This photograph popped up on my iPhone recently and got me thinking about innovative education and the growing tension between preparing students to be future-ready while also retaining more traditional elements of the practices that we believe are beneficial for students and their learning. Is it possible for schools to be innovative in the presence of more traditional methods? How might innovation and tradition be hand-in-hand, or mutually exclusive? Who decides what is innovative? And do teaching methods and curricular have expiry dates?
This photograph was taken when I was interviewed by The Guardian in 2014 as a result of my work with academically-advanced primary school students. At the time, I was a Specialist Leader of Education (SLE) and working as a school-to-school consultant, specialising in English, Giftedness and Professional Development, whilst retaining a teaching commitment in my primary school. The photo shows me as the teacher, with a group of students who were 10-11 years old and academically advanced in English. I taught this group every day in a pull-out capacity to offer additional stretch and challenge by extending and enriching their thinking in reading and writing. I found a teaching space in the school’s library with access to reasonably limited resources in my UK state school, mainly using books and film to capture students’ imaginations, and to develop their critical thinking skills.
At a first glance, this image does not suggest a particularly innovative learning environment or experience – students seated at tables, not a piece of technology in sight, school uniforms, pencils in hands…and probably much more that can be easily scrutinised. So what is happening in this photograph that would still be relevant and meaningful for students today, and in the future?
The strategies I used to stretch and challenge academically advanced students were based more on affective education than the cognitive. Affective education focuses on developing students’ belief systems, appreciations, emotions, and attitudes. The theory underlying affective education says in order to develop and maximise cognitive development (that is, what we might consider more traditional or academic learning), students must develop aspects of their character and personality first. By developing students’ affective learning traits, they gain a broader and deeper foundation on which to build their cognitive learning. This is mainly achieved through deepening personal connections, reversing misconceptions, and developing meta-cognitive capacities. As teachers, we can bring our own ideas, beliefs and interests into the classroom to help to guide the learning process but we have to remember that students will also enter the classroom with their own views, perspectives, and prejudices, though their ideas and interests may be less sophisticated. Together, students and teachers can explore each others perspectives and ideas, challenging one another’s thinking, creativity and criticality using personal experiences as a basis for discussion and inquiry. This leads to a more powerful and long-lasting relationship between the learner and their learning.
What was affective about these lessons? We used books, music and film to transport to different time periods, to engage with people of different ages, to experience other cultures, and most importantly, to create personal connections to characters, ideas, places and events through our emotional responses. Most higher ability reading material is created to be more technically advanced – more complex syntax, challenging vocabulary, lengthier texts – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the subject matter requires more critical thinking. I would focus my work on finding resources that would provoke emotional responses, rather than extending their technical skills. For example, I would use emotive music (Speigal Im Speigal from the Gravity soundtrack worked magically in one memorable learning experience) to ‘read’ and analyse, using rich group discussions to create characters and events – from that, students wrote narratives containing complex plots and imaginative worlds. I would also use wordless books with powerful illustrations (Sean Tan’s The Arrival is a stunningly powerful graphic novel) to explore issues surrounding migration. After much discussion, students were given the choice to create a genre of choice to communicate their understanding which was motivational for them: newspaper reports, diary accounts, poems and more were created with the safety that learning is personal. I am a huge fan of using film to extend thinking (The Delivery is a short film warning us against the devastation and destruction created by mass production) and the learning experiences I engineered consisted mainly of asking questions – yes, whole lessons generating questions, no answers and no information offered, just questions. As a teacher, consistently asking ‘why’ leads to a deeper consideration of the stimulus which piques our affective (and cognitive) responses. As the audience, we are then encouraged to understand from various perspectives, which in turn leads to broader and deeper understandings, enhanced vocabulary, a stronger personal connection and more. Deeper thinking always provides students with much more to write with, and about.
This kind of affective learning cultivates empathy, the capacity to feel or understand what another person is experiencing, and this is what makes us uniquely human. Did I slavishly use curricular standards to assess my students’ learning? Was there a test that I asked them to take to assess their empathy? Did I check that punctuation was used with 100% accuracy in every piece of writing? No, to all of those questions. I used curricular standards as a guide, but in my experience, working with academically advanced students means going beyond the expected – the planning and the curriculum. In fact, sticking rigidly to curriculum standards is incredibly limiting for all students, mostly for those whose thinking is the biggest and therefore requires more time, space and freedom, not less. I did not apply a mark scheme to assess students’ abilities to empathise. Punctuation…well, that’s a thorny one as it can be subjective, but ultimately no, using the apostrophe correctly for plural possession is not going to diminish your ability to influence opinions or move other people’s emotions. The innovation here is almost irrelevant because the choices I made as teacher were about cultivating what it to means to be human. The result of this affective approach to learning led to a group of children with a greater capacity to think flexibly, a more secure understanding of themselves, a consideration of alternative life circumstances, stronger relationships with one another, an exploration of ones own ideas and opinions – and dare I say, a happier, more confident group of people.
In our eagerness to embrace more innovative and progressive pedagogy, we should be mindful that we don’t throw the bath water out with the baby when it comes to school curricular. Key skills and content will surely change to meet the demands of an unknown economy and workforce but we should continue to embrace everything that is uniquely human – this will never cease to be relevant and meaningful for students. Learning how to be happy, healthy, fulfilled, empathetic and adaptable human beings in a world that is complex and ever-changing should be our aim for nourishing individual and collective success in our schools.