Sponteneity; an important part of the learning process

This is a classroom that children appreciate

This is a classroom that children appreciate

When I arrived at the university this morning I ran into a retired head teacher colleague who I have known for more than 20 years. She is clearly enjoying retirement, having shed the responsibilities of school leadership with its associated stresses, though she remains committed to education, largely through supervising students on their school teaching practices. A meeting to discuss such work was the very reason that she was in the university today.

As is invariably the case when long established colleagues meet after having not seen each other for some time we began to reminisce on our earlier days teaching in schools. Angela, in common with many head teachers in the UK suggested that life in schools today is much more challenging than in previous years, and she clearly has no regrets about having taken retirement.

A particular memory that we share is of a brief course we ran for children from our two respective schools which looked at the life cycles and habitats of creatures living in local woodlands. This involved a couple of field trips during which we encouraged pupils, many of whom were described as having special educational needs, to delve through leaf litter in search of a range of invertebrates and other creatures and to use pooters, hand magnifiers and other simple apparatus to explore the exciting variety of life beneath the trees. I particularly recall that whilst the pupils showed little by the way of inhibitions, Angela was somewhat squeamish about handling earth worms, spiders, beetles, slugs, centipedes and a whole range of what she would certainly have described as “creepy crawlies!” None the less, she recognised the value in these experiences and joined in with the enthusiasm one would expect from a consummate professional.

The memories of these shared lessons made us both smile and recall specific individuals and the learning that had taken place. We particularly discussed individual pupils who struggled in the confines of the classroom, but demonstrated enthusiasm and interest in learning in this different environment. As we recalled these lessons we both felt that we had provided a tremendous platform for learning, but these memories also raised other issues, with which neither of us feel terribly comfortable. Whilst the lessons we conducted were well planned, with a good range of follow up activities in the classroom and well defined learning outcomes and assessment criteria, there was a good deal of spontaneity and flexibility in the work we pursued. As we worked in the woodlands the children often came up with ideas that were tangential to our lesson plans and we were able to follow new paths that led to increased learning. Some of this did not appear within the course objectives and at times bore little resemblance to the original intentions of the lesson, but none the less children learned, enjoyed the experience and in later years often recalled their visits to the woods.

I recall one particular lesson in which we were looking at the variety of trees in Wakerley Woods by identifying leaves and looking at bark patterns, when a pupil found a patch of toadstools at the base of a tree. This created a new interest amongst many of the children who went hunting similar examples of fungi, comparing them for shape, colour and location. For a significant part of the lesson the original objectives were set aside and the lesson content was determined by our pupils. As a result of this there was a breadth of learning and new experiences that we had not anticipated. We were eventually able to return to the original task of tree identification, but agreed that the diversion had been worthwhile and provided an important opportunity for learning.

“I suspect that this approach to teaching and learning may be less favourably looked upon today,” commented Angela. “If it isn’t in the lesson plan or the assessment schedule, in many schools it wouldn’t be encouraged. Furthermore, I fear that in today’s target driven and sanitised education world, behaviours such as this might have had us labelled as irresponsible and failing teachers.”

It is only a couple of years since Angela retired as head teacher; her experience of headship is much more recent than mine. I fear that what she had to say may be an indication of the narrow minded interpretation of what schools should be about that has been engendered by our political masters in recent years. Deviation from lesson plans and a prescribed curriculum is no longer encouraged, and learning that is controlled rather than spontaneous is the order of the day. Many teachers in school express similar views to those put forward by Angela, a fact that I find very disturbing.

I like to think that if Angela and I were in a similar position today we would react as teachers in exactly the same way that we did twenty years ago. I am sure that both of us still believe that learning comes from guided exploration, and that this needs to be encouraged in our children. However, I do worry that for many young teachers entering the profession, the pressures to ensure that a narrowly defined set of learning criteria are achieved, and that these should be addressed through a rigid definition of teaching styles, may limit the opportunity for creativity.

There are many imaginative teachers in our schools who rail against the imposition of pseudo-scientific and managerial approaches to teaching. Just as everything else in education eventually comes back into vogue, I am (almost) sure, and certainly hopeful that in the future they will have their day.

Even the digital age falters to a force of nature!

"Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!" - Shakespeare, King Lear. The weather of late hads required no bidding of this sort!

“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!” – Shakespeare, King Lear.
The weather of late has required no bidding of this sort!

