Discovery? Inquiry? It’s all Academic.

Hidden in the RSA’s report, Ideal School Exhibition,  last week was a little sentence that made my heart sink:-

“Of all the schools I visited, it is perhaps Bealings Primary School in Suffolk that is most exposed to this risk, employing, as it does, the ‘Mantle of the Expert’ role-play method, the purest form of child-led, discovery learning I witnessed.”

While the report went on to point out that the school in question was highly successful with five consecutive Ofsted Outstanding inspections and great data to its name, it misunderstood the nature of Mantle of the Expert, which is not discovery learning and nor is it child led. It is inquiry based learning, rich in knowledge and it is very much co-constructed with the teacher clear about what the learning outcomes are and the steps required to achieve them. I was thinking of penning a response when I read another blog about academic versus non academic subjects, in which the suggestion was made that drama is all about creating actors and PE was mostly about creating accomplished sportsmen and women and that while both are worthy pursuits, they are not really academic. Academic subjects, it would seem, are those that are pursued purely for the sake of becoming masters of knowledge in those subjects. Maths is academic if you become a Mathematician, but not if you become a doctor/engineer/actuary/accountant etc. I think. In short, only subjects with no useful, practical, future application are academic. So we’ve cleared that one up. I’m being flippant of course, but on a serious note, I’m not sure that it’s helpful to try to categorise in this way..

The misconception that drama = acting  or PE = football  is laughable, of course. But it masks a deeper misunderstanding – both act as practical and intellectual vehicles for other curriculum areas, reinforcing and supporting other subjects. One teacher reported seeing a lesson in which concepts in Physics were being explored in PE and clearly there is a strong anatomical/Biological component. In Drama/Theatre we, of course, study plays. Plays have contexts. Historical, philosophical, social and cultural contexts. And unlike English literature, set texts can be drawn from a range of original languages. So in my time, I have taught existentialism (Sartre), the fall of the Weimar Republic and rise of Hitler (Brecht), post war absurdism (Beckett), the political situation in Russia at the turn of the 19th century (Chekhov), gender and social politics in Ancient Greece (Euripides), the influence of the church in medieval society (the Chester miracle and mystery plays)…I could go on. In fact, it’s not really possible to pass advanced level drama by simply being a good actor. Knowledge is critical. But in addition to the knowledge, you have to interpret, design and create your own versions of plays – even if only on paper in the exam. You have to be critic, director, writer, actor, intellectual and technician. So, no, it’s not academic. It’s way more.

Mantle of the Expert is also way more than role-play based discovery learning, which is not to say that some forms of discovery learning have their place. We come across this conflation between child led/child centred and discovery learning/inquiry learning way too often – it’s in Hattie’s work, in Willingham’s work, even in the reports of the OECD. And in confusing something that can be entirely without an adult or something that can be highly structured, we end up with tricky outcomes in terms of evidence. We hear that these methods are ineffective. And yet we then see that Bealings not only produce results, but have Outstanding judgments. Which is true?

Well let’s try to unpick them a little. Discovery based learning might be better spoken of as ‘child initiated learning’ and it’s most often seen in early years settings. At its best, the child initiates play and, through careful organisation of equipment/materials, questioning and observation, the adults will support the learning. Take for example Jonathan Lear’s example of the tap in the EYFS mud kitchen. When planning their outdoor learning area, staff had a choice of where to put the water supply for their mud kitchen. The obvious answer was to connect it to the tap at the sink. But they didn’t. They connected it to the wall, further away. That simple adjustment meant that the young children had to work out how to transport the water. But the staff had put holes in the obvious implements. So the children had to be canny. The process of learning, prompted and supported by questioning, led to children thinking more deeply than they would have if the answer had been, well, on tap. So it sits there, waiting to be played with and discovered. This is a lovely example of how discovery learning can work in some situations and settings, but of course, all other kinds of learning will be going on there too. Some of it explicit and some of it inquiry led.

