Beautiful Work, Beautifully Done

Some schools blow your mind. You go in and never want to come out again – that’s School 21 in Stratford, London. It’s a free school. Squirm. But like, it’s a FREE school. In that it hasn’t set itself up to protect the interests of the children of a few middle class people. Or to rescue a mediocre private school losing fee paying students. Or to conform to the norm with little imagination just for a bit of extra cash. This is a school that said “if we could start from scratch, what could we achieve”? And believe me, that’s rare.

I’d rather a free school had an ideology I disagreed with that no ideology at all. And what I saw here was a beautiful combination of rigour and creativity; of collective responsibility and individuality; of freedom and responsibility. I always say to teachers when I’m working with them “know why you do what you do.” Here, not only the teachers know why they do what they do but so do the pupils. On my way round, I’m encouraged to find chinks. To critique. And while I know there must be some, I couldn’t find them. What I found was wall after wall crammed full of truly beautiful work. What I heard were murmurs of purposeful talk. No silent corridors. But calm, happy chatter.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m tired of the false dichotomy of traditional versus progressive – it seems to me to only apply to those determined to reject any child centred approach at all. But here, there is absolute discipline. There is a commitment to excellence – to drafting, redrafting and being held accountable. There is a commitment to outcome and to knowledge. But everything is framed in a “so what?” attitude. What is the point of learning if no-one hears you? What is the point of academic success if you can’t interview successfully? What is the point of knowledge if you don’t use it to change the world? The mission statement says it all:-

“To create beautiful work that makes a difference to the world.”

Ron Berger’s Ethics of Excellence are not simply talked about in this school, but they are plastered all over the walls in the drafts and redrafts of children’s work – right through from reception. Displays matter.

School21 portraits

In the hall there is a zone labelled the “War and Conflict Zone” and inside it are two huge chess tables. Each piece of the chess game is a sculpture created by Year 9 pupils exploring the Cold War. In project based learning, they have examined the key players in the Cold War, researched them and created a chess piece to represent them. They have then argued, debated and reached a consensus about who was who. What was the King? A Pawn? A Castle? Why? Their understanding is extraordinarily sophisticated.


Head of project based learning, Joe Purdoe, explains that he feels our education system is predicated on an assumption that children don’t know until we tell them – a preemptive system. He gives several examples of where this has been shaken by his pupils – those who could already speak Russian for example who brought so much to a project on the Russian Revolution. Or one who brought in prior knowledge of Rousseau when exploring the French revolution.

“It’s so much better to start with what they already know and work from there,” he says. Simple and obvious. Why don’t we all do that? Well, you need three things – time, structure and purpose.

On the walls of the project based learning area are clear targets, deadlines and goals.

“Creativity operates within constraints,” he explains “deadlines, briefs, obstacles…” And so the children are given creative briefs, but within tight and demanding constraints.

The structure of how the sessions operate is made explicit. They start each 100 minute session with a 20 minute lecture – “there is a place for the didactic and for teacher talk.” On the board is written “University style lecture.” It’s clear that the routines of Higher Education are writ large in the minds of everyone involved. Underneath it says “University style seminars” and during the lesson, pupils will be withdrawn, 12 at a time, to work with a member of staff in response to a text they were given to read in advance. Flipped learning, you might call it. The rest of the time is given over to individual project work, with Joe circulating and offering feedback to pupils.

“In an average lesson, I probably get to spend 3 minutes one to one with each pupil – it’s not much” he shrugs. But it’s more than most teachers can say.

The results are evident in the levels of focus and commitment from the pupils – there’s a concentrated level of engagement across the group. It’s really impressive. How do they get this in older pupils? They develop it in the younger ones – it’s part of the DNA of the school.

We walk into a Year 7 Oracy class. Yes, an Oracy class. Led by the charismatic Mr Ahmet, the pupils enter the space in silence. They stand in neutral position, legs hip width apart, the atmosphere enhanced by calming music, a clear sense of “this is how we do things” in that everyone knows exactly where to be, how to be. Talking them through a list of visualisation exercises that I recognise as a drama teacher, he moves them into the key elements of the oracy curriculum – they have prepared poems for performance. They are led through tasks that take them into the physical, emotional, linguistic and cognitive realms of oracy. They know each one by heart. They are focused. It’s almost cultish, but performative and the calm, concentrated contentment of the group is palpable. When it’s time to move on, I want to cling to the door shouting “include me, include me”… The power of the collective is strong.

