Set Your Compass: Share Your Direction

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All too often we don’t co-construct our curriculum with the children in our class. What occurs is a complete lack of clarity about where, as a group of learners, we are heading. In fact the direction we are going in is all too often very much laid out for the learner – the route is set by the teacher and the outcomes are already known.

Curriculum planning in this vein doesn’t cater for the tangent or the divergent thinker- well it might entertain it briefly but will eventually settle back on the steady path to where we were always going.

Curricular of this ilk are not setup for serendipity. If I knew exactly the music that was going to be played on the radio all of the time, well in advance and had no control over it, I would miss out on those beautiful moments when you hear a wonderful track that hasn’t been played for ages and there you are in that completely unexpected moment savouring every note.

Much of this is to do with teacher control and the lack of willingness to let go of the reins and venture from the path a little. But it is also to do with a lack of ambition about what we plan, many models of curriculum, as well as units of work, are legacy systems:

A legacy system is an old method, technology, computer system, or application program that continues to be used, typically because it still functions for the users’ needs, even though newer technology or more efficient methods of performing a task are now available.

If the direction of a unit is already laid out, involving the learner in the direction is fruitless, for the learner at least, for no alteration can be made anyway.

In his book How Children Fail, John Holt reflected in 1958:

It has become clear over the year that these children see school almost entirely in terms of the day-to-day and hour-to-hour tasks that we impose on them. This is not at all the way the teacher thinks of it. The conscientious teacher thinks of himself as taking his students (at least part way) on a journey to some glorious destination, well worth the pains of the trip.

He continues to explain that he recognises a disconnect with what we as teachers perceive as a learning journey and how children truly see this. How many schools do you think could still be described in these terms?

At one of our partner schools in South London the pupils of Rosendale Primary School negotiate their learning. They have a clear direction and input into the course that is going to be set – not only that they have the ability to define how they get there. The pupil’s prior knowledge, skills, interests and passions are the starting point for much of the project learning that takes place.

With a vested interest the pupils at Rosendale have a much clearer understanding of the learning as a journey – they know what needs to be done and have made choices that help to define this and make it real and meaningful to them. It is not simply a set of tasks imposed on them by a legacy system.

Most of the time with these more open models we have to set our course into the unknown a little, we have to be willing to take the path less trodden.

When the teachers and Year 3 and 4 pupils of Thorney Close Primary School took on the challenge of running their own TEDx we didn’t know if we would be successful, there were a great deal of unknowns. At one point we didn’t have a venue because Take That were playing at the Stadium of Light!

With uncertainty often comes failure and we felt that for real and so did the children, but would they learn from it – absolutely!

Here are some reflections on the process by one of the teachers involved:

I learnt to trust the children and to let them go in the direction they want, trust that they’re going to make the right decisions with a little bit of guidance but not as much structure as we normally would give. So to sit back more and to listen more, and just ask the odd few questions – without waiting for that answer that the teacher wants to hear.

One of my favourite ways to describe this sense of a general direction, unclear and yet thoughtfully open, is the idea of a “fuzzy goal”. Taken from the opening to the wonderful book Gamestorming by Sunni Brown, David Gray and James Macanufo – a fuzzy goal can both describe our philosophical approach to change as well as the direction of a student led unit.

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