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:  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’t 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.

On Outdoor Learning


It was a Spring day in 1994.  28 children plus assorted members of staff from a Primary school in Southampton were walking behind me through the woodland at the Environmental Education Centre in the New Forest where I used to work.  I’d walked these paths dozens of times, but this walk was different.  Each day primary aged children from a range of schools visited our woodland to go on mini beast hunts, learn about natural history and ecology and dip in our very large ponds.  This particular group had been staying at our nearby farm and residential centre where, each morning and evening, they would take turns on a rota of duties – milking cows and goats, feeding and mucking out the pigs, collecting eggs or helping in the kitchens.  Our aim was fairly unique at the time: to provide the children, whether on the residential trips or on day visits to the woods, an immersive experience.  Every opportunity we had to encourage learning was experiential – learning by doing and learning by being.  The outcomes were profound and the effects on the children were lasting.

Although we walked through the woods every day, when we had a residential group we would take them on one special and far deeper experience: a walk through the woods at night.  With no torches.  And not just that, the children (and staff) were left to sit alone (if they wished) or in pairs to be completely still and silent.  In fact the whole walk was taken without talking; the children and staff following quietly for perhaps half and hour, sometimes longer if the group were particularly responsive.  Again, the effect was profound.  The feedback from teachers was always one of amazement that their children had coped with so well with such a challenge, immersing themselves in an experience so decidedly alien from the lives that they usually led in the nearby towns and cities.
From that Spring Day nearly 22 years ago we can wind the clock forward and the world has developed and evolved around us.  It is far different now from anything that we, as  adults-parents-teachers, would be familiar with from our own childhoods.  Certainly the Y6 children on the walk with me that night in 1994 had a very different world to contend with – we’d only just started to hear about the internet, computers were still the size of a small suitcase and “mobile technology” generally meant carrying something heavy and expensive in a bag across your shoulders.  But even back in the 90’s we were already talking about the dearth of opportunity for children to play outdoors, health and safety regulations stemming the flow of fun in playgrounds and less and less sport played in schools.  We were also talking about human impact on our planet, the need for greater understanding about living sustainably and within our means and about the loss of natural habitats through the growth in housing and transport networks.  Messages as familiar now as they were 20 years ago.
I have now been teaching for 25 years and through this time I have witnessed the great cycle of educational innovation, fashion and revision that many of my older colleagues told me about when I first started out.  I was younger and found it hard to believe, yet now I have reached a point when I can reflect on what this has meant.   Yet, what fascinates and motivates me more, rather than the changes, is the consistency that has remained in teaching, learning and schools.  Good parenting has always embraced the idea of boundaries and cuddles.  Good teaching has always excited and enthralled, capturing imaginations and inspiring young people to excel.  And children have always been children: they are brimming with energy and limitless curiosity, discovering their world for the first time.  When it comes to the debate about the changes in childhood experience, the usual run of digital-age-related reasons can be rolled out.  Yet the “modern life” tag is overused and far too convenient – a lazy excuse, perhaps.  Children crave connection with the world around them.  They have a need to understand how it works, how they can influence it and how it influences them, from how to make friends and communicate to what happens when you poke a stick at something. As adults we are absolutely key in helping children make these connections and develop their understanding.  We have the opportunity (and responsibility) to provide them with experiences and guidance in these early years, establishing values and norms which will ensure that they are happy and productive throughout their lives.
IMG_0920The natural world is a visceral, real, messy and untidy experience, arguably well-suited to many children!  In the same way that vinyl is making a comeback, it is time to turn, or return, to the analogue world about us and find ways that children can experience the outdoors intimately, deeply and on a personal level, where it is just for them.  At the heart of this experience is the opportunity to just be outdoors with nothing more than sticks, logs, leaves, mud and perhaps a fire for cooking.  Schools have become enthralled by the Forest Schools movement, which aims to take children out into the natural world and use this as a place to develop a closer connection with the natural world, learn skills and and gain a sense of comfort and enjoyment “out of doors”.  However, true learning comes from experience and too much structure stifles creativity.  Therefore designing learning experience does not take much more equipment than a pair of sturdy boots and some clothes that can get grubby and generally protects against damp! The walks in the woods at night were amongst the most exciting learning experiences that I have delivered in my career.  There was no equipment, no learning objective or set of guidelines.  Just me, the children and the members of staff.
AIMG_0981t our school we are blessed with beautiful woodland and we try to make the most of this wonderful resource.  By playing or just being in the woods the children learn to create, to imagine and to care and the more that we can encourage this – at school or at home – the better their future will be for them.  We know that emotionally intelligent people become very successful, achieving more than those with higher IQs  Therefore, through an emphasis in learning outdoors, children develop empathy for the wider world and understanding their place in it.  It is a great way for children to grow the emotional capability to manage their life and their relationships better in the future.  They won’t know it now, but they will thank you for it later