By Dr Helen Stringer, Headmistress of Northampton High School
In the spirit of starting as we mean to go on at Northampton High School, we devoted the first day of the new academic year not to the customary gentle (or not-so-gentle) progress through school routines and housekeeping, but to a full-throttle Skills Day. For most of the senior girls (except the Y9s who made films and the Sixth Form who attended a networking workshop), this involved a cross-curricular, cross-phase collaboration on devising and executing a plan to support the chosen House charities.
Based on the community of enquiry approach that many educators will be familiar with from the work of SAPERE and Will Ord, we built a programme of activities designed to encourage collaborative, creative, critical, and caring thinking (the 4Cs). My reflections here are based on my active observation of a single session in the day, where I was able to see at close hand the progress of the learning and look fully ‘under the bonnet’ of the engine of that learning. I came out of the experience convinced that something both valuable and all-too-rare had taken place. I was determined to share it.
The session I witnessed was a student-led workshop under the banner of ‘communication skills’ which introduced participants (Y7, Y8, and Y10) to the rudiments of debating. The topic was the relative importance of fundraising and volunteering to the success of charities. It was led by Cheryl, a Year 11 student. She had been asked to lead by the Skills Day Coordinator Debbie Hill in the summer term, because of her previous experience as a confident and accomplished debater. Prior to the session, Debbie had allocated girls to the group and Cheryl had produced a PowerPoint, with light-touch guidance from Debbie, during the summer break.
My role was to be a presence in the room to make sure that the session ran smoothly. The hope was that my input would be minimal, as the aim was to facilitate peer-directed learning. In the event, I was able to fade into the background and collect impressions of the progress of the session. Within minutes, I realised that what I was witnessing was an object lesson in how the 4Cs might be promoted within a 60-minute period.
At the beginning of the hands-on part of the workshop (once Cheryl had set the scene with her PowerPoint), the girls were very unevenly divided between the two sides of the topic, with only a couple of girls out of a group of 16 on one side and a couple uncommitted. Cheryl was obliged to tactfully move some of the girls to a position they did not naturally favour in order to create workable groups.
What follows is not a blow-by-blow account of the session but, rather, a vivid pen portrait of the workshop as an effective community of enquiry at work formed of a series of verbatim quotations from the hour. Here are examples of the 4Cs in action:
‘I’m trying to think of how to start – Jo, have you got any ideas?’… ‘Do you want to share my phone for research?’…
‘We need to work on our closing speech because we only have ten minutes left’…
[To the nominated closing speech-maker] ‘Mention that they [the sources] are unreliable’
‘I have different coloured pens for the notes’… ‘We could make that into a question’…
‘Can you imagine what life would be like without volunteers?’
‘Don’t go on Wikipedia, because it’s not totally reliable’…
‘Remember to do research on the weaknesses of the opposite side’… ‘This guy is the operations manager for a charity, so he’s a proper guy’… ‘This is recent’…
[Dialogue] ‘A survey from 2003 and 2005 – that’s quite old’… “But there were two surveys”… ‘I know people who work for charities – actually I know one person’
[Dialogue] ‘I don’t think I am a great speaker’… “Yes, you’re really good”… [Dialogue] ‘I don’t know if that is a go’… “Yes, it’s okay”…
‘You need money to pay for that personal touch’… ‘To be frank, it is a cruel world’…
‘This is a great quote – “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”’
The ensuing debate itself and the subsequent free vote illustrated that the activity had shaken the assumptions of many of the girls. As the two sides traded arguments and counter-arguments, and bandied statistics and evidence to support their respective sides, the solidity of prejudged opinions based on superficial impressions began to break down. With exclamations along the lines of – ‘oh, I don’t know!’ – their progress into the valley of the shadow of doubt (what James Nottingham would call the Learning Pit) was clear to see.
Their feelings of doubt, uncertainty and confusion, far from being signs of learning going astray, were the positive symptoms of the crust of half-baked thinking crumbling under the weight of their critical and creative enquiry. A new understanding, based on more solid foundations, was in the process of being formed. By the end of the session, the group was exactly evenly split between the two sides and several girls had openly declared that they had changed their original opinion on the topic. Even more exciting, was the obvious appetite for further enquiry among several members of the group who were keen to test their new understanding by extending their knowledge of the facts behind the case.
What better way to start the year than by stepping boldly – together and led by a peer – into the valley of the shadow of doubt and finding it possible to relish the experience?
* Pupil names have been altered