“Reading, writing and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.”
This extract from a letter penned by a holocaust survivor and published by the man (I believe) behind the ‘you are the weather’ passage Dr Haim Ginott was part of the concluding comments from David George today during a very packed session on developing Gifted and Talented learners.
I have to say from the outset that I tend to resist the term Gifted and Talented as I’m never sure that any sort of label is useful, even one that is designed to be positive and the idea of most able, or least is too finite for me and is, I think one of the factors that causes teacher expectancy to be a limiting factor. David (is this overfamiliar? referring to someone who was so amiable and was stood about 50m away as George seems a little rude), however, made the point very early on that the methods we use for those we identify as fitting this profile equally help us to support all learners and as I see all my students as gifted and talented – even if they haven’t worked out what in yet – my prejudices were calmed (!) and I thoroughly enjoyed the session.
We spent around three hours with David at Pakefield High School who had kindly invited all of our teaching staff along and as this was a range of material that he would normally spend a day or so on compacted into this time there was a lot shared with us and I couldn’t hope to cover it all (he has a number of books you can buy!) so here are a couple of points that stood out for me as we went through. There’s more, and I may return to this once I plough through some more of the materials but it’s the first day and I need an early night!
The first thing that struck me was David’s clear passion for young people and the absolute joy that he took from working with them and helping schools to do their very best for them. He talked of the 17% of time that students spend in school in comparison to the 33% asleep and the remaining 50% where their influences are outside of our control. These sort of figures always interest me and I think understandably lead some to feel powerless. The same can be said for the idea that most of the brain’s patterns are set up by the time we are around five which reinforces the idea of ‘recordings’ written about in I’m OK, You’re OK by Thomas A Harris. What are we supposed to do then?! I have two responses to this. One is that it potentially undervalues the input from other sources – yep some parents aren’t exactly reinforcing the messages we might want, or are less able to help with homework than others but I’m fairly sure they all want what’s best for their kids and the other is that we can draw on what the students are doing outside of school and use it for a number of purposes. At it’s simplest level it allows you to do what David summed up as ‘smile’ and have a point of connection with students, it also provides opportunities to make the learning relevant and real by linking the classroom with the world outside as Alistair Smith pointed out forever ago in terms of accelerating learning and furthermore it provides a springboard for learning outside kicked off as David George would put it by ‘always ending the day with a question mark, never a full stop.’ Send them off with more to discover, more to find out and a passion for learning that exists beyond the lesson.
Another thought that hit home to me was the need for classrooms to be creative, active places. We were shown a couple of exercises designed to stimulate thinking and where students were encouraged to assess each other’s work based solely on how creative or unusual they were with no reference to grading criteria or exam specification but rather the classroom is a place for discovery and developing thinking and thinkers. David talked about the importance of learning to learn and metacognition and explained some examples of how schools had allocated half an hour at the end of each Friday to develop thinking skills. It wasn’t his suggestion that this is sufficient and should only happen here but my concern around this has always been ensuring that this isn’t seen by staff or students as where metacognition is developed as we need to make it part of every lesson if it is really going to change things for us. Either way his choice of Oscar Wilde quotation that ‘Facts are like fish, they soon go off’ was one that made me smile and definitely had resonance in the face of a curriculum that seems to want us to focus almost entirely on facts and at times facts that seem to be geared to create an history (and future?) I’m not sure I recognise. As did his observation that classrooms are full of repetition and revision while we as teacher bemoan a lack of time as was one that echoed conversations I know I have had previously.
I’m conscious that you may be after some hints and tips and strategies and so far I’ve mainly been talking about principles. I generally think that it’s the principles and ethos that we can establish together and how you translate that into practice is part of where the ownership and (sorry) job satisfaction and enjoyment comes, it’s also where the creativity of us as teachers can come through and we can have some fun. David spoke of how we need to show our enthusiasm to our students and that enthusiasm I would hope would be for the students themselves as much as for a subject. The etymology of enthusiasm he explained is enthous which is a Greek concept of having a god within or being possessed by a god and this god within allows us to show how much we care. I’ve always been a firm believer and shouty advocate of the importance of relationships in the classroom and today we were taken back to Maslow and the link between raising self esteem and raising achievement.
I was also interested in the way in which he suggested language should be used carefully to raise the level of challenge as this synced well with the use of taxonomies of learning to structure learning outcomes and questions (he used Blooms for this but I’ve recently seen the same provided for SOLO) which I’ve known staff both in school and on TEEP training with success but what was new was his reflection that these are all verbs and so are children – they learn by doing.
There were some things that raised questions for me. In particular was the idea that in one school which is seen as a model of good practice the G and T students are taken from lessons once every ten days for extension activities which made me wonder why we don’t have a curriculum that allows for this within lessons and the impact on the rest of the class of removing these who must be a great group for creating a buzz around the classroom, taking others forward with them.
As I’ve said the whole idea of students being SEN, intervention, borderline or G and T always makes me wonder about whether the titles are informative or restrictive but maybe this is because the method for identification is too narrow which was something David mentioned during his session.
The idea he advocated from time to time, of single sex education, if not throughout at least in the run up to exam years is something that I might not be convinced of but could be worth further exploration. I can see how texts and so on can be more male or female and remember how ‘The Long and the Short and the Tall’ worked excellently for a male heavy class who were all standing with rifles and delivering the lines within our jungle hut/classoom. To the same degree I wouldn’t want to lose the civilising influence and often greater work ethic that comes with female students. Or maybe this is as limiting as the labels I have bemoaned twice now in this post?
The thing that struck me most though and has probably come across most in this post was the enthusiasm for students and life in general and the message from a man who’s refrain on a number of occasions was ‘Life is Wonderful’ and the excitement and joy that we should get from working with children. He ended with the poem below which was attributed to Nelson Mandela but I’ve since discovered while looking for the text is actually from the poet Marianne Williamson and I think there’s something there for us as teachers who need to relish in our own light and through it help the light shine in others.
Our Deepest Fear
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness
That most frightens us.
We ask ourselves
Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small
Does not serve the world.
There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking
So that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine,
As children do.
We were born to make manifest
The glory of God that is within us.
It’s not just in some of us;
It’s in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine,
We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we’re liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.
In a morning jampacked with quotations and references it’s probably no surprise that we also had Shakespeare. It’s one of my favourites and it replaces our usual music video at the end of the post. As you listen to it try to rediscover the mirth that inspections, curriculum changes and politicians try to take from us and just imagine the piece of work being the students in your classes and how we get to be part of helping them realise, develop and explore those infinite faculties.
Lots of Love