On Friday evening it was windy. So windy that I was almost blown off my bicycle and found myself struggling into an angry gale as I negotiated my way the few miles to visit family. It was certainly a wild evening, but it would be an exaggeration to bring the storm scene from Shakespeare’s King Lear or the tragedy of Hopkins’ Wreck of the Deutschland to mind. None the less, by the time I returned home the damage was done, and nature had shown her might.

Just two hundred yards from home a telegraph pole was summarily felled and lay parallel to the road, with the frayed ends of telephone cables like the locks of Medusa flailing all around. The consequences of this minor disaster were simply that the Rose household was, and continues to be, robbed of telephone and internet connection.

Sometimes the minor penalty that we incur for living in a relatively isolated part of the countryside is that we find ourselves temporarily inconvenienced by a lack of utilities. Things have actually improved greatly in recent years. For a while it always seemed that we were without one of the necessities of water, electricity or telephone, and on the odd occasion an absence of all three at the same time. This fortunately, was a rare occurrence and we have always been somewhat sanguine in our belief that such inconvenience is a small price to pay for living surrounded by beautiful countryside. Indeed there are times when living by candlelight and a roaring log fire add a certain romance to existence.

Having said this, I have been reflecting over the weekend on the dependency that I have acquired upon the availability of modes of communication, without which I seem to remember functioning very well less than twenty years ago. As is usually the case, over a weekend, I had planned a number of work related activities in order to keep ahead of coming commitments and writing tasks, and in preparation for my forthcoming trip to India. Not having access to the internet, much more than not being able to use the telephone became a source of some frustration. In part, the absence of a land line telephone is compensated by the availability of mobile phones, but access to the internet proves to be much more of a challenge.

The ease of access to the university library, afforded by the internet, means that I seldom bring home large quantities of reference materials. Sitting at my computer I can download papers and even complete books without difficulty in order to prepare lessons or research for my work. Furthermore, I knew that access to my email boxes would enable me to retrieve various documents that would be essential for completing my weekend tasks as usual. Alas, this was not to be the case this weekend.

There is a touch of irony in this situation. Using my mobile phone to report the lack of land line, and the state of the deceased telegraph pole, I dutifully called the appropriate helpline. Ten minutes later, having pressed numerous digits in answer to a series of electronically communicated questions, I was at last put through to a human being. This turned out to be a very pleasant friendly lady who was extremely helpful. As we began our conversation I quickly recognised her accent and the regular sound of traffic horns in the background led me to ask the question, “are you in a call centre in Bangalore?” (many UK companies make use of such a service). “ Why yes,” came the cheerful reply, “how did you know?” “just a lucky guess,” I replied, with a somewhat wry smile.

The young lady was both sympathetic to our plight and efficient, and within a couple of hours a technician was ringing our door bell, full of apologies but explaining that it would possibly be the end of the week before we could be reconnected.

So where is the irony in this you may ask? Well, on Thursday I will be in Bangalore and it occurs to me that, had I been able to obtain a specific address, I could have circumvented a telephone call and called in person to report the difficulties with our broken telephone line. Although, I suppose had I done so I would not have had the conversation with the very friendly and helpful young lady sitting at her desk, and it may have been difficult to explain the location of our home several thousand miles away to a somewhat bemused call centre manager.

Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from this weekend’s communication difficulties. The first may be that a dependency upon modern technology is not necessarily advisable, and that some of the approaches we used to adopt for working still have currency, so long as we do not forget how to use them. Secondly, when things go wrong this may at least provide us with opportunities to have conversations with people we don’t know, but who through demonstrating their empathy give us cause to celebrate human nature.

Having written this at home on Sunday evening, I will post it tomorrow when I arrive at the university – that is assuming that the technology is available to enable me to do so!

Long haul learning


A meeting of minds. Different experiences and mutual respect

A meeting of minds. Different experiences and mutual respect


Bjork Mutual Core

Long haul flights are tedious and economy seating far from comfortable, though the Emirates cabin crew are excellent and work hard to provide service with a smile. The tedium is such that I invariably find the need to scroll through the many entertainment channels that are a great relief from the tedium that exists between the period when cabin crew demonstrate the safety procedures on the plane, and serve us with excessively packaged meals. Despite, or maybe because of the many hundreds of films on offer I still have difficulties making an informed  choice. But on the recent Dubai to Birmingham leg of the journey home from Bangalore I struck lucky.

