What Would It Be Like To Be A Duck?

daffy_005_copyYesterday I had the pleasure of doing nothing for quite a long time, sitting in the sun beside Lake Banyoles, or L’Estany de Banyoles, here in Catalonia. It was the site of the rowing regatta at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 and it really is quite a spectacular setting. An excited group of children, probably around the age of four or five, were chattering about the prospect of swimming in the lake, which they were just about to do, and throwing the odd scrap of pizza and chips to the ducks which were plentiful along the edge of the lake. ‘What would it be like to be a duck?’ asked one of the children, eliciting a few giggles. Yes, what WOULD it be like to be a duck. What a great question! Not, ‘Oh look at those ducks, aren’t they cute?’ but ‘What would it be like to be a duck?’ She may as well have asked ‘What is it that makes us human?’ because essentially that is what they set about discussing. What do they eat? How do they eat it? Can they feel cold? What do they think about? Do they get bored? I was reminded of the episode in The Catcher in the Rye when the hero, Holden Caulfield, is walking in Central Park, and he speculates about where the ducks go in winter.

Children always ask the best questions. Which is not to say that they always know what needs to be learned, or that the formal curriculum should be just one big extended session of sitting around reflecting on the nature of the universe, but rather, that as teachers we should reflect on our role and the relationship between learning and enquiry, and remember that real learning comes out of a need and a hunger to know stuff. Good teaching is often about providing young people with the best experiences or texts you can find, asking THEM to ask all the important questions, then setting out together to learn as much as you can.

Further thoughts on kids and questioning from a previous article: More Questions, Fewer Answers

If you are looking for some great questions to stimulate discussion, the following sources will provide you with an endless supply. Don’t blame me if you get lost in them for ever.

Fermi Questions – named after the Nobel Prize-winning Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, who was well known for solving problems which left others baffled.

Little Book of Thunks – a great source of questions to stimulate thinking and discussion.

Philosophy for Kids – ideas to generate discussion and critical thinking.

The Critical Thinking Community – where teachers can learn about the development of critical thinking skills.

L'Estany de Banyoles

L’Estany de Banyoles

Still Searching for Scotland

R.F. MacKenzie 1910-1987

R.F. MacKenzie 1910-1987

In this year of the referendum on Scottish Independence (September 18th) it was appropriate that my ruminations on the future of education, and specifically the ‘Curriculum for Excellence‘ as it has been labelled, should find me making greater acquaintance with one of the country’s most progressive educationalists of the 20th Century, R.F. MacKenzie, a figure whose name I had heard but about whom I knew very little. Appropriate in more ways than one, in that not only was Mackenzie regarded by many as ‘ahead of his time’, but he firmly believed that it was through the state education system that the British establishment maintained its position of power and privilege, and that only by breaking this mould would ordinary Scots be released from their educational and creative straitjacket.

“The doctrine of power depends on a belief that the majority need an intelligent  élite to guide them. The élite spread the axiom that the majority of earth-dwellers are unintelligent and, to justify the assertion, flood the educational system with incomprehensibility. The majority of children, obviously failing to comprehend, are adduced as proof of the majority’s limited intelligence. The lesson is ‘Leave it to the élite’.”

R.F. MacKenzie, A Search For Scotland

R.F. MacKenzie was born in 1910 in rural Aberdeenshire, the son of a country stationmaster, and spent much of his childhood travelling between the rich agricultural soil of his immediate environment and the rugged North Sea coastline, with its tales of fishing, survival and adventure. It was travelling further afield which was to enable him to look more forensically in later life at the country he loved dearly: as a young man he taught in Switzerland and Nazi Germany, served as aircrew in the Royal Air Force, travelled widely in Europe by bicycle and lived for a while among the Calvinist Boers in South Africa, before returning to Scotland and taking up a career in teaching. The insights he gained from these experiences, as well as the lessons learned from fellow-Scot and radical teacher A.S. Neill of Summerhill School fame, were to inform his career and his philosophy of education, which would generally  be described as liberal and progressive. Like Neill before him, MacKenzie believed that a person’s education should begin in his or her natural environment and stem from a natural desire to answer the great questions in life – Who am I? How did I come to be here (on the earth as well as in this particular place)? Why is this place the way it is? How can, and should, I shape it while I am here? – and that children needed stimulation, not discipline, in order to learn.