What struck me more than anything else when I walked around this school is that they were not offering a challenge to the knowledge-led, disciplined vision of more traditional schools, like Michaela. But saying that we too have the same aims. We too believe in discipline, in rigour, in knowledge. We too aspire for our pupils to succeed academically. But in addition, we want them to thrive, to become leaders in the world, to have the confidence to know that they are agentive, able to meet challenge, solve problems, interact and integrate. We want more than the common denominator of examination success – exams are part of, not the end all of an education.

The oldest pupils in the school are now in Year 10. Everyone waits with baited breath to see if the GCSE results will stand firm – not in terms of excelling, but in terms of supporting what is far more holistic than test results. If they do, we’ll have a very exciting model of education indeed. I’m already scouting for a site for a School21North. Anyone in?



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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.


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Rigour + Creativity = Wow.

Yesterday there was a bit of a commotion in the corridor. Four Yr 4 children were discovering that their careful measurements might be out by a couple of centimetres. They couldn’t decide whether to check again or get back to class – it was nearly dinner time after all, and there was clearing up to do. But having come this far, they really wanted to get it right, so they decided to check, one last time. As one explained, it might be alright in centimetres, but it’s a lot more in miles.

They had with them two circles they had cut out of paper, one much larger than the other.

“We found out the radius of the moon and of the earth,” they explained “and then we drew them to scale.”

They told me the exact measurements and the ratio they had used, but I can’t remember – my memory is not as good as theirs was. Then, their task completed, they decided they’d like to do something else – to use their knowledge of ratio and scale to work out the distance between them, relative to their size, and place them in the corridor. Just to see. So they did. Because in this school, children keen to go the extra mile, can.

Along the corridor, in the Year 6 classroom, a teacher showed us some snowflakes the children had designed.

“We’ve been exploring rotational symmetry” one child explained, “and the uniqueness of nature.”

Their inquiry question was “Is Antarctica Worth Protecting?” and under the principles of a Harmony curriculum, the children are exploring the idea of interdependence in nature. In fact every inquiry topic is underpinned by a Harmony principle, devised (to my surprise) by the Prince of Wales. Interdependence is one, along with Health, Beauty, Cycles, Diversity and Oneness. The children’s topics link to one of these concepts and the overarching aim of the curriculum is to produce agentive, responsible children who understand their place in the world, their connections to others and their responsibility to each other and the planet.

Before you sneer about knitting yoghurt, consider the impact that these ideas are having on the children’s mathematical and wider language. It’s highly unusual to walk into a classroom, ask a child what they are doing and to receive an answer like “we’re exploring rotational symmetry and the uniqueness of nature.” Most children would answer the question what are you doing with “making a snowflake.” The connectedness of mathematical and natural knowledge is not usually the first response of a child, unless they really GET what they are doing.

In Year 5, the children are looking at the rich imagery of India – the patterns and colours and festivals. Under the principle of Beauty, they are creating their own kites in response to the kite flying season there. But when I ask the children what they are doing, one says

“Well I’m creating a tetrahedron first of all….”

Mathematical language is internalised within these kids. Not because they have to learn it for SATs, but because they have learned that Maths is everywhere. They examine the golden ratio in Year One, looking for patterns in flowers and in fruit. They grow their own food. They monitor the energy the school is using and how much is being recycled. They look at cycles of nature through daily geometry sessions. And in the hall, I see a small group of Year 4 children dragging bins to weighing scales and making careful notes of their weight in a notebook.

“We weigh the waste every day before it goes to the compost heap.”

“We’re trying to keep it under 15kg per day.”

The head, Richard Dunne, explains that the children then discuss the waste with catering staff to see if adjustments to the menus or portion sizes might help to cut down food waste even more. Maths is everywhere.

These are children who are fully aware of their place in the world and their interconnectedness with others. They are agentive and full of vim and vigour about how to make things better. They speak of Year 6 about being a year in which their learning is about developing the leadership skills they’ll need for the future. They go to Chamonix and explore, first hand, the impact of climate change on The Alps. And they speak of sustainability being the most important element of their learning in Year 6. Not a word about SATs. And yet they pass the SATs with flying colours. No wonder. They are flying.

