We are all learners here…

I have written about the “equipment” that we need to take with us on our journey through life. Whichever metaphor we choose, ensuring that we have the best personal, mental and physical tools enables us to face and overcome challenges now and in the future.

Schools can get locked into rigid thinking through systems that are introduced as whole school initiatives. However, greater value is found in exploring the variety of ways that we can get children to think and behave more intelligently. This flexibility of thinking as a staff team, itself an intelligent behaviour (we model for the children!), leads to varied opportunities for them to tackle learning more effectively and successfully in the classroom, in PE and in the playground – and life in general.

Here are some of the techniques used throughout my school:

  • 3B4Me. In the Early Years this is called Stop, Think, Act. Before you go to the teacher for help, there are three steps you can take: Have you thought carefully about the problem? If you are still stuck, have you looked in a book for help or clues? If you are still stuck, have you asked a friend? If you are still stuck after these three steps, then you can ask the teacher. And even then, they may not tell you the answer…
  • Open Questions. They may not tell you the answer because they will use open questions: how, what, when, where, who and why. A question with any of these words at the start immediately engages any of us, children included, in deeper thinking and encourages wider use of language to describe what we know and therefore construct our learning – and that bit of educational psychology I’ll save for another day!
  • Positive Psychology. Not fluffy psycho-babble, but a contemporary branch of research that has brought about success for people by developing high positive emotion, engagement, meaning and good relationships. By focusing on strengths and what can be done to improve what needs developing we will all flourish.
  • WWW and EBI. “What Went Well” and “Even Better If”. Using positive psychology in the classroom is straightforward. Asking children these two questions about their learning allows them to identify strengths and areas for development in their own and, in peer assessment, other’s work. It leads to far more rapid progress and much better understanding.
  • The power of “yet”. “I can’t draw…yet”. “I can’t do take-away sums…yet.” By establishing a growth mindset, regcognising that challenges can be overcome eventually, enables staff and children to work on the steps to reach any goal. These steps may be few or many, but by setting achievable goals and knowing how to get there, learning becomes far more secure.

  • Regular feedback and assessment for learning. Thorough engagement occurs between pupil and staff through marking books, tutorials, parent-teacher meetings, transparency and our professional authority. This granular approach to understanding pupil progress coupled with more objective measures of progress means that we can know the children exceptionally well.

And before you think we have entered the rabbit hole, there are more techniques at our disposal and sometimes those well-used, traditional methods, like actually telling children what to do, work very well indeed.

We are equipping children with an intellectual toolbox which requires something for every eventuality, from thinking independently to listening to someone more wise teach, and everything in between.

We are excited about these and many other ideas that find their way into the classroom to enhance learning experiences. Because we are all learners here.

Is it all a question of balance?

Since September, every Wednesday evening bar the holidays, we hold Dads’ football in the Sports Hall.  From 8.00pm to 9.00pm, all are welcome.  We even have a couple of friends of Pennthorpe dads who enjoy the opportunity to run around (and out of breath) for an hour or so basically kicking a ball into a goal – or relishing the attempt.  We have had as many as 15 and so encouraged are we that now actual fixtures against other prep school dads’ football teams are being mooted!

Now, I do not wish to fall into stereotypical characterization of gender roles or deride either gender for its perceived foibles or idiosyncrasies.  Quite the opposite.   It is not for me  to explain why, or even demystify such significant and ancient rituals such as watching live sport or having hobbies involving things with engines or collections of shoes, hats or models of real life objects.

Last Friday’s item on the BBC concerning girls perception of self-worth highlights the importance we must place on balance for all children at Pennthorpe and recognition of the sense of self that each person has.


As schools we are a families, and as such we aim to provide the right pastoral care for all of its members.   And this doesn’t mean ballet for girls or rugger for boys; human beings are far more subtle and nuanced than that.  We understand that gender, personality and personal well-being all contribute to who you are as a learner – or indeed adult.   Therefore our approach to provision in the classroom, needs to recognise that need and interest vary from child-to-child, from week-to-week, day-to-day and even lesson-to-lesson.