The Ideal Classroom?

The Ideal Classroom?

Learning outdoors is a key feature of the Mackenzie doctrine, having played such a part in his own early education. It is one which he was able to put into practice early in his teaching career, and in his first Headteacher post at Braehead Secondary School in Fife, a ‘Junior’ Secondary for pupils who failed what was then known as the ’11+’ or ”Qualifying’ examination at the end of their Primary schooling. It was with such pupils, whom he believed had been failed by the system, that MacKenzie had most success, often taking them, literally, back to nature in the form of walks and expeditions in the Scottish countryside. In A Search for Scotland, his last book, published two years after his death in 1987, he describes such an adventure:-

“On a June crossing of the high plateau of Scotland from Braemar to Rothiemurchus, from the Dee to the Spey, in which thirty teenagers took part, we discovered a little of the enquiry and discovery that appeals to them, the experience that gives them enjoyment. We left the Linn O’Dee at nine in the morning and stopped four miles later, near Derry Lodge, for breakfast. Some had sandwiches. One gourmet fried bacon and eggs; we thought he would go far. We followed the less-frequented track of the Lairig-an-Laoidh up the Derry Burn past ancient Caledonian pines, quiet, flat-topped like the mediaeval bonnets that Aberdeen professors wear for graduation ceremonies. The gouging out of two neighbouring corries has left between them the tight-rope of an arête but we had twenty miles of tough walking ahead of us and there wasn’t much time to look at it. A.S. Neill, kindest of critics, said that we were compulsive teachers, too keen to offload geology on our pupils. I imagine he was right because when we stopped for mid-morning break to eat a sandwich and gulp lemonade, the pupils were much keener on dropping rocks in the burn to throw up a cascade of water and soak their unsuspecting companions than on listening to a cascade of geological information…….

The compulsive educationalist tries to gather some crumbs of validation for his own over-serious classroom preoccupations. The sixteen-year-old, staggering in his self-imposed task of carrying a half-hundredweight boulder, legs apart, is learning about density, the feel of granite, the musculature of the human skeleton, the endlessly entertaining phenomena of this miracle substance, water. It comes back to the full meaning of the word ‘know’. What is ‘knowing’? We repacked our rucksacks after the midday siesta, laced up our boots and resumed our journey.”

It was a philosophy which was ultimately to lead to his downfall, dismissed from his post as Headteacher at the ill-fated Summerhill Academy in Aberdeen in 1974. His own account of these events is recorded in The Unbowed Head, but according to Walter Humes of Stirling University it was a failure resulting less from deficiencies in the man or his philosophy than from a combination of external factors, including the inherently conservative nature of the Scottish educational establishment and the difficulties of scaling up an approach which had worked in a previous school with around fifty – albeit challenging – pupils.

Many would argue that there is an inherent contradiction in a man who is himself so well-read and able to quote extensively from the Classics, the Bible and Shakespeare, doggedly pursuing a child-centred, ‘discovery learning’ approach toSearch.jpg schooling.  Surely a proper education must be about the acquisition of knowledge? My guess is that Mackenzie himself would not have argued against the idea that knowledge was the key to learning, but would have had very sound views on what it is that stimulates the desire and motivation in individuals to acquire it. It could be said in fact that much of what MacKenzie was trying to do was to put into practice the principles of the current Curriculum for Excellence, and that the barriers which stood in his way then remain firmly in place now. Whatever your view, I challenge you to deny that the following extract, written 25 years ago, does not still have some resonance today.