This is Slow Education. Education that allows children the time and independence to thrive, to think, to synthesis their knowledge and their experiences. The Slow Education network doesn’t tell schools that one method is better than another, but it seeks to link schools who are minded to allow children to grow – to stretch them to be active, engaged learners in a complex world, together. If you’d like to see these children and their teachers from Ashley school talk about their work in more detail, you can find the link here. I was blown away.



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The Great Aspiration Myth.

Last year, my then seven year old son came home from school looking like he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. I asked him what the matter was.

“I’m worried I won’t be successful.”

I did that mother thing – frowning with concern while stifling laughter.

“What do you mean?”

“I’m worried that when I grow up, I won’t get a good job and won’t be able to support a family.”

To be fair, he is a bit of a worry bean. But his concerns are echoed by children all over the country. Often, they start with innocuous comments from parents and teachers along the lines of

“If you don’t work hard at school, you won’t get a good job when you’re older.”

It sounds harmless enough, but add that to the bombardment of advertising showing children that being able to buy stuff brings love and happiness and you have a recipe for disaster. And the worst thing of all is he’s probably right.

We tell our children that education = success. We don’t tell them that in order to be able to afford what the government terms an “affordable home”, they’ll need to be earning almost six times the national average wage outside of London and a staggering 15 times more in London itself. We don’t tell them that 50% of graduates leave university burdened with debt to find themselves in jobs that didn’t require a degree in the first place. We don’t tell them that the University course most likely to secure employment after Medicine, is actually Media Studies.

They hear a great deal about facilitating subjects. About the importance of academic success. About the prestige of Russell Group Universities. But what happens when they get there? At the other end of my family’s age spectrum is a 23 year old. He went to a state school, a state sixth form college and on to Oxford. Hurrah! A success. But when he left it took him a year to find work. And when he did, the job came through a friend of his Uncle. Offered two weeks’ work experience as a favour, he managed to secure a job. Contacts counted for way more than qualification. In fact, although he loved his time at Oxford, he started to feel that the fact he’d been there was a hindrance. Some potential employers told him – off the record – that they worried that employing Oxbridge graduates would lead to accusations of elitism. It is a great injustice for a state educated child to beats the odds and get into Oxbridge, only to meet inverted snobbery at the end of it. Still, happy ending….sort of.

His lovely, articulate and clever girlfriend, with a science degree, also from Oxford, is still unemployed. She has taken on voluntary project after voluntary project – clearing brambles in parks, taking on ecological and environmental work for nothing in the hope that something will lead to paid work. The reality of austerity, however, is that these kinds of services are now done by volunteers and charities. There is no public funding and so the jobs associated with conservation are gone. It seems ironic, given Nicky Morgan’s insistence that the Arts lead nowhere, that in this partnership, it is the Scientist struggling for work. Where she applies for work in the area she is most interested in, she is told she is overqualified. When she applies for graduate positions, she is told she is under experienced. It is a frustrating and depressing position to be in as a young adult who was told, like so many others, that her string of Grade As would lead to work. She will find work, I know. And she’ll look back and all this will be a blip. But what then?

He is on a decent starting salary for a graduate – almost at national average. Yet they have no money. They pay £1000 per month to live in London. This buys them a studio flat so small that the sofa sits beneath a bunk bed. They have to share a bathroom with other flats. After rent, travel to work, bills and student loans are paid, there is nothing left for him. Should they even want to start a family, it’s hard to know what they’ll do. Staying in London will clearly be impossible. But this is where his work is.

All of this is personal and anecdotal, but their experience is mirrored all over the country. Adults returning to live at home with parents, or living in rented accommodation barely fit for habitation. These are the successes. The ones who worked hard and did well. What of the others? There can be no future for this generation of young people that consists of the things we once considered basics – a decent home with outdoor space in which one could raise a family – as long as house prices remain at their current level. We have reached a point where one generation is dependent on the death of another in order to have any hope of that goal. How awful.

I look at my little one and tell him that of course he’ll be successful. Of course, things will turn out well. And then I open the TES and look at jobs in international schools. Because I fear that for him, that future might not be possible in the UK.


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Falling Out of Love

I was working in Athens when the General Election results came through. Walking out to meet my colleagues in the lobby of our hotel, I burst into tears. It wasn’t a great day. And in the inevitable aftermath of accusation and navel gazing, a narrative emerged that just didn’t ring true in terms of the people I had met and talked to during the campaign. The media told me that the electorate didn’t trust the Labour party on the economy or on immigration and welfare. The party needed to move towards the right. And then Labour supporters I knew on twitter retweeted their articles so it felt that everyone believed that this was the reason.