Planning for this nuanced, tailored approach to learning is challenging yet is achievable.  It lies at the heart of how we can redefine prep school education and it is one of the keys to the excellence, academic and pastoral, that is our commitment as schools.  We do this through:

Thorough knowledge of the children and their families

Tracking and record keeping of progress both pastorally and academically

Reporting back at regular intervals

This cycle – or upward spiral – of preparation, experience and reflection propels each child forward.  As I discussed last week, the focus on happiness, coupled with the expectation to try your best in all aspects of school life and a desire to focus on the identity of each child, is what leads to successful outcomes.  We recognise shared purpose and understand that you are celebrated for who you are.  Not a lazy stereotype, but a complex, unique individual who has a great deal of potential and much to offer.

Can you have your cake and eat it too? 


Joy and friendship: at the heart of learning

Do you know that happy children learn?  Of course you do.  You are probably a parent, teacher, grandparent, uncle, aunt, sports coach or other adult in the privileged position to witness the progress that children can and do make when they are enjoying themselves.  It is well documented that the hormones dopamine and serotonin are both involved with executive function, memory and learning.  Both hormones are also linked with pleasure, mood and gratification.  It is no wonder then that the oft-used, and perhaps over used, notion that “happy children learn”, holds some truth.  Yet as is often the case with aphorisms the truth lies deep within the words.

Paradoxically, learning also takes place fairly effectively when you are under stress.  However, the stress hormone, cortisol, creates memories of short term events and can impede their retrieval.  You can recall those more stressful lessons at school or in life, you know that the experience wasn’t pleasant and you will probably struggle to recall the details clearly.  But whether it was long division, conjugating Latin verbs or driving a car, there is something that we have retained, under conditions of high stress, in our memories that have proved valuable later in life.

What, then, is the best way to encourage learning to take place, to make this effective and to ensure that it lasts?  Looking to the classroom, or the experiences that our children are exposed to in life, we have spent much ink, digital and otherwise, exploring the ideas of risk and resilience; asking questions of our practice as teachers or our skills as parents: are we protecting our children too much?  are we exposing them to too little risk?  will they be emotionally and psychologically tough enough to cope with the “real” world? will they have “grit” and will we be culpable if they fall apart later in life?

Certainly it is more widely reported that the Millennial generation (young people generally in their late teens to late twenties) have a changing approach to work and life, different value sets and life goal aspirations.  But this difference is beyond the remit of this article and has been explored extensively elsewhere.  By Simon Sinek, for instance: https://youtu.be/hER0Qp6QJNU.  However, what is important to bear in mind is that we are working in real time with real young minds who have very real futures ahead of them.  And this future will be as a citizen of a rapidly changing and changeable world, with a degree of uncertainty that will require the “grit” and determination that we all understand will help to reinforce them when the going gets tough in their future.

It is not merely a fanciful notion that we can make children happy all the time and they will learn what they are presented with.  At Pennthorpe we use a combination of tools to ensure that pupils recognise the possibilities in front of them.  These offer a platform for intellectual and emotional growth through initiatives such as Learning to Learn, Philosophy for Children, teacher and peer mentoring and a growth mindset approach to both teaching and learning.  What we are aiming to do is to equip children – or perhaps more accurately the future adults who these children will become – with the mental tools to feel confident, capable and unafraid.  Happy to learn to cope with and overcome any challenge that they face; to enjoy, and above all relish, the opportunity to try something easy as well as hard.  Ultimately we want children to embrace in the real world what Kipling wrote in ‘If’: to “meet Triumph and Disaster, And treat those two imposters just the same…”.

Old School Ties

I found this from way back, 28th June 2007, and thought I’d share (or re-share).  It concerns a report on 11+ schooling being the greatest indicator of future success.

