As I sit here, furiously applying for tickets to London 2012, getting ever frustrated by the ludicrous application system and the website that constantly changes its mind about how many tickets are available, I realise that I have been entirely won over by the Olympic Spirit of which I was so sceptical.
The dedication, the emotion, the quality, the power, the elegance, everything about what it is to be an Olympic athlete has been on display over these last few days and it has been inspiring.
These athletes are all sorts of shapes, sizes, ages and of course nationalities but when they compete in their hosen discipline, they are equal to all those around them. There is no inequality or prejudice, there is only competition in its purest sense.
From a British perspective I have been so impressed with the veracity of the crowd’s support and their humility in defeat. The respect that the athletes show for each other has undoubtedly been transferred to those watching.
Now we need to find a way of transferring their commitment and dedication into more ‘normal’ settings. And of course, given the nature of this blog, the setting I hope to see this in is our schools.
Children are by their nature competitive. They are also collaborative. This may seem to be a contradiction in terms until you realise that Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte battle it out head to head in one race only to race together for the relay. They do this with apparent ease and humility and it is exactly the sort of attitude and behaviour that schools need to replicate.
So often lately I have heard disappointing storied of schools cancelling sports day because the competitive element is deemed too emotionally taxing for the children it would involve, or a desire not to give students grades because those that score low might be upset, or worse still, teachers being told not to mark student work in red as the colour is deemed too negative. Now, there are other, better reasons not to give students grades (to do with the idea that they are a cheap get out clause for teachers not to give real feedback) but the point stands that removing competitiveness from schools is simply mad. With competition also comes collaboration – teams are both working against others and with others and this is what the ‘real’ world is like. To shield students from this is to disadvantage them unnecessarily.
In fact competition can be a great motivator, especially if it becomes something regular that is taken in the good spirit it is intended.
On top of this, sport, or at least physical activity is a known brain-enhancer. Exercise helps the brain operate at a higher level, so why wouldn’t we encourage it. I know of teachers that get their students to move around the classroom a bit before the lesson, some even get them to do stretches, and I went to a conference a few years ago where one of the speakers had the delegates divide up into two groups and sing a tribal African song at and then with each other.
These activities actually serve two purposes. They get the blood flow going which is good for thinking, but they also (perhaps surprisingly given what I’ve said about competition) are a great equaliser. Everyone is in it together. It might feel a bit embarrassing or strange, but if everyone approaches it positively, there can be a real sense of unity.
So how could we combine sport, competition and great thinking and learning?
Step one is out of the control of the average teacher, but it’s worth mentioning that there is simply too much red tape to make any of this easy. At my last school you needed to seek permission to take your students out of the classroom. So if a nice day arose and you felt like conducting a lesson outside it wasn’t really possible. This is by no means unusual and not really the school’s fault so much as a case of health and safety gone mad.
My daughter’s nursery are bucking this trend. They are all about being outside, learning as they explore the world around them, and we were told in no uncertain terms that she will come home with bumps and scratches, cuts and bruises because they are allowed to assess their own risks in order to help the learn and develop and my goodness it has been one of the best decisions my wife and I have made. Since she started, her vocabulary has exploded, her understanding of the world has been enhanced and she has gained a huge amount of confidence in exploring the physical world she inhabits. All of the staff are trained in forestry skills so they show the kids how to build dens and cook over open fires and all the while, learning is at the heart of everything they do. It is an inspiring model, but not necessarily one that will work as we turn our attentions to the current secondary system.
So here are a couple of ideas…
A series of inflatables tied together in the middle of the pool. On these inflatables are laminated ‘parts of speech.’ Each team has one minute to send out swimmers one at a time to recover one part of speech at a time. Once the time is up, the teams then have to indentify the parts of speech they have collected and construct the most complicated sentence they can. Points can be awarded for number of parts of speech collected, correct identification and complexity of sentence.
This concept would work for equation solving, ordering a text or quotations, it could be made more complex with a series of islands representing different elements of learning or a problem. I think any subject would make use of this idea which genuinely affords fun to all types of students, whether they’re the thinkers or the athletes by nature, they will come together and relish this challenge.
Take a Second Look
One of the great life skills that we wish to instil in our charges is the power of observation. This manifests itself in so many ways in the work we do, whether it’s trying to ensure they can read subtext in a novel, understanding the wording of a mathematical problem, navigating their way around a park using a compass or sketching a still life subject.
Give your students a coloured piece of card and ask them to cut out a rectangle in the middle. This is now their viewfinder. Your challenge to them is to find something in the school, or its grounds that is the colour of the ‘frame’ that they have created. Let them use their phones or provide them with cameras to record their findings.
This is a great exploration of colour for art students, but a useful exercise for all the kids we teach to ensure they stay in touch and aware of their environment. It could lead to a piece of creative writing or an analysis of the substance/material that makes up the object they have photographed.
There are so many more things you could do, ranging from pinning up foreign language vocabulary to an archery target in order to focus them on the words to an egg and spoon race in which the eggs hold numbers that you need to use to solve a ‘Countdown’ style maths problem asking the students to do a sum using all of the numbers they have successfully transported from one end of the course to the other to get as close as they can to a pre-determined number.
None of them are as quick as sitting them down in rows, orating your great wisdom to them. But, if you do venture down thise path, just like every gold medallist that stands upon the winner’s podium over the next few weeks, they will never forget your efforts and what you gave to them that day.