Like a number of Heads of School that I know, my personal experience of school as a student scarred (and maybe even scared) me. We all draw on our personal histories: demonic Physics teachers, psychotic Woodwork teachers and – of course – vindictive, sadistic PE teachers. Whilst these histories get added to and increasingly fictionalised over time (come on, it can’t have been THAT bad?), some scars remain. For me, one major scar was Science. Well, not Science per se but how we were lead by the nose through the world of Science.
It was akin to what I imagine it is like becoming a Freemason, or a Rosicrucian, or maybe working for Google. A series of initiations into hallowed mysteries that, one by one, will be revealed to you if you are deemed worthy. Mix together the potions, write out the magical incantation (underline the title, Winnard!) and write down the conclusions. No, not your conclusions, these conclusions. do it again until you get the experiment right! Then we will reveal more unto you and ye shall be bathed in our scientific magnificence… Ok, maybe that’s getting a little carried away.
Yesterday we had our school Science Fair. an anarchic, messy and very enjoyable gathering of young people sharing ideas they’ve explored. Lots of gunk and goo and whizz bang pop. They all shared what they had done (method) and what they found out (conclusions). Some tried to extract power from the acid in oranges, some explored refraction and some explored the effects of sleep deprivation. So far so good. Where things got ‘brain sticky’ was when we got to “So what?” and “Why is this important?”. I asked a few of the students what they thought they could now do with what they’d learnt. What could they apply their new knowledge to?
Clearly I was off script. ‘Er’ and ‘Um’ became the stock response, along with “Because we had to do it for the Science Fair”. And so (very much unlike me) I shut up, congratulated them all and moved on.
“If all you do is concentrate on the learning… at the end all you will have is the learning. Nothing has changed. What was once learned elsewhere has been learned again here. Like a rapidly multiplying virus, you have simply infected more people with ‘stuff’ which, under the microscope, is a carbon-copy replica of the same stuff in the heads of thousands of children up and down the country and which will be extracted during a ‘routine examination’ and sent away to the exam board for analysis like sputum in a phial”.
How different – and how much more meaningful – would that Science Fair have been if it had encouraged innovation and making? I’m a big fan of making. I think making is a good thing and we do too little of it in schools. We learn about making, we watch people make stuff (field trips) and we sometimes write about what we would make if we could. But actually building, moulding, constructing andmaking stuff? Not so much. there was so much energy in those young people and clearly a lot of excitement about exploring the natural world. What was missing was change. Nothing had changed.
So what’s stopping us (apart from excuses)? What’s stopping us from developing young people as innovators, problem solvers and makers of solutions. Am I missing something? Yes there are extraneous forces at work and yes that sucks, but if change doesnt come from innovative teachers in classrooms where will it come from?
What is it that Buddha is supposed to have said? “To know but not to do is not to know”. Let’s make sure we inspire a generation of active do-ers and not just passive knowers.