The Sutton Trust have relesed the results of a survey indicating that leading professional people are more likely to have been educated independently.  In particular, schooling post 11 is the great…

Source: Old School Ties

What are the most essential Leadership qualities?

img_1894What do you think we ought to introduce to young people as the most essential leadership qualities?  Our pupils are at the start of their journey in this rapidly changing world, so how can we effectively direct their experience and understanding as they make sense of it?

Ultimately, we wish our children to grow up as decent, kind, intellectually and socially engaged individuals; keen to contribute and be productive in society.  In order to do this we want them to gain experience in all these areas by the time they complete their journey with us at school.  Yet the contemporary concept of leadership requires careful thought and application when introduced.

So when it comes to transmitting key messages on strong, effective leadership or the characteristics of good leaders and role modelling to others, distilling the essence and expressing this succinctly (unlike this sentence) is key.  Especially for my Year 8s.

Therefore, at the start of a new school year (just), I thought I would dispense my years of collected wisdom.  Or rather summarise as succinctly as possible and get to the core quickly.  Not for them a long diatribe on the qualities of leaders through the years.  I felt I should forgo waxing lyrical about Shackleton or Cyrus the Great or other notable historical figures.  Instead, and hopefully more appropriately, a brief synopsis of 2 key books and then 4 key qualities that, for me, summarise everything a leader needs to possess.

The 2 books are Built to Last (Jim Collins & Jerry I Porras – on sustainable corporate leadership) and The Six Secrets of Change (Michael Fullan – on change management and taking people with you).  I shan’t elaborate further, but do commend both of them to you.

Empathy: Emotional Intelligence, NLP, good communication, listening skills: whatever the contributory factors, building rapport and sustaining relationships is a cornerstone of effective leadership.  Whether this is with direct reports or with your bosses, understanding people and the world around you, and all this entails, is essential for strong leadership.

Humility: Recognising that as a leader you are a part of a larger system, albeit a significant part and possibly architect of that system, is the next quality.  Suppressing ego, leading as a servant, giving and not just taking will give greater satisfaction and resulting in lasting impact.

Flexibility: Strategy and planning are essential – a clear, unambiguous vision are non-negotiable.  However, leadership requires acceptance that both internal and external factors may have an effect on the direction you take to achieve that vision.

Resilience: Finally, of all the characteristics that are put forward, arguably the most significant is coping with all that the exposure of the role of leader throws at you.  The politics, the pressure, the knowledge that you are generally alone as a leader as far as decision-making is concerned all lead to the need to be mentally and emotionally strong.

I am certain, in fact hopeful, that there are other characteristics that ought to be introduced early to young people.  I am interested in finding out.  What do you think?

Purpose or priority: Can the curriculum really deliver both technological & ecological literacy?

IMG_0896Whether its “a rapidly changing world” or “the 21st Century”, “children of the Millennials” or “Generation Alpha”, our curriculum design has a target audience. As educators we have always been committed to preparing the young people in our care for the world they inhabit now and for that which they will meet beyond their time in formal education.

For me, this begs the question: Can a techno-centric curriculum be reconciled with a values-led approach delivering the learning experiences for the future we want and our children will inhabit?

Curriculum design & subject leadership can come together to deliver learning that satisfies the needs of the head and the heart. It doesn’t require everyone to be immersed in systems thinking to establish a holistic approach to learning. What is needed is some straightforward joined up thinking that connects learning at school with the purpose of living a full and productive life outside and beyond it.

For example:

  • Learning to code but have no interest in programming? Understand that inside an increasing number of everyday objects (the “internet of things”) will be devices which someone somewhere has made do something really clever – for you. Its not magic, it can be understood along with its relevance to you.
  • Learning about ecosystems but hate biology? Understand that living things are interconnected and that the flow of energy, carbon, water, etc is a continuous cycle. You are a part of an enormous whole.
  • Learning about settlements but can wait for Games? Understand that planning for humans in an ever growing global population has to take into consideration health and well-being, amenities, parks & open spaces as well as sustainable resource management.

By asking questions, like these and others, and committing to the journey of trying to find answers, we can deliver more purposeful, exciting and dynamic learning experiences for our pupils and more interesting and relevant places to work.