Beginnings matter. They are much in my mind, of course, as I embark on my first term as the leader of the school and I hold a diorama of impressions from a myriad of encounters and events.
Beginnings matter because they set the tone, create expectations and establish our trajectory. They encompass the preparations we make, the parameters we map out for ourselves (and, often, also for others) and the attitude of mind that we adopt in the face of challenges and opportunities. We may think of them as the foundations for the work to come.
What those foundations should consist of precisely has been a topic of enduring interest – and controversy – in the education world. Mercifully, the old ‘knowledge versus skills’ debate seems now to have run out of steam, with all but a handful of protagonists (and those confined to the margins of the field), being able to agree that both are essential and that they are inseparably intertwined. Teaching knowledge without skills? Pointless. Teaching skills without knowledge? Impossible.
However, defining which skills should be taught, and how, remains a fertile area for discussion. A veritable fusillade of theories awaits the teacher who wishes to help young people build those learning foundations and it is important to distinguish the worthwhile from the whimsical. While an alliterative trinity might invite scepticism, the fundamental importance of creative, critical and collaborative thinking has now achieved a high level of acceptance.
Professor Matthew Lipman, a leading thinker in this field, illustrates the interplay of the first two aptly using the analogy of a pilot flying an aircraft, where creative thinking is acceleration and critical thinking is the application of the brakes. The pilot, he says, must accelerate to keep the plane going forward, but from time to time, she must apply the brakes to maintain balance and stay on course. We could add to this that collaborative thinking is equally vital – with the co-pilot, air traffic controller and ground crew all having to play their part to ensure a safe take-off and landing.
United Airlines aircraft
To this, in recent years, has been added a fourth C – caring thinking. Caring thinking calls upon us to recognise the extent of our inter-dependence and the force of the impact our words and actions can have. While this strand has not yet, perhaps, achieved the currency of the other three as a key ingredient in a thinking skills curriculum, its relevance to education for the world ‘as it is’ and the world ‘as it will be’ is very clear.
With all this in mind, what better way to start the school year than with a hands-on, mind-expanding Skills Day, which would bring all four of these crucial thinking skills into play? This is what our senior school girls enjoyed on their first day in school, in a brilliant warm-up to the new term and an opportunity to polish up the contents of their thinking tool kit alongside the new pencil case and pristine school planner. In a house-based, collaborative project, the girls were challenged to work in teams to create a money-making proposal which would pass the test of feasibility and viability – all in support of a charitable cause of their choosing.
For U4, the girls were asked to generate ideas for a film, refine these down to an achievable project and then work together to script, rehearse and enact their piece in a single day. The caring dimension came through their conscious consideration of their target audience in choosing a theme and imagery, and in their attention to high production values at the editing stage. The fruits of their endeavours were showcased in our very own Young Academy Awards event.
Helen with pupils at the school
Seeing the school year take off in this way, with serious fun in pursuit of deep learning and with caring thinking at the heart of the enterprise – I look forward to seeing how the rest of the journey aboard Flight NHS 2015/16 unfolds.
Dr Helen Stringer is Headmistress of Northampton High School.