 classroom. On the tables were all the students work. I opened one book. I immediately felt a deep sense of guilt. The love of learning burst open from the page. Every word beautifully crafted, every page looked like something from an arts and craft manifesto. It was stunning. The teacher came over to me and explained, with intense passion and knowledge, that this was a girl who has consistently struggled with reading and writing. This just didn’t add up. I read her work. It read beautifully. A lovingly explored project on the Victorians was exquisitely choreographed. It belonged in a museum of beautiful work, but here it was, in a plastic tray, alongside 25 other similarly inspired students. The teacher spoke at length about this girl, she showed me the intensive intervention which happens every day on phonics to help her access the curriculum. It was very clear that this girl was receiving every possible ounce of help to develop a passion for learning. The teacher took me round the class, showing me some brilliant project work. A wonderful geographical exploration of the costal erosion after the big storms in Jersey. Students had asked brilliant questions, posed to experts at the beach where most damage had been done. They explored answers with expert geographical language and created some brilliant models to replicate their knowledge. On the side of the whiteboard was the biggest shopping list I’d ever seen. The children had planned, organised and bought the food for an expedition to the scout hut. Brilliant maths work to work out how many packets of sugar puffs were needed to feed the honey monsters. The teacher then showed me a 6 page essay written by one of the students about this trip. It read like a conversation with Jack Dee. Full of dry wit and gave such a wonderful childlike insight to walking for what must have seemed like miles. The longer this barrage of brilliant learning went on, the more I started to think about secondary experience. The more I started to think about Ron’s parents trip. For me there was no doubt that these kids were already on a trip round Europe, but they were able to get off and immerse themselves in the culture of every place they visited. They had become expert backpackers, agile and able to get to know their surroundings, with the help of a truly exceptional guide.

At this point, the teacher spoke about her own daughters experience at a local secondary school. Her child had suddenly drifted on entry to secondary. The primary school body of knowledge was largely ignored alongside those same expectations for excellence now that she had entered ‘big school’. That holiday of a lifetime seemed to be swiftly coming to an end. Instead, the regimented, regular stop-offs at a variety of interesting, yet all too swiftly visited destinations took hold. A number of guides, pulling her in a variety of possible destinations and ultimately her experience was a poor one. Her knowledge of the landscape in front of her was waining. At this point, I could see the teacher was deeply saddened about how her child had lost her way through the diluted opportunities of the secondary experience. I could also sense a deep anger at an apparent lack of challenge given to her by her new school. I started to think how crazy it is that this big jump from primary to secondary is bound up in a few end of key stage numbers. For some, that fresh start is welcome, and needed, but for many those cherished years at primary are soon swallowed up by 50 minute slots of this and that. I have seen some bright faces dull half way through year 7 in my own school.

As I said at the start if this blog, my standpoint on what we should teach, how we should teach has been under considerable strain. Walking into this primary school, seeing the relationships built between teacher and student, seeing the brilliant curriculum opportunities and ultimately the exceptional work, was a timely reminder that school is not all about building cultural capital, passing tests and finding the most efficient mode of transmitting knowledge. I’m sorry, it’s not. We need our children to develop a passion for what they learn, how they learn and what beautiful learning looks like. The difference between reading blogs, hearing the arguments on twitter and being confronted with what was clearly a wonderful primary experience was telling.

A balance must be struck between the content curriculum train Gove is pushing and providing a curriculum which allows us to get off the train and deeply immerse ourselves in experiences which can give us far more than just learning ‘stuff’. From visiting a wonderful classroom, I’ve realised we could learn so much from our primary colleagues. We need to trust that they are doing a perfectly brilliant job and learn to build on what they have done. We need to work much harder at knowing our students, at developing great immersive learning expeditions which challenge and stretch alongside building a body of essential knowledge. We should all go and spend some time in our local primaries, building great relationships with staff and students, ensuring that that holiday of a lifetime lasts a little longer.

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