Few people think that they fall neatly into any given category; it harms our sense of uniqueness to slot so easily into a vacant gap in the jigsaw. I am happy to endorse the Singaporean approach to early maths teaching, as seen in the Maths No Problem scheme, though I don’t think the approach is completely transferable. I support the need to focus on building core knowledge in geography, but I also perceive geography to be a suitable subject through which to build reflection on identity and belonging, through reflective and comparative work.
The problem with being reluctant to raise your flag is that it can leave you isolated and without a territory, without fellow citizens. I was thinking about whether my seemingly hodgepodge interests, values and approaches in education combine to make some coherent ‘thing’, or whether they can exist fruitfully as a philosophical buffet.
Loosely, I feel as though the loose threads of my approach are…
- Defence of the role of the foundation curriculum, especially the humanities
- The fostering of curiosity as a means to build mental independence
- Building the ability to reflect, for self-knowledge and for critical understanding of the social world
- Unlocking the creative process
- The importance of knowing and understanding the local area
- The idea of schools as community spaces
- An appetite for exploration of the unknown, and an excitement about it
- Respect for heritage and history
- A love for the anecdote
- Shared suspension of disbelief
- A certain kitschiness
Essentially, if an undergraduate social scientist had a threesome with the 1967 Plowden Report and Google Maps, my educational approach is what would be left on the blanket.
At #WomenEd yesterday, I was catching up with Kate Fallan (@kfallan) with whom I’ve worked on this and that in Newham in the last few years. We were talking about my job move and about my fit with my new school. In the course of the chat, Kate described my values as something to the effect of ‘reinventing back-to-basics traditional stuff’. By traditional here we weren’t thinking Knowledge Organisers etc, but more like National Trust membership.
When I look at the things I have set up myself and contributed to, I could really see the truth in it. Poetry Retreats in the New Forest. Taking the kids to explore Wuthering Heights on the Yorkshire Moors. Community Spring Cleaning events. Bookmaking. Camping. Exploring London’s cemetery parks (accidentally) to learn of the area’s heritage.
I do it in a slightly different way, combing elements of the past and elements of the future…
Trying to pull together these threads under a coherent banner, I had to think more about it. We were composing poetry about the four elements, but when we recited it, we did so over Busta Rhymes instrumentals. When I was teaching the poetic conventions, whilst sharing Poe, Wordsworth and Keats, I shared them alongside John Cooper Clarke (Uneasy cheesy greasy sleazy beastly Beasley Street) and Blackalicious (Eating other editors with each and every energetic epileptic episode, elevated etiquette). When we explored British values and the history of empire, we unpicked the tweeness of identity by getting Professor Elemental to come in to school with his chap-hop.
We have a (deceased) class toy with a four year backstory and a network of family members known to roughly 800 children aged between 8 and 14 in Newham’s schools. When the toy was lost, we launched a social media campaign to find him, including podcasts riffing off of charity advert tropes (Stalybridge was our special friend. Sir’s only friend. And now he is gone. Do you care?) and some choice tweets to Narender Modi to ask for his help.
I’ve taught the kids about Guy Debord’s idea of ‘le detour’ and we have gone of psychogeographical enquiry walks around the local area, trying to follow a perfectly circular route chosen at random by a blindfolded child with a map.
We camp, we toast (halal) marshmallows, we make dens out of sticks and we sing kumbaya. Then we lip sync to Beyonce’s Listen.
We learn about the world in pretty crushing realism through the humanities. I don’t want them growing up with false ideas about the world being essentially fine and dandy because we live in a wealthy place. So the lessons operate through the lens of a critical optimism, in which they learn about things that are happening in the world as they are, but we contemplate why and how they could be different. Their writing is, as a consequence, angsty but insightful, riddled with reflection. There has been a certain Morrisseyisation of reflective humanities writing, glimmers of truth and searing honesty pebbledashed into emotive mixed metaphors.
So then it hit me. My educational philosophy is grimy, real, honest, optimistic and kitsch but with a side serving of criticality and worldliness. One possibility is that my approach is Nietzschean Blue Peter.
Alternatively, it is Post-Punk Scoutism. We sit around the campfire, collect our badges and do our bit to help, but not out of a sense of Protestant Ethic but out of a raw expression of the insatiable pursuit of things being a bit better than they are.
I think it’s that.