 “The richest of the resources that Scotland is wasting is her young. We would be immeasurably richer for their cooperation, and their reintegration into the community. Many years of dealing with these edgy youngsters of industrial Scotland have convinced me of their intellectual ability and potential goodwill as well as their spiny independence. I suspect that our prolonged schooling of them is to hold them down, to protect us adults from their explosive initiatives. Keeping them into their late teens memorising swathes of barely comprehensible information takes the steam out of them. Maybe schools aren’t the best way of bringing up the young. All the politicians in the last election thought that excellence in education is better examination results.”

R.F. MacKenzie, A Search For Scotland

For a more comprehensive analysis of the life and works of R.F. MacKenzie I would recommend that you read Walter Humes’ excellent paper ‘R.F. Mackenzie’s Manifesto for the Educational Revolution‘ in Scottish Educational Review No. 43 (2011)

See also rfmackenzie.info 

Listen to a discussion on R.F. MacKenzie and A Search for Scotland on the Inside Learning podcast

With thanks to my good friend on Twitter Robert Macmillan (@robfmac) for pointing me in the direction of A Search for Scotland. One day soon I hope to meet him in the real world.

‘The Ideal Classroom?’ image from The Shieling Project at A Thousand Huts

Learning in the Long Run

Tough of the TrackSome kids hate sport; I loved it. One of my earliest memories is of running laps around my grandmother’s front lawn just to see how long I could keep it going before falling exhausted on the grass. I’ve no idea what  ‘made me’ do it, but what I do know is that it came from within me; there were no extrinsic rewards. Thus began a lifelong relationship with running, and despite some long periods apart, especially during my student days when the art of rolling and smoking one’s own cigarettes was much more in keeping with the zeitgeist than running around in trainers and shorts, we have needed each other ever since. Mark Rowlands, the runner and philosopher whose fascinating Running with the Pack I have just finished reading, describes his relationship with running like this:-

If I am thinking at all when I run, this is a sign of a run gone wrong – or, at least, of a run that has not yet gone right. The run does not yet have me in its grip. I am not yet in the heartbeat of the run; the rhythm of the run has not done its hypnotic work. On every long run that has gone right, there comes a point where thinking stops and thought begin. Sometimes these are worthless, but sometimes they are not. Running is the open space where thoughts come to play. I do not run in order to think. But when I run, thoughts will come. These thoughts are not something external to the run – an additional bonus or pay-off that accompanies the run. They are part of what it is to run, of what the run really is. When my body runs, my thoughts do too and in a way that has little to do with my devices or choosing……………

At its best, and at its purest, the purpose of running is simply to run. Running is a member of the class of human activities that carry their purpose within themselves. The purpose of running is intrinsic to it. That, I would one day realise, is important.”

Mark Rowlands, Running with the Pack

Lately, I have also been reading a number of blogs and articles where sporting analogies are used to describe improvements in learning. It is very tempting – there seem to be obvious similarities, such as personal targets, improvement plans, training schedules and so on – and the concept of ‘marginal gains‘ for example, adopted from the training methods of the highly successful British cycling team and its head coach Dave Brailsford, has gained a great deal of currency in educational circles recently. So far, so convincing, but it is around the point where comparisons are made between education and competitive professional sport that I begin to feel a bit more uncomfortable with the analogy; when exactly did learning become a ‘competition’? If we look at one of the most successful educational systems of recent years – Finland – we can perhaps see why the sporting analogy doesn’t quite fit. In his new book, Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? Pasi Sahlberg (@pasi_sahlberg), Director General of CIMO in the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, dismisses the received wisdom that making students and schools more competitive benefits all of us in the long run, and even goes so far as to use an enigmatic quote from his fellow countryman and writer Samuli Paronen:  “Real winners do not compete.”

