Cara Flanagan in Psychology Review comments that ‘it is not high self-esteem that brings about good academic performance’, rather ‘it is the belief that you can acquire the necessary skills to be successful’. This sums up much of current thinking about how students can develop resourcefulness, responsibility and independence and avoid the pitfalls of a fixed mindset by developing a range of positive learning styles and dispositions.
In fact, these ideas are not a particularly new concept, in his seminal 1976 work Teaching Thinking, Edward de Bono explains that thinking and learning is about ‘knowing how to deal with situations […] planning, decision-making, looking at evidence, guessing, creativity’ as much as it is about ‘exploring experience and applying knowledge’. At Northampton High we want to support all this by fostering our students’ ability to devise and control their own learning. We aim to enhance their understanding of what drives and motivates them, for example, through our 360 Degree Me programme, which encourages them to look at themselves from all angles, as learners and individuals with distinct ambitions and potential.
Last year’s 360 Me Day proved effective in altering the students’ perceptions about what is really important to them personally, so this year we wanted to go a step further and challenge them to take responsibility for managing the learning experience for themselves. The result has been our 360 Challenge Day to take place in July at Wicksteed Park in Kettering, a charitable trust whose cultural and historic significance in the area offers rich educational possibilities for this project.
Lead organiser and Head of Biology Russell Attwood says, ‘the focus of the day will be developing the attributes that are so important for school and life in general, such as resilience, teamwork, independence, planning, time management and leadership’. Students will be working autonomously in the Park on thematic projects that they have chosen themselves, in small groups from the same House. Each group will have pupils from across Key Stage 3 which will give them the challenge of collaborating with others and Year 9 students will be given the responsibility of taking the lead and supporting the younger girls. In the weeks leading up to the project each group has been given time to plan every aspect of their day: from what they need to wear and bring with them, what and where to eat, to how they will find the information for their projects and ultimately their presentations to the rest of the House.
What would we like the students to gain from their experiences at Wicksteed Park? I would say that character and grit would appear fairly high up on the list of hoped-for advantages, along with a deeper sense of how they learn to adapt and cooperate. In terms of outcomes, we do not expect every project to be an outright triumph in terms of preparation or execution, but for learning to be really successful, according to Professor Guy Claxton, there needs to be an element of ‘uncertainty and experimentation; having a go, seeing what happens and gradually improving’. This process is essential for personal growth and develops character, which is hugely important in helping students achieve self-reliance in their learning.
A single day of challenge, albeit as part of an ongoing commitment across the school to the education of the individual student via the 360 degree philosophy, will not suffice to embed the ‘crucial attitudes and capabilities’ Claxton refers to. For this reason, we have looked to develop our wider curriculum to help create a more creative and self-reliant community of life-long learners in our school. To do this we have subtly adjusted the timetable, without having to change the overall timings of the day, through what we call the Radically Enriched Curriculum (REC). This new REC period after lunch has allowed us to reposition PSHE lessons and opens a new window for co-curricular activities where we can stretch and challenge student outlook and ambition. The timing also allows for a community of learners within the staff, with regular slots for peer-led training, discussion groups and working parties. As an important side effect, we have also been able to match up the Junior and Senior School timetables more efficiently, which we hope will lead to even more opportunities for innovative cross-phase and transition activities.
Leona Heimfeld, Stretch, Challenge and Creativity Coordinator, comments that her personal challenge ‘is to stretch the students beyond their own expectations’. She explains that this involves building ‘complexity of character, developing skills not easily learned in the curriculum-based classroom: the thrill of collaboration, the social responsibility of group work, physical and vocal self-confidence, the power of creativity and imaginative spontaneity’. The programme is geared towards providing a series of unique projects that mesh in with students’ ambitions for the future and links with our careers programme, Inspiring Futures. There is also a hugely important role for pastoral wellbeing in Leona’s opinion: ‘My studies have shown that creative projects offer much needed opportunities for de-stressing, with time to daydream and ponder reflectively’.
Essentially, by approaching this from a whole-school standpoint we give students and teachers opportunities to work together as equals. Assessment is not an agenda item within REC, so the focus is entirely on what is important to the educational process within a cooperative, flexible and yet individualised framework. We believe this will deepen the students’ enjoyment of learning through an appreciation, or ideally, a love of difficulty and challenge, a readiness to experiment and a real understanding of how to criticise and improve their work without being self-critical or negative about their potential for success. The idea of silencing the inner critic was a hot topic at this year’s Girls’ Day School Trust Conference where outgoing Chief Executive, Helen Fraser, called on students to release their ‘inner cheerleader’ instead. Likewise, for teachers, this approach is designed to encourage them to review their whole attitude to pedagogy beyond the REC programme, increasing student freedoms and allowing them to make as many decisions as possible to shape their own learning experiences.
Professor Tanya Byron, writing in the foreword to Claxton and Lucas’s book Educating Ruby: What our children really need to learn, comments that we need to rethink our school systems ‘to help our children get ready for the challenges and opportunities they will face’. At Northampton High we take this role very seriously; we do encourage our students to take the 360 degree view and, in fact, this is the approach we expect everyone in the school to take when it comes to intellectual self-image. To paraphrase Professor Claxton himself, we are not in the business of ‘grinding out results’, we are an open-minded community of learners and we wish to be a mill of aspiration, individuality and creativity. These are the attributes that will get our children ready for the future.
Flanagan, Cara; in Psychology Review, Volume 1.3, February 2006
de Bono, Edward; Teaching Thinking, Penguin, 1976
Claxton, Guy; in Creative Teaching and Learning, Volume 6.2, May 2016
Claxton, Guy and Lucas, Bill; Educating Ruby: What our children really need to learn, Crown House Publishing, 2015