At a party, I endured conversation with one man who spent an interminably long time name dropping all the people he knew in political and media circles, using this to declare as a universal truth the ‘fact’ that “Unless we move to the right, we’re finished. The country has moved to the right and we need to follow.” And I politely sipped my wine, pointed out that only 24% of the electorate had actually voted Tory and perhaps we ought to focus on the vast majority who didn’t vote at all. Or at least I started to say that but he interrupted for the 50th time. I gave the secret wink to my husband that means he has 30 seconds to whisk me away before I thump somebody. Obviously I’ll never be a politician.

During the campaign those I spoke to simply said they didn’t know what the party stood for. They couldn’t tell the difference between them on policy and so better the devil you know. They didn’t have much time for Ed Miliband – not because he was too far left, but because they felt he was insipid and he had a stuffy voice like his nose was blocked. Shallow? Yes, but that was what I heard. And I had some sympathy with the view that politics was more like a celebrity reality show. Witnessing a dearth of regional accents and career experience, people just seemed tired with being told what to do by people who had gone from closeted schooling to closeted higher education to a career so closeted that they have their own door straight into the office from the Tube station. They were bored and politics seemed irrelevant.

When Corbyn entered the leadership contest, I had never heard of him. I was drawn to Andy Burnham – at least the lad has an accent and a state education behind him. But I got caught up in the Corbyn campaign – people I knew who had never even bothered to vote were sharing pictures of him getting the bus home, and his expense account details saying “here is someone worth our attention”. I liked his policies – I’ve never really considered myself very left wing, but I really can’t see the sense in Trident. I thought I was aligned with Michael Portillo on that score. Here was a man who would visit constituents rather than take VIP tickets to national sporting events. I liked him. So did my Mum – he was the first politician she’s liked since Margaret Thatcher. She said she might vote for him.

When the result was announced, I felt a sense of hopefulness and optimism that I hadn’t felt about politics in a while. And I wasn’t alone. My phone started beeping and my social media streams were full of people literally tweeting for joy. Now this isn’t ordinary. I don’t remember ever greeting a leadership result with anything other than mild interest. And I don’t remember social media going so wild. Many of the people feeling so joyful were young – lots of them ex students of mine. They had ‘discovered’ politics and were over the moon. Ok, perhaps there was the underdog effect, but there was also hope for a new beginning – genuinely a new politics. So it’s doubly disappointing to see people so determined to crush that new hope before it’s even had time to find a voice. Not only for me, but for all those young people who were engaging with politics for the first time. I see many of them walking away, angry that their votes are being dismissed and disparaged.

Just before Christmas, I found myself sitting around a dinner table in Manchester after an event I’d taken part in. Most of the people there were Labour supporters – a couple of them had been unsuccessful Labour candidates in the last election. But as we went around the table and introduced ourselves, there emerged that enigmatic creature – the floating voter. He told us he had voted Conservative in the last election, but that he liked Corbyn and would consider voting for him in the next. He thought he had integrity. To my shock, the next hour was spent listening to Labour supporters telling this man, considering switching from Tory to Labour, why he was wrong. Their antipathy to Corbyn was so strong, it seemed, that they would rather lose voters than see him supported. I was stunned.

I’ve followed, with interest, the conversations about Corbyn on twitter and beyond. And the nastiest, sneeriest comments come from people claiming to be Labour supporters. It is a misnomer to me. I didn’t like Tony Blair particularly, nor Ed Miliband, but I loved the party and I supported and campaigned for them both. Now I find myself behind a leader and falling out of love with the party. I don’t think I want to be part of a group of people who can’t get behind a democratically elected leader with a mandate to lead. Or who would rather see the media rub their hands with glee, lining them up for quotes, than show unity: who would rather hand the next general election to the Tories, than roll up their sleeves and fight for greater equality, exposing the shocking impact that Tory policies are having on our poorest and weakest. Why on earth would you rather blog (and I know it’s ironic), about how little chance the leader has of winning an election while at the very same time, reducing his chances of doing so? Because I tell you, if he can win my Mum over by being nice, he can win over all those people who wouldn’t vote for a man with a stuffy nose.