At its worst, discovery learning is where the teacher has a cuppa while the kids run riot. Or where the children have been given a word/person/topic and told to get on their laptops and find it all out with no guidance. This is not really discovery learning. It’s idleness and in these days of high accountability and surveillance, you’re unlikely to see it happening anywhere in state education. But I think this is the conception of it that some have in their minds.

Inquiry led learning is probably the best fit for Mantle of the Expert. It is not child-led or initiated but more co-constructed. It allows the teacher and pupils to step in and out of a problem so that some areas of knowledge that need to be acquired in order to solve a problem, are taught explicitly. The context provides a purpose for what can be explicit teaching and once that has been done, the children can apply and transfer that knowledge to the problem they were engaged in. They move in and out of the role and problem as required. One mantle I ran with Yr 4 involved learning Russian language, geography and culture. It also involved creating spreadsheets, budgets, writing letters and reports and even applying for visas. All these tasks were planned for. They were managed by the teacher but the desire to know and do them came from children immersed in context. If you’d have asked the children what we were doing, they would have talked about doing all of this in order to save wolves in a forest in the Ural Mountains. The story provides the context for the knowledge and action to be enacted. And as we know from Willingham, stories are ‘psychological privileged’ in the human mind.

This is not the only way to inquire of course. I’ve seen few better examples of non role-play project based learning than that devised by Joe Pardoe at School21. There, all inquiry is rigorously accountable to knowledge. But it is also creatively transferred and applied. Take their chess board. A study into the cold war results in sculpted chess pieces – busts of the major historical figures of the cold war. The children are asked not just to know and to create, but to apply. Who would have been the King? The pawns? Why? They are being held accountable to knowledge. This is child centred learning, but the teacher is deeply present throughout – in conception, design, delivery and analysis. The teacher is always present in both inquiry led and discovery led learning. But much more so in the former.

So we need to move on. We need to move away from the quagmire of what constitutes academic or practical subjects, progressive or traditional ideologies, explicit or inquiry led teaching. We need to recognise (and to be fair the Ideal Schools report is attempting to move in this direction) that there are horses for courses. That knowing what you do, why you do it and the impact of what comes out of it,  is far more important than what you call it.



No frills education: the workload paradox.

Becky Allen’s brilliant speech this week and Amanda Spielman’s clarification that Ofsted were indeed cross checking teacher’s responses to the workload question on their staff questionnaire with SLT’s claims, has brought the question of workload to the fore again. Some time ago I wrote a post with ideas on reducing workload in schools. But since then, the double whammy of workload and a funding crisis has hit the profession. So many schools are saying they can’t reduce workload without spending money. And others have reacted to the workload spotlight by telling staff they are not allowed to publicly discuss workload any more. Head well in the sand there.

I get the difficulty. In my husband’s workplace, the only way the senior leadership team could respond to funding problems was to restructure the school day, meaning that staff were teaching more lessons with bigger class sizes. That has impacted on workload massively, especially around marking. But everyone understood that there was a funding issue. When this happens (and it is becoming more and more common), we have to find ways of making room for this extra load in ways that don’t cost money. And that means an element of sacrifice.

Parent’s evenings, some would say, are valuable in terms of developing relationships with parents. We can have face to face contact, show them pupil’s work and build relationships. But do they impact on learning? Are they an additional frill when we consider the need to focus on core impact with as little money as possible? No. They cost more. They cost in heating and lighting buildings. They cost, often, in feeding staff. Could technology be used for more effective modes of reporting, cutting down on costs and staff time? Undoubtedly.

Do we need common assessment points, where data is collected centrally. Most staff report that this has two effects on their work. There is the time in inputting the data. And then there is the game. Many of us know the horror of seeing the progress spreadsheet turn amber or red because of some algorithmic calculation. How many of us have altered the data to spare ourselves the pain of having to write individual action plans for pupils we know how to support and who are doing ok? Just so the computer will stop saying no. Are half termly or termly collection points necessary? Becky Allen points to over half of the teachers in the country in her survey reporting that they had to do this half termly. It was the straw that drove me out of teaching – 15 hours every half term spent on meaningless data. Reducing this to bi-annual or annual collections would allow schools to collate progress data and reduce staff time and would not cost a bean.