While some countries, such as the USA, love to talk about competition, their international education ranking, as measured by PISA, continues to tumble. Finland, on the other hand, has no lists of ‘best’ schools or teachers; the main driver of Running-with-the-Packeducational policy is cooperation. Finnish schools assign less homework, engage children more in creative play, and have no system of school inspections. Teachers are highly trained, highly respected and trusted to do what is in the best interests of all children in their care. On average, Finland accepts only 10% of applicants into its teaching universities. Applicants must not only have strong academic records, they must also possess interpersonal skills that will enable them to teach well. Next, Finland’s teaching students must complete a 5-7 year course of study, earning both undergraduate and master’s degrees. Once the newly qualified teachers are placed into schools, they will be paid well (with no student loan debt since their university education is free), while also having autonomy to adapt a loose national curriculum into one that meets local needs. They are free to choose their own teaching methods as they see fit, given ample time each day to collaborate with their colleagues, and are expected to attend continuing education classes throughout their careers in order to learn and improve their teaching methods. There are no private schools in Finland, and no standardised tests.

Come to think of it, the Finns have a pretty impressive athletic record too, especially in distance running and field events, so they certainly know how to compete, but perhaps they also recognise that sport is a distraction, not life itself. Which brings me back to the sporting analogies. I’m sure there are comparisons to be drawn between education and sport, as indeed the contribution of physical exercise to cognitive development is well documented, but perhaps the competitive aspects of professional sport are not the best place to start. It may well be that when we use the language of sport, the kind of sport we have in mind is a thing of the past, of a purer form like running itself,  from an era when sport looked less like big business and more like games, or indeed play. I’ll leave the last word with Mark Rowlands:-

“When I run, I know what is important in life – although for many years I did not know that I knew this. This is not so much knowledge newly acquired as knowledge reclaimed. When I was a boy, I also knew what was important in life. I suspect we all did, although we did not know that we knew it. But this is something I forgot when I began the great game of growing up and becoming someone. Indeed, it is something I had to forget in order to play this game at all. It is one of life’s great ironies that those least in need of understanding its meaning are those who most naturally and effortlessly understand it . On the long run, I can hear the whispers of a childhood I can never reclaim, and of a home to which I can never return. In these whispers, in the rumours and mutterings of the long run, there are moments when I understand again what it was I once knew.”

Mark Rowlands, Running with the Pack

See also:  Premier League  Psychologist Hired to  Boost Exam Results

Footnote: Finland has a population of 5.4 million. Scotland has a population of 5.25 million.

Running and Reading (The Key to Life)

“For me, running is both exercise and a metaphor. Running day after day, piling up the races, bit by bit I raise the bar, and by clearing each level I elevate myself. At least that’s why I’ve put in the effort day after day: to raise my own level. I’m no great runner, by any means. I’m at an ordinary – or perhaps more like mediocre – level. But that’s not the point. The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday. In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.”

These are the words of Haruki Murakami in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, the brief but hugely revealing insight into his life as a writer and a runner, and I was reminded of them yesterday when I came upon this Will Smith video being referenced by a few of my friends on Twitter. I love the message it sends out to young people and I think it would make a great start to a school assembly or health and wellbeing lesson.

Warning. Joined-Up Learning Ahead

I’ve just been reading about a really interesting experiment in Kirn Primary School in Dunoon on the west coast of Scotland. Faced with a reducing number of full-time staff, supplemented by an increasing number of part-time teachers who had been re-deployed from other schools with falling roles, the headteacher decided to play to the strengths of his team, while providing stability and continuity to the learners. An early years and first level ‘department’ was created for P1 – P4, staffed by full-timers, where the nurture and support so critical for youngsters in the early stages of schooling would not be compromised. From P5 – P7, however, the learning would take place in what are described as ‘subjects’, with part-time teachers offering specialist topics to each of the classes in turn, according to their own (that is, the teacher’s) strengths and interests.

