In search of innovation in our schools
Innovation is the single most important quality needed in a staff common room. It’s the thing students don’t know that they want in their teachers, but the thing they value the most when they reflect on your teaching.
Innovation takes many forms, but nowhere do you see so many of these, than in the best primary schools. The creative curriculum is alive and kicking in primary schools, but it is in danger of being dead and buried in secondary education.
There are a lot of reasons why it might be easier for primary schools to be innovative: they’re smaller, they’re less exam-focused, they’re full of small children who are still totally immersed in a creative world, they’re full of teachers who are not subject specialists and they value creativity.
On the other hand, a secondary school has more staff, more pupils and in theory, they’re more well-resourced. But these things don’t seem to make the difference. What does, is the idea that when you get to ‘big’ school you have to act like the ‘big’ boys and girls; an idea perpetuated as much by parents as teachers. And being ‘big’ seems to mean not needing to be creative.
I don’t remember getting to 11 and suddenly becoming a grown up. I remember wanting to do a lot of the things I did when I was 10, only perhaps in a more sophisticated way. I certainly don’t remember thinking about working hard in French because it’s going to count towards the EBacc and if I don’t get that then I’m going to amount to nothing.
These thoughts are the sorts of things that worry parents and teachers, not children. Children want to learn; if you’re a teacher and you don’t believe that, then you probably work in a secondary school and have forgotten that this is an essential truth about your students. Children want to learn, but they want to be engaged too. They do not want to be straight-jacketed, shoe-horned, or any other such analogy, into learning in one particular way, and they don’t want to learn because there’s a test at the end of it (until they get to the point where we have taught them that actually that is the most important reason to learn anything).
There are some really great primary initiatives out there; two of my favourite ideas are the mantle of the expert and the idea of themed, cross-curricular learning. The first idea encourages independent learning and the latter is all about contextualising learning and blurring the lines between subjects.
I’m lucky enough to work in a school that encourages independent learning, but this is not the norm. It’s also true that cross-curricular activities do happen in secondary schools, but these are the sorts of things that you only do very occasionally, perhaps when exam classes have left, because they’re a real trauma to organise. These learning techniques are not easy to come by when you’re worrying about passing exams. In fact, unless you’ve been allowing this sort of learning to happen continuously, it is difficult to see how it could exist for a GCSE class worrying about saying and writing the correct answer.
I have been guilty of a terrible pedagogical crime – an ‘independent learning project’. I look back at this now and cringe. It is simply ridiculous to tell students that they are going to learn independently, but only for the next six weeks, then it’s back to normal.
Innovation in primary schools is much more deeply embedded. This is evident in terms of innovation with technology as well. Restructuring the use of IT resources in primary schools seems to be more simple and more successful. If a primary school decides to introduce a new technology, or adjust its network, it is done and it will work. In secondary schools, this can be true, but it seems that the whole process is more painful.
Primary students are growing up in a world in which they will never know anything but an immersion in technology. They are using laptops and tablets in the classroom because this will seamlessly lead them on to whatever technology comes next. They’re learning through games, through apps, through independent research and through being given freedom to make connections between different subjects.
When these students take their first tentative steps into secondary education it’s crucial that it is not a backwards one. They should be walking into an environment that builds on their experiences of learning and technology. They need to be holding up-to-date equipment and learning to use it effectively. At the moment this is not a reality for many students, but eventually we will reach a point where this will no longer be an acceptable failure. Innovation in education must not end simply because there’s an exam factory that requires our students’ attention, it must go on in spite of this.