Looking forward

Learning for and in the future

Students at Putney High School working with iPads in their Art lessons.

Suzie Longstaff (Putney High School) encourages the modernisation of classroom strategies.

The recent climate strikes have thrown a spotlight on how today’s young people are more politically and globally aware than the generations before them. The spirit of youth activism is clearly alive and well with children foregoing their lessons and questioning their relevance in the face of more pressing existential concerns. And they may have a point. Our children are switched on in entirely new ways, not just digitally, but environmentally and even entrepreneurially, and if the education we provide is to stay relevant, our teaching really needs to move with the times.

Undoubtedly, schools have been fully immersed in helping students be the best that they can be. The recent sea change from modular to linear examining coupled with increased depth in the curriculum have raised academic demands. At the same time schools have been working hard to embrace the value of high calibre wellbeing provision, co-curricular breadth, service, community and environmental education. As educators, we are certainly trying to do a lot! But with children at their unhappiest in a quarter of a century, increasingly anxious parents and employers complaining about a lack of readiness for the workplace, does teaching need a rethink?

Recent reform has been increasingly politically driven, the sector is polarised in terms of funding levels and now, facing new threats. With social media and increased global connectedness, the students of today are quite literally taking on the worries of the world. They are not alone – their teachers are anxious too. With increased workloads, changes to the exam system and league table accountability, the pressures of the school years have taken on a whole new magnitude, even compared to a few years ago.

Putney High School Student Entrepreneurs meet in the Sixth Form Boardroom and present their ideas.

Students explore computer programming with Spheros at Putney High School.

In 1939, J. Abner Peddiwell published one of my favourite works of satire, The Saber-Tooth Curriculum and how strangely relevant it is almost 80 years on. The book’s key themes explore the relevance of outdated curricula using the model of a palaeolithic curriculum of fish-grabbing and tiger-scaring, to illustrate bodies of taught knowledge that are no longer of relevance and yet continuing to shape the way we educate. A useful curriculum needs to evolve, rather than plodding blindly on.

None of us want to be teaching a curriculum that is stuck in the Ice Age, especially when the ice is melting. It’s clear that when students learn outdated skills, they can’t find meaningful work - a glacial pace of educational change is simply not viable in the modern world. Our teaching needs to be as agile and adaptable as those it seeks to educate and in a climate where quite rightly, a pastoral lens is shone on everything we do - it also needs to be self-aware. Young people deserve to be offered a well-planned, thought-through, carefully delivered education by professionals who are accountable in increasingly transparent ways. But how do we decide what is worth studying and what is not? How are we to provide an education to a generation of climate change activists, digital whizzes, and the next generation of start-up entrepreneurs?

At Putney High School, we find the best approach is to be open-minded and forward-thinking. From PPE to debating, an active co-curricular programme and even an Entrepreneur in Residence to teach the skills and the resilience to succeed in the workplace, we are teaching students how to learn, how to think differently and most importantly to be future-ready. Of course we teach coding and equip them for a digital world – but we are also helping them to develop the curiosity and the critical thinking to become the thought leaders of tomorrow.

In his book The Learning Powered School (2011) Guy Claxton writes “If we do not find things to teach children in school that cannot be learned from a machine, we should not be surprised if they come to treat their schooling as a series of irritating interruptions to their education.” Every educationalist harks back to his or her own education even though, in its new context, its original utility may well have been lost. Since Eric Hirsch’s ideas came to the fore, and with them the prioritisation of key course content and a set of standardised, core knowledge, we have gone back to the approach of, “knowledge is key”. The end result has been a system that is clunky and could be seen as outdated, but challenging the perceived wisdom is no easy task.

Any discussion around a knowledge versus skills-based curriculum will vary enormously depending on who you speak to. According to business leaders, today’s school leavers are woefully ill-prepared for the demands not only of further education, but also the working world. There are questions on the true worth of a clutch of A*s, and how university admissions departments should distinguish between the reams of students with apparently equivalent grades, in a reduced selection of facilitating subjects. Can they be blamed for looking for something more and shouldn’t society be playing a more active role in how it prepares its children for their adult lives?

None of us know what the future holds but whether we are teachers, parents or governors, it is certainly in no one’s interest for pupils to view their time at school as a “series of irritating interruptions”. If students are frustrated, their future employers are no less so. Businesses are crying out for rounded applicants with broad knowledge, emotional intelligence and the creative, agile mindsets that will set them apart in our increasingly mechanised world. They want motivated, can-do employees who are quick to learn, but who also have the wherewithal to seek answers they don’t have and to learn from their mistakes. This shouldn’t be a tall order.

As educators it is beholden upon us to pull heads out of the sand, to fix sights firmly on the horizon and to confidently lead the way. What we need is to provide students with an education that embraces progress, is both modern and relevant and that still retains its firm academic basis. Let’s give our future leaders the keys to a positive future, but not at the expense of their relationships, mental health, the environment, or the many other issues that quite rightly really matter to this generation. Let’s embrace digital technology for all it has to offer, equip students with the toolkit to flourish in a fast-paced digital world, but give them the space and the wisdom to sit back and reflect on the ethics of it all.