I’m not sure what more Ofsted could have done in reminding teachers that they don’t expect to see triple marking, or every piece of work marked, or verbal feedback recorded in books. Yet it seems that schools still have burdensome marking policies. Why? When Ofsted do come in, they expect staff to adhere to the policy in place. Why not simplify the policy? It costs nothing. And saves money in coloured pens.

How much time is spent on meetings offering information that could easily be communicated via email? How much time on twilights that are irrelevant to staff needs? When a member of your staff who is, let’s say, a trained counsellor has to sit through training on how to talk to students about suicide, one has to ask, why not get the trained counsellor to do the training rather than sit being told things he already knows? Why spend the money? Spend less but give the member of staff with the expertise a little time to plan it. Cheaper but not free. Why not allow other staff who already have that knowledge to skip the training and use their time to do something that will benefit their department? Are we valuing and allowing staff who spend their Saturdays in training to offset this with time in lieu?

How much of our meeting/monitoring/evidencing is done with a small minority of staff in mind? How many times are decisions made for the whole with the needs of a few at the centre? How can we ensure that where interventions/training/difficult conversations are required, they are targeted at those who need them and not at the whole staff? It’s like giving a full class detention – breeds nothing but resentment from the majority.

There is no doubt that funding shortages impact on schools in ways that affect staff workload. But there are nevertheless many things that can go without costing any money. And when that wolf comes to the door, asking their workload question, your answer can be “we’ve reduced the paperwork and evidencing we provide for you without compromising our results.” Then hope that the staff body agrees that it has had impact.

I know it may seem obvious. But the only question we really need to ask when we make decisions about staff workload is “does this task/request impact positively on pupil outcomes and quality of experience?” And if the answer is no, it can probably go. If it actually undermines pupil outcome and experience by taking valuable time and energy away from the effectiveness of teaching, then it can definitely go.





Utilising Knowledge

I’m a little tired of being positioned as someone who is anti-knowledge whenever I question the purposes and practices of education. Apart from the fact that it is nonsensical that a person with a doctorate despises knowledge, it simply creates a binary divide that is more political than intellectual. So instead of arguing it, I thought I’d share an example. Let’s say I’m teaching a topic – The Ancient Greeks. It’s done all over the place isn’t it?

“We’re ‘doing’ the Greeks. I have to dress up as a Greek for Greek day,” is how it usually goes. In literacy they might study a few myths. In topic, they’ll look at Athens and democracy and if they’re lucky, the Greek Gods. Boom. But what do they learn about life, humanity and values from it? Why does it matter?

My knowledge organiser for The Greeks would have on it at least the following areas of knowledge:-

  1. The different periods from the Minoans to the Mycenaeans to the Dark Ages of Greece to the growth of the Athenians. They will be plotted on a time line. Children will explore how different empires valued different qualities and how this impacted on their stories and societies. We’ll look at figures from myths and history in each. For example Minoan – Theseus and the Minotaur; Mycenaean –  Perseus, Hercules and Agamemnon; Athens – Pericles, Plato, Socrates and Aristotle.
  2. The polytheistic beliefs of the Greeks and how the Athenians came to question them, for example through Plato’s Cave of Shadows.
  3. The importance of the oracle at Delphi – where it was and what it was.
  4. The narrative structure of the hero’s journey as seen through the story of Perseus.
  5. The roles of women and children in different Greek societies – comparing, for example, Athens and Sparta.
  6. The development of a direct democracy in Athens and how this differs to our indirect democracy in the UK.

Key words:-

Oligarchy, patriarchy, polytheistic, philosophy, oracle, fate, democracy  and many more…

None of this matters though, without a good how and what. I’m not going to waste mine and the children’s time getting them to dress up as Greeks. I can’t see the benefit and it adds stress to family time at home. I’d rather they read Percy Jackson stories at home instead. But I do want to immerse them in drama. So I start with a story. I plot the start of our story on a timeline – somewhere toward the end of the Minoan empire and the start of the Mycenaean. Because our story concerns the mythical founder of Mycenae – Perseus.

