A Joyful Education.


I’m running a PD session in Singapore, doing my usual “there’s more to life than tests” introduction to a sea of blank faces. I realise they don’t do tests. It’s a revelation. They’re looking at me like I’m an alien and I have to quickly adapt my session.

I’m in an international school, working with primary teachers. All weekend I’ve been teaching Years 1-3 from theirs and other schools. Our topic was “Space” and we had a brilliant time. Now it’s time to work with the staff. But I don’t have to do the leg work I usually have to do. I don’t have to persuade them to make time for talk, for play, for dilemma, inquiry and deep thinking. I don’t have to show them the evidence and research. They think it’s obvious. They just want some more ideas. So I throw the  powerpoint away and we do stuff. We plan, we play, we think of ways to entice children into learning. And I go home and think hard.

These kids grow up to do really, really well in iGCSE and A Level/IB. Really well. They attend the best universities in the world. Their parents expect it – they are paying through the nose for it. But at primary and middle school level, there is a deep sense of play, of inquiry and the classrooms are open and flexible spaces. The young children I work with have tonnes of knowledge – they tell me about gravity and matter and mass. They can explain to me how a supernova is created. They know a lot of stuff. But their learning is not organised in a traditional way and they are playful, happy, curious and articulate.

In another school, where I’m teaching Years 6-8, the same thing happens. We’re on an island. We’ve discovered some amazing natural resources that could make someone very rich indeed. The children are concerned about the consequences of putting materials that could save lives in the hands of private enterprise. They set up an organisation charged with the responsibility of assessing who should own new lands/territories, both on earth and in space and the rules that would apply. We have some differences of opinion:-

“No-one in my opinion should own land. There should be no countries, no borders. This is Earth. We are all citizens of Earth. We have a right to life and to an equal share of all the things this earth provides.”

This child is 11.

“I disagree. I think a sentient human being should be able to claim ownership of land. If they are prepared to buy it, look after it and mine from it, they should be able to own it and profit from it.”

That child is also 11. I’m trying to pick my sagging jaw up off the floor.

“Socialism and capitalism right there” jokes their teacher. He’s not surprised – they talk like this a lot. I’m amazed.

But I shouldn’t be. The values of this school are writ large on the walls:-

  • International and intercultural understanding.
  • Celebration of difference.
  • Personal responsibility and integrity.
  • Mutual responsibility and respect.
  • Compassion and service.
  • Respect for the environment.
  • A sense of idealism.
  • Personal challenge.

They are lived both in and out of the curriculum. All students are expected to contribute to service. Even the youngest – the kindergarten kids – look after the plants in the school. Older ones are expected to do charity work. Single use plastics are banned. Sustainability is considered everyone’s responsibility. This is woven into the curriculum and at the heart of pedagogy is talk and inquiry. The result is highly articulate, knowledgeable young people with an awareness of the world and others. They have wildly differing opinions, but are able to argue them well. They think.

Is this replicable in more deprived environments? I really think so. If you can provide an education for the most privileged of people that develops compassion, empathy, an understanding of complexity and a sense of responsibility, then why not have the same for those who genuinely live at the opposite end of the economic scale? What would happen if the working classes, the poor, were given the tools, the education and the systems to make their lives better rather than relying on the privately educated to take pity on them? It’s not about resources and money – it’s about a shift in values, in purpose and in pedagogy. It’s about belief – putting your faith in young people and giving them the tools to explore the tricky elements of human existence: our rights, our responsibilities, our impact, our potential for both destruction and greatness.

These children learn their times tables. They learn to read. They learn to write. I watch primary lessons. No-one is stressing about sentence structure or grammar. The teachers have faith that writing comes from great talk, from good fine motor control, from developing vocabulary and knowledge. And it does. They don’t talk about SATs. They talk about needs – both present and future. They talk about where children are at and where they need to be.

The children in the schools I see are joyful. In the STEAM room, they play with all kinds of equipment. It’s open on Saturdays for workshops with their parents. Some are working on robotics. Others are creating holograms for the school play so that when Alice shrinks, the audience see and hear a small version of her. The technology, science, art and drama teachers work together all the time. It’s exciting and it’s playful and it’s STEM on steroids.


I see joyfulness all around me. And I worry that we are losing joy in our schools. We are making the future fearful rather than full of possibility. And I believe that the future belongs to those who hope. Those who find possibility. Those, who in spite of everything, can find joy. That shouldn’t be the preserve of children in beautiful, private international schools. It should be a right for all.


2 thoughts on “A Joyful Education.

  1. It’s such an irony that both here and in Singapore the joyful practices of progressive education are offered increasingly only to the rich and privileged. You are right to challenge this.

  2. We have known about this for many years but not acted on the consequences of possessing such knowledge. You know the answer to your questions, Debra. Of course, ALL children can benefit from education developed around their needs now and in the future, as your piece so inspiringly informs us.

    There are two immediate impediments to us changing education for the better for ever – political stalemate and insufficient professional courage to challenge the status quo. Party politics has education trapped in a cycle of cut-and-paste reforms. Each successive government has added to the muddle – ‘having a go’ – with scant regard for the evidence, firing one magic bullet after another. Meanwhile, the refusal of professional educators to condemn the muddle that has typified education reform over decades threatens to bleed them dry when our young people and our whole society needs so much from them.

    Keep on in your good work, and maybe you will help bring about an education revolution that will benefit us all.

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