Let’s stop this nonsense now. Because while we all bicker among ourselves, our NHS, education system, safety nets for the poor and vulnerable, mental health services and care services are all being decimated by a government that simply can’t believe its luck.



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Nurture 15/16


I ended last year vowing to spend more time with my family. And promptly shot off to work in Hong Kong and Shanghai for two weeks. So I failed on that score. But being freelance, bonkers as it is, does mean that there are sometimes days where I get to walk my child to school and pick him up. Or, can you believe it, have a weekend!

In March, I had the blessed good fortune to travel to Kakuma refugee camp with the World Wide Education Project and the wonderful Jane Hewitt, to work with South Sudanese children and their teachers in Hope School – a school with 7006 children crammed into just 26 classrooms. It was the most eye opening experience of my life – you can read one of the posts I wrote there, here – it’s almost impossible to imagine the conditions those people were living in. Jane and I set out to raise funds for more classrooms as soon as we returned. Within a month, we had one – amazing contributions from across the twitter sphere. I swam 100 miles in 50 days and we appealed to Northern Rockers to take us towards a second – and with the help of the Pye Bank, Darton and Diggle primary schools, we got there. And then The Dearne School – a school with a population with very little money themselves showed that it is often those with the least who give the most. A monumental effort meant that this one school alone raised the £5600 required for the third classroom. An incredible achievement.


Northern Rocks also raised enough money to sponsor the young teacher I wrote about while I was there, to leave the camp and train formally at a university in Kampala. Nancy has just successfully completed her first semester and is working hard to make sure she qualifies and is able to help other refugees in the future. I’m so proud of her, my throat hurts.


Being there takes its toll. When you return, nothing you do feels like it’s enough. But you do what you can. Working with the International School of London this year, we’ll be running an Arts project raising awareness of the difficulties refugees face, and at the same time, raising more funds for Kakuma. And we have to accept that while we can’t change the world, we can do our bit to make it a little more bearable.

I think the experience made me a little less tolerant of some of the carping on twitter – I’ve been more liberal with the mute button and life has felt more peaceful as a result. When people tell me I’m a coward for refusing to engage with debate, I think of little Obama in Kenya and think that perhaps there are more important things to worry about. Not that I’ll stop arguing altogether. It’s in my blood.

I also spent much of the year guiltily avoiding tweets and direct messages about #teacher5aday. I wasn’t doing too well on the wellbeing front and felt really guilty about it. But I did get a lot fitter. The swimming set me off on a bit of a fitness challenge and I started running. At first I couldn’t do more than 60 seconds at a time, but with encouragement from people like Tom Starkey and Sarah Ledger, I completed a small triathlon in September and a 10k race in December. Proud as punch.


A second book came out, a third is being written, I wrote a regular column for Teach Primary, Northern Rocks was another great success and I worked with and met some amazing teachers and kids in schools across the country as well as in China, Russia and Greece. It was a pretty incredible year.

But I’ve also learned I need to slow down. I need to make sure I don’t say yes to everything. I need to learn I can’t be in Edinburgh one day, Sussex the next and Athens the next and not get ill. I’m learning that without my family I’m untethered and a little bit wild and so I need to make sure I’m with them more. And so, for the second time, my resolution this year is to be a little more of a homebird – even if I am off to Hong Kong again in a couple of weeks!

Thank you to anyone who supported our work in Kakuma this year. And to all those of you who every day support me on twitter and in real life. A very happy new year to you all xx









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The problem with Bandwagons.

Way back in the early noughties, we had an Inset day on Assessment for Learning. Except, looking back on it, there was nothing really in there about assessment. Or really about learning. It was all about these new fangled learning styles – neatly compressed into VAK. We were given questionnaires – oooh, narcissistic tick boxes. Who doesn’t love a tick box all about themselves? And I found out that I was fairly equally split across all three. My friend, she was a VK. But that wasn’t allowed – we were supposed to just be one. We were asked to look again and identify our “dominant style”. It was like choosing a favourite colour – some have one, I have many depending on mood. It felt a bit confusing. And I felt suspicious. I didn’t really question the idea of learning styles at that stage – a senior leader had just said the words “the research shows” and so I assumed that the theory at least was sound. But the implementation seemed to me to be a little bit suspect.