The children are gathered.

What if,” I say (the most powerful words in the world), “what if, you were all advisers to a king in ancient times. The King of a city state – here – (point to a map) – Argos.”

We may have to pause for a moment to consider why a shopping company called itself Argos. It was the name of the founder’s wife. But also the name of a son of Zeus. Who is Zeus? Why do people call their children after gods and characters from stories? Why name cities after them? But shortly, we’ll get back to our purpose. How to speak to a king.

We’d have to be polite”

“We’ll use formal language, like ‘your majesty'”

“We’ll have to be careful not to lose our jobs!”

“OK. Let’s say we’re about to meet him – we’ve been roused from our beds, early in the morning – and he’s back from a long journey – he’s been gone for months…”


“Delphi – he’s been to see the oracle.”

“What’s an oracle? Where’s Delphi?”

“Ahh, well, let me tell you…”

The story is creating curiosity and interest which is in itself forming a vehicle for knowledge. In this very early introduction, the children have been introduced to a place, a time, a belief system and inducted into shifting the formality of language. Not through a lesson objective, but through a dramatic frame – a who, where, when and what of the area of learning.

They meet the king. It is I. And I tell them my troubling news. The oracle has informed me that my daughter, the princess Danae, will have a child. And that the child will grow up to kill me. So I must stop it. I need their help. What shall I do?

And from narrative framing, we’re straight into human dilemma.

As we enter the problem, we learn many things about life at that time. Materials that were available to build a tower to imprison the young princess. Modes of entertainment for her. The children draw upon their knowledge of mythical creatures to guard her tower. They are creating and imagining, but drawing on knowledge to do so.

We can put a telly in her room.

“Telly? What is this telly you speak of?”

Television. So she can watch it and not get bored.”

Television? Far away vision? I know not what you speak of.”

The penny drops. But let’s not let the etymology get away. Pause, dissect, understand. A mistake becomes an opportunity for learning…

We create many moments of dilemma led learning in our story. When her child, Perseus, the son of Zeus is born (an impregnation that needs to be quite delicately handled) her father, King Acrisios, hears the cries of the newborn coming from the tower. What does he do? We create still images and captions.

He kills

He forgives

He despairs

In fact he puts the young mother and her child into a trunk and orders soldiers to throw it into a stormy sea. It’s a P4C moment. Should human beings always follow orders?

And we explore and learn more about the Gods. Who has dominion over the sea? Who can calm the waters? Who will help the mother and baby? We follow the course of the story on maps, learning along the way how far ‘Greece’ extended in those days. From Seriphos to what is now Ethiopia – where the gorgon sisters hid from humanity.

In these ways, we continue exploring the story, right to the very end, long after Perseus has slain the poor, cursed, girl, Medusa. Long after he has rescued Andromeda, married her and founded the great city of Mycenae. Right up to the point where he takes part in the great games in Argos. His terrified grandfather, King Acrisios, disguises himself as a beggar in the crowd. Drawn by curiosity, ruled by fear, he cowers. Perseus takes aim at his target. In some stories a discus, in others an arrow. But whatever the tool, a sudden shift in the direction of the wind carries the weapon into the heart of the old king. The prophesy is fulfilled.

What is fate? Why did many ancient civilisations believe in fate? Did the Athenians?

And we move on…

The talk. They design. They calculate. They map. They add to timelines. And they write, and write and write. Their own myths, reports from battle, proposals for laws, letters to kings and gods and generals of opposing armies. They consider what makes a hero. And what is a monster? Back to poor Medusa…

Through stories, culture, language, philosophy, history. Steeped in knowledge. Wading through dilemma. Driven by ‘what ifs’ and ‘whys’ but never just telling them. Never just telling them.