Most of my work in school over the past ten years or so has been about making the curriculum relevant and engaging to children. Those words are not very trendy at the moment. Sometimes it seems that the ‘resilience/grit’ agenda has been hijacked by people who think that those qualities are simply about tolerating boredom. They are sadly misguided. Boredom is a negative state in which learning does not take place. That’s not to say we should avoid boredom at all costs – children who are bored on a Sunday afternoon might well find something useful to do. And being in a state of mindful inactivity is a healthy thing from time to time. But being bored in class does not lead to learning.
Instead, we should be aiming for engaged confusion. This state, rather than outright happiness is the optimal condition for learning. The puzzled frown is not the same as the blank yawn. This state of engagement – an almost fog like state where you are working at the edges of your ability and focused on a goal or problem, but can’t quite yet see how you will get there – is highly stimulating for the mind and the memory. So how do we do it? How do we lure children into this state of readiness for learning? I would argue that we make it relevant.
The word relevance has been much maligned and misunderstood in recent years – some simplify it so much that all children would ever learn in a ‘relevant’ curriculum is that which is linked to the experiences they have already had. This really limits children, especially if they have had narrowed life experiences. It is this kind of use of the word ‘relevant’ that leads some to dismiss the idea as epitomising a culture of “low expectations”. But if we view the word differently – if we see relevance as a means by which we bring curriculum content to life – finding the connections that make the knowledge relevant to a child, then we have a different animal altogether; one that seeks to make connections, to universalise that which is particular and open up a pathway to enticing children into that which is unfamiliar or new. This is what I’ve been trying to do for years in building curriculum models in schools that capture hearts and intellect. This is about giving children a reason to learn. For example…
Imagine you have to teach Latin. You can either stand and deliver. Drill and test. Or you can set your classroom up as a Celtic village facing a Roman army. The chief wants to negotiate and assimilate. In order to do so, he is going to have to learn to speak their language (the process of which might indeed involve some direct instruction). Which of these two options will children find most enticing? The outcome will be the same in terms of learning some Latin but more has been learned across the whole – linking language to history and concepts of conflict. The motivation is entirely different.
I do a lot of work in International Schools. The International Schools system is fascinating when considering the purpose and structure of schooling. They sit outside of government policies and education acts because they are entirely independent of the countries in which they are situated. They serve the parent body and a transient population of ‘third culture’ children. They are hugely successful, following mostly the IB route of education through which children progress through the Primary Years Programme, the Middle Years Programme (without sitting any compulsory, externally set tests) and finally onto IB. At the International School of Brussels, working in partnership with other schools, they’ve written their own curriculum – The Common Ground. It’s completely fascinating – you can view it here. Taking three strands (seen as a triple helix), every aspect of the curriculum is viewed through the three ‘c’s – Conceptual understanding, Character, and Competence – what we might think of as knowledge/understanding, personal attributes and skills. But in addition, there is a strong thread of conscience – an emphasis on community and global connectedness, responsibility and ethics. It is no wonder that so many of these International students are articulate, thoughtful and confident – you should see their model UN conventions.
To do so, we have to stop teaching to tests, to Ofsted priorities, to government policies. We need to become globally minded and think about what children need to be effective citizens in the future. Children in these schools study the Theory of Knowledge. They understand how countries are interdependent on each other. They examine concepts like democracy, population migration, climate. They develop as whole learners. And we can do this. We can teach without selling our souls. This is what it is to engage a learner; to make the world relevant to them. What if
1. In English we only taught texts that said something about how to make the world a better place (perhaps by showing it at its worst and figuring out what to do about it).
2. In Maths we told children what the formula they’re learning is actually used for by real people in real life? And how mathematics has been used to improve lives for others?
3. In Science, we looked at how innovations are used for good and bad purposes and encouraged ‘what if’ questions from children -“What if the nuclear bomb had never been invented?” “What if we invented a cure for cancer – how much would it cost? What would the implications be for population control?” “How might science make life in a refugee camp more bearable?” Hard questions that have no straightforward solutions can be powerful motivators for pupils to engage with the nitty gritty of knowledge.
4. In Languages, we set up situations where the children in a fiction have no choice but to communicate in a foreign language? They have been captured in WW2 Germany. They are delivering information to the French Resistance? A Celtic king needs to converse with a Roman officer.
5. In Geography they have to set up an emergency aid chain of supply to an earthquake zone, plot the route and design packs of survival materials?
I could go on. Engagement, relevance, big questions…. these are not embellishments to learning. They are routes to learning and it’s time we reclaimed that language and focused on making our lessons capable of changing the world. Anything less is, well….boring.