Nestled in North London, there’s a convivial and buzzing atmosphere amongst colleagues and peers at King Alfred School, who have come together for the annual day of lectures. This year’s King Alfred School Society (KASS) conference theme is ‘Children’s Learning in a Time of Unprecedented Change’.
Robert Lobatto, the new head, welcomes the delegates and introduces the theme of the day. Interestingly, he references last year’s conference where he was, at the time, a prospective new head and used the day to ‘check out’ the school. In the past 10 or 11 years, we have come a long way, he says: Facebook was introduced in 2004, Twitter in 2006 and the now-ubiquitous smartphone in 2007. All three of these things have had an effect on the classroom, as pupils are more digital-savvy than those of a decade before and go on to do jobs that didn’t exist before.
New head Robert Lobatto invites questions from delegates
First up is Bill Lucas, Director of the Centre for Real-Learning at the University of Winchester. He argues that our curriculum should change as the world changes, so that schools teach skills and values that are useful now, rather than things that “might be useful later”. Lucas also references the recent Good Childhood Report, which suggested that UK children were amongst the unhappiest in the world. “This is an endemic, and we are causing it, partially,” says Lucas.
So what’s the answer? Lucas is all for scrapping GCSEs and restoring creative subjects to the EBacc curriculum. Pupil progress is still closely monitored enough, he says, that testing at GCSE level may not be necessary – instead, we should be allowing pupils to form the right habits and skills that form a ‘rounded education’.
It’s great food for thought as our next speaker, Dr Nihara Krause, a Consultant Clinical Psychologist, also references the Good Childhood Report and discusses the effect that school life can have on childrens’ mental health. Some important figures put it into perspective:
- One in 10 children aged 10-16 has a diagnosable mental health problem
- Nearly 80,000 UK children are seriously depressed
- The UK has the highest self-harm rate in Europe
We need to pick up on the warning signs earlier, says Krause, and it’s not just about bullying anymore. Stress, self-harm and eating disorders must be identified, particularly as we see a growing rate of body dysmorphic issues in boys. So what causes these pressures on young people? Krause presents the young ‘brain under construction’. The brain experiences its biggest growth up to the age of 21, and so parents and teachers must be careful of information overload. Additionally, the power of friendships and teenage relationships, as well as the stress of one’s body changing, can all affect mental health at this sensitive age. Overall, the question posed to the audience is: “Does the time of unprecedented change create new stresses for our young people?” With increasing exam stress, pressure to perform and to keep up with peers, it seems this is a rhetorical question.
Steve Wheeler, from Plymouth University, argues that despite the ‘digital native’ generation of young children, schools are struggling to keep up. “Children appear on the web even before they are born”, and use their devices to record and share content, yet mobile phones and other technology is still banned in many classrooms. This, Steve says, could be due to schools unsure how to maximize the benefit of tech in the classroom: “Too many schools buy into tech because it’s shiny and new, and they want to get it first.” It is possible to embrace it in a positive way, though – an example given is a live Twitter feed displayed in lessons, with students using a dedicated hashtag to share what they’re learning.
Our final speaker before breaking for lunch is John Blaney, who helped introduce Forest Schools to the UK through his work with Bridgwater College. It’s an inspiring lecture filled with anecdotes that raise smiles in the audience, particularly as he asks us to recall a positive play memory. Almost everyone recalls being outside in this memory, which pleasingly proves Blaney’s point that outdoor learning provides “a brand new classroom every day.” Other benefits of learning outside are the diversity of stimuli, the relaxed learning environment and a lack of pollution.
As we break for lunch, guests describe the ‘inspirational’ talks so far and the importance of the topics while queuing for the buffet. One teacher I talk to describes it as a really useful day of CPD, “especially on a weekend, where you don’t need to organise cover!”
Our fifth speaker of the day is Mike Grenier from Eton College, who kicks off with a quote from a William Wordsworth poem. It’s a fitting start as Grenier describes the Slow Education movement, which has developed from the Italian Slow Food movement, as an alternative to the fast-paced, grade-obsessed education system. He refers to the current teacher recruitment crisis, citing the pressure to perform that adds to the everyday stress of teachers and students alike. The Slow movement promotes calm, unhurried, reflective and quality education, as opposed to a busy, impatient and analytical current situation. A delegate asks, how can you still assess and award qualifications using this model? Grenier clarifies that it’s not about abolishing assessment, just finding a more organic and creative way there.
How do we create a learning experience which works best for students within a system driven by a narrow focus on exams and grades?
Grenier’s pitch for reflection leads nicely into our final speaker of the day, the warm and witty Sugata Mitra. He asks us: “If all of this is true, if what we’ve heard throughout the day is true, what shall we do?” Mitra’s studies over the past two decades have concluded that children can learn anything given the right tools, so should we ask them to memorise information to pass tests, when they can use the Internet whenever called upon? Why not allow students to research the information they need to tick boxes in their own time, and spend lessons teaching what’s actually useful? It’s a refreshing, anecdotal and thought-provoking lecture, which promotes debate, resourcefulness and collaboration as keys to real learning. Mitra has a lot of faith in today’s students – will the education sector agree? Only time will tell.
Robert Lobatto reflects on the day: ‘By common consent, this was the best King Alfred Conference so far. The day explored the theme of learning: from Sugata Mitra’s Self Organising Learning Environments to the forest as an outdoor classroom; and from Bill Lucas’s notion of Habits of Mind to an exposition of the slow education movement and the use of digital technology in the classroom.
“Along with most delegates, I was left feeling inspired and determined to grapple with the challenges. First and foremost, how do we create a learning experience which works best for students within a system driven by a narrow focus on exams and grades. Nihara Krause gave us an insight into the negative impact of this high stakes competitive system on adolescent wellbeing. And whilst many would argue that a more creative approach to learning will produce just as good results, the pressures in the system push students, teachers and parents towards a seemingly safer approach of teaching to the test of jumping through the necessary hoops.
Robert Lobatto with speakers
“How can parents, teachers and society at large deal with this fundamental contradiction?
“A glimpse of the way forward came from delegates in the audience. They described how in their organisations, recruitment processes were increasingly ‘grade blind’ and now much more focused on the all-round capabilities of their applicants. If this is truly the direction employers are going, then perhaps it is this which will free us to create an educational experience which leads to better learning, and happier, more successful children.’