When Björk met Attenborough struck me as a most unlikely title. I was immediately intrigued to know how and why Channel 4 television had brought together the Icelandic singer and songwriter  Björk Guðmundsdóttir, generally regarded as an inventive and somewhat avant garde, or possibly even eccentric musician, with Sir David Attenborough, naturalist, author and broadcaster, oft referred to as a national treasure (very British expression this) and pillar of the establishment. Indian readers may well be as familiar with his brother Sir Richard Attenborough, director of the blockbusting film Gandhi as with the younger David. I couldn’t resist and had to watch; a very good decision as it turned out.

Early in the programme, Björk explains to Attenborough how as a child on her long walks to and from school in Iceland she would pass the time by singing. She also revealed how much the natural beauty of Iceland influenced her love of music and the ways in which she now interprets sound. Björk’s intellect shines throughout the programme and the affection that she and Attenborough clearly share for each other provides the viewer with a comfortable feeling that there is tremendous respect across generations.

Much of this documentary was filmed at the magnificent natural history museum in London, a building and collection of artefacts well known to Attenborough and which Björk describes as “epic.” During the course of their conversation it soon emerges that each of the leading characters in this film have an immense respect for the work of the other. More revealing is the fact that Attenborough is clearly well versed in Björk’s music and has considered the significant vocal range and tone of her voice, whilst the musician is more than able to hold her own in a discussion of the natural world. I suspect that this is a side of both their characters than many, including myself, had never previously considered. Particularly memorable is their discussion of the formation of crystals and the mathematical patterns that these involve which can be closely related to the development of music.

The documentary is built around Björk’s exploration of the natural world to provide the inspiration for an innovative piece of music that she has titled “Biophilia”. This involves the use of newly invented instruments and the production of tones that closely mimic those of the sounds with which both Björk and Attenborough have become familiar through their exploration of nature. In the eventual production of the music Attenborough, in a voice that has become so recognisable to viewers of his many wildlife documentaries, is to be a narrator who will bring together the various pieces of music created by Björk and her collaborating musicians.

Why am I writing about this documentary on what is ostensibly a blog focused upon education? Well, a number of points during the dialogue between Björk and David Attenborough struck me as particularly interesting. When describing the music at one point Attenborough states that “with Biophilia comes a restless curiosity”. Here he is referring to the investigative nature of the music but he could equally be describing his own drive for understanding and that which has characterised the experimentation of Björk. At another point he suggests that “for music to be rewarding it does require thought; it does require work” but indicates quite clearly that for him the efforts are worthwhile, rewarding and educative.

Before watching this documentary I would have imagined that the worlds of Attenborough and Björk were poles apart , but what struck me when watching this programme was the great regard that they clearly had for each other and for their learning. I suppose for many teachers the learning most associated with David Attenborough would be described as formal and establishment, whereas Björk may have been seen as having departed from the traditional pathways into a more experimental mode. But their respect for each other seemed to me to give a most positive and reassuring message. Each recognised the authority of the other in respect of their obvious areas of expertise, but neither assumed superiority for their own learning. Furthermore the film depicts the importance of recognising that learning takes many forms and that we may come to understanding in very individualistic ways. This is something that as teachers we would do well to remember. What was on offer in this film was the bringing together of two different cultures, approaches to learning and education but in a manner where both presenters were prepared to share an experience and learn together.

At a time when many of our politicians and policy makers are attempting to define education in narrow terms and are creating systems that value conformity to a shallow interpretation of what is to be valued in learning, encounters such as this between two intelligent and open minded individuals has much to teach us. Attempts to impose restrictive teaching approaches based upon an outdated interpretation of pedagogy will not serve all learners well. The bringing together of contrasting ideas and cultural understanding is more likely to enable us to find common ground than to divide us. This will only happen if we enter into such dialogue with respect and a willingness to learn from those whose experiences are greatly different from our own.

For many years to come generations will admire the natural history films of David Attenborough. They will also marvel at the inventiveness of the music of Bjork. For now I am happy to have learned a little from both of them.

The link at the top of this page  (IN BLUE TYPE) will take you to a performance of Mutual Core by Björk in which she attempts to relate the effect of the movement of tectonic plates through music. As Attenborough says, for real appreciation this challenging approach to music requires thought, but I hope like me you enjoy the experience.