Minded to Matter

I work a lot with schools on curriculum development – in fact last week, I was really delighted to be working in a school in Hong Kong which is pushing the boundaries of what learning might look like for their pupils. The problem is that a curriculum is just a gift bag. It can be a fairly functional paper version or a designer model with all sorts of added bling, but it’s a bag nonetheless: empty without pedagogy. And pedagogy is the gift no-one wants if it’s offered without purpose. What do we mean by purpose? For me it is about offering children their learning experience in such a way that it has emotional value for them. To make the matter, matter.

I spent a lot of time with the teachers and leaders in Hong Kong last week working on this – finding ways of infusing what was good structure in terms of offering a balance of knowledge and skills with something more than a set of criteria and tasks – to pull in the heart to drive the learning forward. We were getting somewhere and were excited. We’d gone from thinking about how one might make a small bedroom feel more spacious, to immersing the children into inquiry – “what do we mean by ‘fit for human habitation?’ – what do human beings really need?” taking them through a learning journey in which they would have to really consider and FEEL the question by walking in the shoes of others – from their bedrooms to caged migrant housing and back. Then I moved on…


I went to another school, also in Hong Kong. They have a beautiful building in an exquisite location with views so expansive and gorgeous from the staffroom window, that I’m amazed anyone makes it to their classes at all. But the school doesn’t sit back on its privileged position and coast. They reach out. They’ve partnered with local charities, set up a Matrix Club that brings in refugee children to learn and play with and among the school community, providing food, learning opportunities and support. It’s a school with a heart and last weekend, they were hosting an ISTA Connect Festival.


ISTA is the International School’s Theatre Association and I’ve worked with them all over the world, helping young people to bring theatre into their lives. But this festival aimed to do more than just create art. It was about creating heart. They began with live testimony from the refugee community in Hong Kong. Human rights lawyers exiled from their homes with only two hours’ notice to leave; law students forced to flee to avoid voodoo initiations that threatened their lives, middle class citizens facing the trauma of their loved ones being massacred for asking questions that offended: each story unique and heart wrenching. But it was not the reason they left that made the biggest impression, but their treatment on arrival in what they dreamed was a safe place. No clothing, no food, no shelter, no right to work or even volunteer. These was the first problems they faced. But worse – being spat on, abused, avoided, humiliated, shunned….having people move away from them holding their noses, shaking their heads, averting their eyes. These were the wounds still bleeding.


We can’t begin to understand the terror of having to flee. Or the grief of losing loved ones or leaving them behind. But we can surely show compassion? This was the question the children were left with. How do we show compassion? How do we raise awareness? How do we make sure we work with sensitivity without falling prey to the sensationalism of trauma tourism? This was the challenge for the artistic team and the kids they worked with over the weekend.

Creating theatre is hard work – once the ideas are generated and developed, there is rote learning, repetition, practice to be done to hone the idea into a product. And at that point children usually start to wane. We are, at one point, standing in the theatre, going over the song they have written, over and over. Nailing diction, rhythm, projection. They are starting to slump. The musical director plays the introduction slowly and he speaks…

“Remember the people who came to talk to you. Remember their faces, their words, the promises we made….”

The children stand tall, they respond, they sing with the whole of their souls.

We can’t underestimate the power of an emotional connection to learning. The human being in a dilemma is a starting point that we can begin almost any area of the curriculum with. And such starting points don’t just hook kids in – it’s not just about engagement. It’s about investment – investment in someone other than yourself, in the world, in the future. A curriculum and pedagogy that offers this as a purpose is a gift worth having. And we can all shape our work in this way, whether we’re artists or not.


2 thoughts on “Minded to Matter

  1. Unfortunately, the prevalent political view in England, most prominently pushed by schools minister Nick Gibb, is that education is solely about passing academic exams (with a bit of ‘character’ thrown in). Anything else is dismissed as child-centred orthodoxy.
    Gibb’s view is narrow and, worse, doesn’t equip our young people for their future lives. Instead, it teaches them to judge people according to test results: there are those with ‘good’ passes and those without.
    But knowing how to spot an adjectival clause or a connecting word doesn’t mean a child appreciates literature. Concentrating only on the parts misses the poetry.

  2. Debra – yes, we must not forget the power that emotion plays in classrooms and in learning; just as we, teachers, must not forget how we construct our identities based upon how and why we teach. Your writing reminds me of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of Hope. I share your love of HK (aren’t the trams just amazing?) You reminded me of some lovely opportunities to work in schools in HK on mathematics curriculum development. In response to Janet’s comment above – don’t get me started! We are living through Gradgindian hard times of facts and more facts; sadly this might be seen as a compliment by the current administration.

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