As heads of department, we were asked to feed back how we were differentiating for the needs of the VAK variances in our groups. And as head of Drama, there was only really one answer. We move, we talk, we listen, we read, we write, we perform, we design, we watch, we evaluate. We all have to do all of them, or we won’t be covering the syllabus. Simples. But no, that wasn’t good enough. In the end we did what we usually did when faced with stupid requests. We ignored them. The head of Maths on the other hand, made all the KS3 students do VAK questionnaires and streamed them accordingly. She was quickly promoted to Assistant Head.

That year, I embarked on a Masters course and came across Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence Theory. Here, it seemed to me, was the VAK idea placed into a more rigorous theoretical framework. Gardner distinguishes MIT from learning styles, accusing the latter of lacking coherence, but it seemed that his theory expanded, in a useful way, the conversations to be had about intelligence. I didn’t really have concerns about the theory. It was an idea – an interesting one, but just an idea. But the way that the idea was leaped upon in education to create rigid practices was really worrying. There was an assumption that since (not an ‘if’ to be seen anywhere)  we could now be one of 7 or 8 intelligences, we ought to teach to that intelligence. And that seemed illogical to me. It also seemed illogical to Howard Gardner who berated the ways in which his idea had been misconstrued – not that that small detail bothers the people who seem to enjoy ridiculing him at the moment. Anyway, back to the implementation point – I argued that we wouldn’t, for example, only teach a child a subject they liked and dump all the rest would we? So why on earth would we target a single intelligence or learning style? Or, as Willingham prefers to call them, learning ability? I mean, by all means, make the content of your lessons and assessments as varied as possible, but why narrow activities down to target single areas? This seemed like dumbing down to me. And a waste of time.

It didn’t take long for the school to dump VAK. Eternally resourceful kids, standing outside their classrooms in corridors, found it was useful to blame VAK for their misdemeanours.

“Not my fault, Miss, they’re writing in there and I’m a kinaesthetic learner!”

And by then, papers debunking VAK were starting to make their way into schools too. So I was a little horrified to start a new job in ITT and find that all the lesson plan pro-formas for our trainees had a box on them where they had to write how they were catering for VAK. I advised mine to use school and not university versions. But some of the school versions had it on too. So we invited Jonathan Sharples in to run a session with staff on debunking neuro-myths, which he duly did. But he did so with a caveat. He pointed out that there was no evidence to suggest that teaching to a specific learning style was beneficial to students or even that there was a meaningful way of categorising modes of learning, but he added that “even if learning styles do exist, it could equally be argued that we should strengthen the less developed areas rather than simply teach to the strongest.”It seemed clear that among the neuroscientist community, it was not so much the proposed existence of learning styles that was controversial, but the practices emerging from the idea of them.

No-one was happier than me when VAK practices started to be exposed and debunked on twitter, several years later. But then I started to get confused again. Because it seemed that along with VAK, other unconnected ideas were being lumped in and the trend for debunking seemed to be creating another, equally damaging Bandwagon. Anyone even mentioning the words Learning Styles on twitter now risks hounding and humiliation. And Group Work? Pupil Voice? My God. Yet what is the difference between a learning style and a learning ability? Because when Willingham writes that of course children have different learning “abilities” – for example spacial ability or musical ability, I struggle to see the difference between that statement and the idea that children might have musical intelligence or kinaesthetic intelligence. I keep asking and no-one seems to be able to tell me anything other than Gardner = Charlatan, Willingham = God.

If we do look at research (bearing in mind that it is all emergent and offers a still incomplete picture of the very complex matter of learning), we find that certain things seem to be important in terms of laying down memory. Emotion matters. Relationships matter. A variety of activities and ways of testing matter. Practice matters. A certain level of automaticity matters. Multi-sensory activities matter. Narrative and stories matter….In the midst of all this mattering, it seems sensible to say that we learn and remember in many different ways. Not that we all learn differently, but that we each need multiple ways of encountering knowledge in order to meaningfully learn and apply it.

It seems to me that we need to be as careful about shedding ideas as we are about embracing them. We need to ask ourselves “what is potentially useful here? How might we look at this differently? How might we connect to other things we know?” Instead of sneering and jeering, we should be peering, examining, questioning. We really should be refusing to lump and dump – taking one discredited idea, attaching it to others we don’t like and then dumping the lot without critiquing the individual elements. And maybe then, instead of running around in endless circles, we would set out on a journey in which we could map out constructive information and build a genuine overview of what (might) work.

Thank you to Logical Incrementalism for writing the blog post that made feel I wouldn’t be stoned to death for writing this one.



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