The gamble seems to be paying off. One of those part-time teachers, who specialises in music and RME, describes how she and the children worked on a school production called The Peace Child, where they had to pull together all the aspects of theatrical production while exploring the theme of conflict resolution, and where they now had ‘time and space to reflect on their learning’. The six-week block of time allowed them a greater element of personal choice, and the opportunity to explore in greater depth aspects of the topic which had a special appeal. A welcome by-product of the new way of working has been an increase in the amount of outdoor education offered to the pupils  – surely a welcome development at a time when Play England reports that 42% of children in England and Wales have never made a daisy chain and 32% have never climbed a tree; there’s no reason to believe that the figures for Scotland would be very much healthier.

One particularly interesting – and slightly curious – aspect of this story for me is that the headteacher himself describes the six-week blocks which teachers offer as ‘subjects’, causing the TESS, where the story was reported this week, to wonder:

“But the solution does seem to go against the grain of recent experience, where separate departments in the secondary school, as well as rigid timetables, are making the new curriculum harder to implement there.

It also seems contrary to conventional wisdom that the primary-secondary transition is problematic for pupils, because one teacher and a close relationship become many teachers, who flit in and out of their lives. Surely forcing that transition earlier can’t be an improvement?”

The reason for this concern and confusion, in my opinion, is in the terminology. Potentially, what Kirn seems to be offering here is successful project-based learning, the very antithesis of learning in ‘subjects’. The learners are engaged in one topic at a time,  over a relatively short period of time, with one teacher, not many. In other words, it is nothing like a secondary model. Other schools have experimented with versions of the ‘rich tasks’ approach with mixed results, but this is one experiment which should definitely be worth watching.

This is the Common Craft team’s take on Project Based Learning:

Murder Most Fatal

Every Tuesday in July here on Arran, the Whiting Bay Club of Drama and Music presents in the Village Hall the wonderfully entitled ‘The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society Murder Mystery’. But as it happens, one hundred and twenty-two years ago today there began a real-life story to match anything by the great Victorian crime novelist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, when a young builder’s clerk from London, Edwin Rose, met a violent death near the summit of Goatfell, Arran’s highest peak. Just over two weeks later, his badly decomposed body was to be found in a stone shelter, where it had been deliberately hidden, his skull shattered and his spine broken.

Goatfell on Arran. Beautiful and dangerous

Rose had been on a walking trip to Scotland with several companions, and was in Rothesay on Bute when he had a chance encounter with John Laurie, a pattern-maker at the Atlas Iron Works in Glasgow’s Springburn. The two men struck up a friendship despite the misgivings of Rose’s friends, and spent the next few days walking on Bute before deciding, on the afternoon of the 15th of July, 1889, to take a ferry to Arran and climb Goatfell, a mountain which remains as popular with walkers today. Easily accessible in both summer and winter, it can be treacherous in bad weather.

The discovery of Rose’s body sparked a manhunt which led to the eventual arrest of Laurie in his home town of Coatbridge. In the subsequent trial, one of the most eagerly followed in Scots legal history, Laurie admitted to robbing the Englishman but denied the charge of murder, claiming that Rose had in fact met two others on the summit and descended with them.

Conan Doyle's famous hero Sherlock Holmes wrestles his arch-enemy Moriarty over the Reichenbach Falls. Art by Sidney Paget

The ultimately successful prosecution case rested on circumstantial evidence relating to the nature of Rose’s injuries and behavioural reports, which convinced the jury of Laurie’s murderous intentions. The only suspect had been seen drinking in the Corrie Bar in Brodick at 10pm on the evening of the tragedy and had checked out of his lodgings the next day without paying. Yet there was never any of Rose’s blood found on Laurie’s clothing, and the victim’s cap and walking stick had been found lying in the vicinity of the body. There had been no attempt to hide them.

Laurie was convicted of murdering the 32-year old Rose and handed a death sentence, later commuted to life imprisonment on the grounds of diminished responsibility. He protested his innocence until his death 40 years later in what was then known as the ‘lunatic division’ of Perth prison. It remains the longest prison term served in the country to this day. But was there a miscarriage of justice? Was Rose pushed or did he fall? Unlike even the best fictional tales, in this case we will probably never know.