Year 5 are sitting on the carpet looking up politely at the stranger in their classroom who seems to have turned up to teach them today. They don’t usually sit on the carpet – that’s for infants isn’t it? But I want them close to me and to be able to get up and down without having to navigate furniture. You have to be nimble when you’re going to Mars, but they don’t know that yet.
“Let’s say we’re in a bedroom. It belongs to a young woman – not very young – she’s old enough to have been to university and to have built up a successful career – how old might that be? What might be a good name for her?”
The children suggest Mary, 32 years old. So Mary it is.
“She’s back in her childhood bedroom – it’s not changed much even though she’s lived in her own place for a while now. Her parents have kept all her old things in here. There are photos and medals and certificates and reminders of her childhood – perhaps you can work with a partner and show me what we might find in this room?”
And we build a picture of character – from horse riding rosettes to teddy bears; from ‘Star of the Week’ certificates to photographs of her old dog. With every contribution the children build investment in Mary so she begins to matter to them.
I sit at a small desk with a piece of paper in front of me. I’m holding a pen.
“Let’s say Mary is sitting in this childhood room of hers and writing a letter. I’ll read a little of it and we can think about what might be happening and why she’s here…”
Dear Mum and Dad,
By the time you read this, I’ll be gone. I never was any good at goodbyes was I? Remember the time you dropped me off at university and I walked away without even looking back? You were so cross at the time. I wasn’t being cruel – I just didn’t want you to see me cry. I don’t want you to see me cry now. But this is the hardest goodbye of all, knowing I’ll never see you again.
Oh. What do we think might be happening here?”
The children are quick to offer suggestions – they think she might be dying. One thinks she might be moving to Australia. Another thinks she may be going to war…
“I’ll read some more – maybe there’s more information about what she’s doing.
I know you don’t understand, but this is something I have to do. I’ve worked so hard for this and the future of the human species is at stake…
Oh. There’s a date at the top of the letter too – I’ll write it on the board. 2030. I wonder what she means – can anyone come up with a plausible theory about what might be happening. What’s a plausible theory? Well…”
And we’re off. The children offer lots of theories and generate questions. What do we need to know? If you can ask her a question, what would the most important question be? They hot-seat me as Mary under the condition that she will only answer five questions so they need to make them count. By the time they’ve asked four, they are still no closer to understanding where she’s going. Time is running out.
“You have one question left – what do we need to find out?”
“Mary, where are you going?”
“I’m going to Mars.”
There is an audible gasp from the children. Part delight, part excitement, part surprise. The child with ASD who has been sitting with his TA slips out from behind his desk and comes to join his class on the carpet. It turns out he knows a lot about space and there’s no way he’s missing out on this.
“If she’s going to Mars and says she won’t see her parents again, does that suggest she might not be coming back? Why?”
The children speculate that perhaps it takes so long to get there that there will be no time to return. We create a physical number line to estimate how long the journey might take. Their guesses run from 1 to 20 years. I drop in a fact – ‘when Mars and the Earth are closest together, it could take as little as 7 months to get there’ – so why might she not come back? A child speaks up. He’s normally quiet, but not today.
“Fuel. They might not have enough fuel to get back.”
“Why don’t they take spare fuel?”
“It might make the spacecraft too heavy and create damaging g-force.”
I write G-Force on the board. I’d not anticipated this. I’m going to have to brush up on my knowledge of G-Force.
“What other problems might we face that might mean we don’t come home?”
There’s a little ripple of excitement as the word ‘we’ lands in their hearts. They scribble ideas down on post it notes and we make a list.
- Food supplies
- No pollinators.
- Strange bacteria and viruses – (we might not have immunity)
- Keeping our sanity
- Lack of oxygen
- Storms (this later develops into a concern about solar radiation)
- Lack of drinkable water
- Lack of plants
- An accident
They’re not fully aware of it, but they’ve written their own curriculum and I’m getting a genuine sense of what they already know and what their misconceptions are. For example, they have deduced that it will be much colder on Mars because it’s further away from the Sun and some have assumed that there will be ice on Mars. They want to know if there is soil on Mars. Some have pointed out that there is a ‘thin’ atmosphere on Mars and too little Oxygen, but they don’t realise that our own atmosphere has more Nitrogen in it than Oxygen so we look at the chemical composition of the atmospheres of both planets. Each question or suggestion opens up a possibility for learning.
“We’re going to need a lot of trees!” shouts out one when they see how much CO2 is in the Martian atmosphere.
Working out possible solutions to these problems will take some time and along the way, there will be some very traditional teaching – probably in the form of a lecture for the young astronauts, probably at NASA, probably by their teacher, in role, as Mary…
But as we move forward, I know that there is a lot of existing knowledge in the room. Every child knew that trees take in CO2 and give out Oxygen. Most understood the concept of gravity and its relation to mass. As soon as they saw that Mars had 38% of the gravitational force of Earth, they were talking about the impact on their bodies, their muscles, their weight…they are the Tim Peake and Brian Cox generation. We can build on that knowledge. Test it. We can read information texts about the projects NASA are running to create plants that might survive (under cover) on Mars. We can explore all the science and more because they gave me more than I might have anticipated.
This building on prior knowledge, allowing scope for unplanned knowledge to be wrapped into the process, leaving space for new ideas, connections and solutions to be co-constructed makes the learning matter to the children. It’s why, when all those years ago I met the wonderful Dorothy Heathcote, the seemingly simple advice she gave me was the best advice I ever had. “Start where the children are at, not where you think they might or should be.” What they already know is valued; what they need to know is negotiated; the reason they need to know is present, exciting and wrapped in a story. It’s a world beyond this dry and uninspiring dystopian vision of curriculum offered up by Ofsted:-
Ofsted’s vision is a ‘tabula rasa’ model. The child as blank slate waiting to be written on. It assumes no existing knowledge, no interest, no emotional engagement. It means there are children in our classrooms who are taught almost nothing because they already knew. It completely ignores dilemma, big questions, emotion. If it were a meal it would be a pot noodle. Without the hot water. We can be so much better than that. Where in the Ofsted diagram is this:-
“Keeping our sanity? What do you mean?”
“People could go mad with loneliness up there…And they won’t have phones or gadgets – there’s no infrastructure – no masts or satellites pointing the right way…And if food runs short, they could turn on each other – maybe even start eating each other…”
Such a contribution would be impressive from any child, but from a child who began the lesson snuggled up to his TA, away from the other children because of his autism, it’s a lump in the throat contribution.
“How might we keep our sanity then?”
“Which would be the best books to take? The best books ever written?”
We have a lot of work to do. A lot to learn. Dozens of problems to solve. It’s daunting but they’re up for the challenge. And they don’t even know what the main challenge is going to be yet. It’s looming on the horizon. A protest outside their headquarters. It turns out there’s a twist in the pathway ahead.
“What gives you the right to go to another planet when you’ve taken so little care of this one?”
But that’s in the future…another unit. A sequence you might say.