Education is moonshot

I’ve been doing a lot of Moonshot Thinking recently. If you watch the 3 and half minute video that lives on the other side of the link I just posted that you may be wondering how, as a deputy headteacher of a small primary school in a deprived part of Birmingham, I have time for such musings. That’s another story to be told another time.

Here’s one of my conclusions though: the education system is already a moonshot challenge. Let’s think of a system that will make things ten times better for the people are part of it – education already fits the bill.

It works like this: the sum of a culture’s knowledge is distributed on the shoulders of a few individuals. Let’s call these people ‘teachers’. These teachers are then trained to pass on this knowledge to new members of the culture. This second group are known as ‘students’. To make this as efficient as possible, the teachers are brought together in centres of teaching excellence. In most cases, these are called ‘schools’, although they are, on occasion, known as other things. The exact details of how schools, teachers and students relate to each other are worked out according to the differing demands of different cultures. The consequence of these education systems is that students lives are made at least ten times better, because they are taught the knowledge and skills that will give them opportunities within their culture.

When we try and change the education system we need to be clear that we are trying to fix something that already works really well. The teachers I know and work with are amazing. They do a fantastic job for their students, giving them opportunities that they would never have if they were not part of the education system.

When making moonshots to do with education, we need to be careful that we are not just tweaking something that is already really good, but instead thinking of something that will really makes things ten times better for our students.

On the necessity of roleplay

I’m not averse to a bit of roleplay. I like to be able to drip bits of it into lessons from time to time.

For example: the suspension of belief that the plastic food is actually a grocery shop and we are actually shopkeepers so I can give children a chance to practice their number bonds.

Or one of my favourites, when I set the classroom up like a conference room and we all pretend we’re attending the annual dragon hunter’s conference – I model the report of my most recent dragon hunt and of course the children all join in, motivated to both write a lot and also include various features of report writing.

However, I like to think that this forms the motivational 20% of my teaching. The rest of my time is spent in what might be deemed more traditional methods. But I don’t want to go on about that, because I’ve already done so here.

What has struck me recently is the amount of times I’m seeing and hearing off roleplay in primary school teaching, like it’s the next big thing. Mantle of the Expert has been around for a while, but I’m seeing it being used more and more to achieve the double-pronged Holy Grail of engagement and enjoyment. At conferences, respected speakers show videos of the outcomes of using ‘drama’ with children – demonstrating how children suspend their belief, get engaged and make great progress.

I’m wondering if one of the reasons for this is the lack of roleplay that goes on in the home. With the amount and quality of TV around, what child has the time to play shops, or dragon hunters in their home? And if they do have time, they may not have the inclination, for their own roleplay cannot be as well acted as whatever they see on the flat screen. Probably in 3D.

So this is where school comes in. With less roleplay going on in homes, schools pick up the slack, providing the made-up worlds in a safe place for children to play in. Great. But is this really what schools should be for? What if all the children came into my school desperate to learn more English and maths? Would they really be bothered with roleplay. Might they not turn round to me and say: “look, teacher, there’s only 5 hours in a school day, teach me something. I can do this roleplay stuff at home.”

We still don’t know what schools are for.

paganel_snowIt seems bizarre that having had schools for so long – over 100 years in this country – we still don’t really know what they are for.

Some of us know what we’d like schools to be for. Many of us have preconceptions of what schools already do. But none of us really know what they are for. No shared understanding exists for the purpose of schools.

How do I know this? Simple: snow closures.

This week’s debate about the vagaries of snow closures has demonstrated beyond a doubt that we do not know what schools are for.

Amused reporters have appeared on TV pointing out the closed school and the open school within close proximity to each other. Headteachers have argued about the difficulty of making a decision that balances the safety of their children with the education of their children. Teachers and children have cheered at the prospect of snow closures. Except that is, teachers whose own children are off, while they themselves have to work. Meanwhile participants of radio phone-in have told us that it wasn’t like this in the 60s. And the CBI have warned us that snow closures could push the economy back into recession. Mind you, they already told us that last year.

So what does all this tell us about perceptions of the purpose of schools?

  • The CBI thinks that schools are for babysitting – their main purpose is to keep adults in work and keep the country productive.
  • The radio phone-in participant from the 60s thinks that schools are there to serve the community and should remain open whatever
  • The headteacher who closes their school because of snow thinks that schools exist to nurture and protect children.
  • The headteacher who opens their school despite the snow thinks that schools are there to develop a sense of risk and adventure.
  • Children think that school is for making them bored, as snow days are the very definition of fun.
  • Teachers think like the children, unless their pay is docked because their own school is actually open.


Of course, this is massively over-simplified. I’ve faced the difficult decision of opening or closing my school several times this week and I’ve had several conversations with people who have been disgruntled at coming down on one side or the other – parents who are losing money because we’ve closed. Parents are frustrated that they’ve had to make the effort to get to school because we’ve been open. Children who are bored of the snow and just want to have some lessons. Teachers who can’t believe we’re opening. Teachers who can’t believe we’re shutting. Fortunately neither the CBI, nor any TV reporters have knocked on my door this week.

Either way, it’s really interesting listening to what people say about school closures, because it opens up a little window into what they believe schools are really for.

What have you heard this week? And what do you think schools are for?

The Purpose of Education is Hope

Contributing to this year’s Purpos/ed 500 word campaign.

Education is how a society maintains and improves itself. Yet, while education is a relatively straightforward process, that very definition causes problems for discussing its purpose. Depending on whether you have a traditionalist or a progressive perspective, you will either place more emphasis on educating for the maintenance of past standards or educating for a brighter future. Add that to the various cultures, sub-cultures and expectations that exist within a modern multi-cultural society and there exists a vast complexity of purposes for education.

That’s my cap-doffing to the broader debate.

In my own setting there are roughly three groups that we educate, each with their own perceptions on what education is for:

  1. Education for success – these families believe that the school system will give their children opportunities. Despite limited success at higher education themselves, they want that for their children.
  2. Education for happiness – these families just want their children to be happy. Often with negative experiences of their own time at school, they want their children to feel safe and content within school. Success is often linked with celebrity and being able to get the latest DVD before it is out at the cinema.
  3. Education for hardship – these families want their children to be able to survive. They tell their children “if someone hits you, hit back harder”. They often see school as that annoying place that phones the social worker too often. Sometimes there is illiteracy in the family.

While each of these groups have radically different expectations of society, and therefore the purpose of education, they do have one thing in common – they all need hope.

I am aware that for some, the word ‘hope’ has negative connotations. They think of ‘hopes dashed’ and this leads them to regret. However this is not ‘hope’ as in the aspirations you may have had, but the Hope that things can be better, or at least as good as they once were.

So how does this translate into teaching? The obvious answer is to start a new core subject of the National Curriculum and start running ‘Hope classes’. I’m joking.

Group 1 –  they need so much knowledge at the end of primary school that they can fly into secondary school and perhaps become the first in their families to go to university. Good teaching helps these children love their learning.

Group 2 – good teaching again leads to happiness. The families are surprised at how their child can be both happy and doing well in reading, writing and mathematics. They start to believe that maybe their child can learn enough at primary not just to ‘get through’ secondary school, but to do well there.

Group 3 – good teaching brings success for the child. The family is (in the main) proud of this success and begins to gain a faith in a previously-despised school system.

In each of these groups good teaching produces hope. Hope that things can be better than they were.

So, when I’m stuck I remember: bring Hope – teach well.