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

Midsummer Madness

What a wonderfully uplifting story in The Guardian this week about Grasmere Primary School’s outdoor production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Not a ‘version’ of the play mind, nor ‘Shakespeare for Children’, but a full-blown production involving all 46 children in years 1-6.

Way beyond the capabilities of the average ten-year-old you may think, but in fact, far from fearing that the children would be unable to cope with what is an extremely demanding challenge for adults to pull off, the headteacher Johanna Goode put faith in ‘Shakespeare’s ability to talk to everyone’, a faith which paid high high dividends for the children, staff and parents of the small community set in the heart of the Lake District, and surrounded by the ghosts of another of England’s literary giants. What makes the story even more inspirational is that these children are not some priviliged elite, but the kind of children you might find at every other school in the country; a third of them are regarded as having ‘special educational needs’.

Reading the story I was reminded of an episode in my own teaching career. I had taken up my post as Depute Headteacher in a new school, and was pleased to discover that it would still involve some teaching duties ( a practice with which not all of my colleagues agreed, and which I understand is still the cause of much debate in secondary schools today). A few weeks into the term I was reflecting smugly on my ability to engage my fourth year class (15-16 year-olds) in the delights of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and happened to express this satisfaction at a departmental meeting. Sitting back to receive the accolades of my fellow teachers, I was met by a few seconds of silence, before the head of department asked with a mixture of shock and revulsion, ‘Don’t you know that Macbeth is a fifth-year play?’

This comment stuck with me – as you can tell – because it demonstrates everything that is wrong with an examination-driven curriculum, when young people ‘study’ Shakespeare from a page rather than a stage, and when we restrict the young person’s natural curiosity and creativity by pre-determining what we think they should be able to do at particular ages and stages. This is why I am so fully supportive of a curriculum which puts the learner at the centre, is described in terms of outcomes rather than inputs, and which sets ambitious targets  for all young people, no matter how challenging and messy that may be in the short term.

Read the full story, and watch a short film clip of Grasmere Primary School’s Midsummer Night’s Dream here.