The novel subjects injected into the primary school curriculum in Malta, along with the core subjects such as maths, English and Maltese remind me of packed stalls at a chintzy flea market. There are literally all kinds of ‘subjects’ being introduced to 7- to 10-year-olds in their schools – seasonally peppered subjects for short bursts of time. Children try their hands at Lego once a week for two weeks or a term. Then at coding, then drama, swimming…The list goes on.
From yoga to yodelling, my children have tried a rainbow of things in their school – a regular primary. This week – it’s building with Lego, according to one child I had interviewed, “to see who will make the best castle” (I wonder who will vote it “the best”). Next week – children are asked to write a monologue for a fictional puppet character. My eldest loved swimming for the two weeks he had it. That stopped now. He also liked yoga before that. That stopped, too.
I wondered why all these novel ideas are thrown in, yet they get changed so soon before the children have had a full grasp of anything. Is the aim to give children a wider perspective for what is available out there? Does this colourful introduction of all kinds of ‘novel’ subjects derive from a bigger need to make schools more exciting? To re-engage a disengaged child? Aren’t schools adding more than is already necessary? And now enter the digital tablets…on top of the already available desktop computers, and the robotic turtle, and the interactive white board, and the yoga, and the yodelling…
This article aims to, first, underline one particular rather old and enduring problem and, two, to suggest that there are other ways of engaging youngsters in something more practical, creative, hands-on, and long lasting than turning schools into flea markets for fear of losing children’s focus.
For the first aim, I could use an analogy with play since play often interweaves with/involves/leads to learning. There is only so much a child can play at one go in the presence of a load of toys. Kids usually pick and play with one or two things at a time. In fact, they can obsess with one thing for a very long time. Maria Montessori describes a particular case in her My System of Education (1915). That one thing can be as simple as a stick. A broomstick turned into a horse as a child might imagine it (Vygotsky, 1978). A child may sit and play with a stick, maybe poke mud with it – even better.
From that analogy, the question follows: Why schools add so much more on top of what there is already? Moreover, none of these new additions ever remain for longer than two weeks. Last term my two younger children (6 and 5) had a week of reading classical stories gone wrong. The Three Little Pigs bully the wolf (not that they didn’t at the end of the original version anyway), Jack and the jellybeans…That ‘session’, of course, ended. I’m sure that there is an objective in telling children to question why, for example, princesses always have to be rescued in the classical stories and encourage them to flip the plot around. But the problem is not with the quirky sub-themes or new subjects being thrown into the syllabus like a newly purchased cartoon-character-themed fidget spinner after the latest blockbuster release on the big screens.
The enduring issue relates to two tightly connected unchangeable conditions that can potentially limit the scope and affordances of any toy, tool or topic that may be introduced into the classroom. The first one is the linear and methodical way knowledge seems to be ‘imparted’ to the children in class. The teacher teaches; the children sit quietly to be taught. The teacher tells what the children have to build with Lego. The teacher tells the story of Jack and the jellybeans. The teacher picks ideas from Pinterest for tomorrow’s crafts class in which the children have to make a Valentine’s Day card. But children have agency – just see how they can turn a simple stick into a horse. Children have ideas. More than that, Seymour Papert says in his The Children’s Machine: Rethinking school in the age of the computer (1993), children don’t just have ideas, they make them. This linearity should change, especially in the presence of so many new tools entering the classroom.
The second issue – serving the first – relates to the very organisation of the children’s chairs and desks. Even with all the artwork and designs plastered all over the walls, classrooms are still very much the ‘factory’ type arrangement. See the images below, by courtesy of Jan S. Gephardt.
The physical and social organisation in a classroom is rigidly structured, favours standardisation, and is predominantly instructional. This can limit individual and group creativity, independence and individual agency.
Children have the right to be heard. Not while anticipating failure or judgment but by encouraging them to look forward to a goal. Jennifer Pei-Ling Tan (2008) conducted a great study which highlights the type of learning dispositions that motivate students to learn. This takes on from Carol Dweck’s work (2000) on self-theories which posit that people pursue two types of goals. Performance goals focus on “winning positive judgments of your competence and avoiding negative ones” and learning goals – the desire to develop “new skills, master new tasks or understand new things” (Dweck, 2000, p. 16).Where individuals put priority on their performance goals, they seem to leave little room for trial and error, alternative modes of answers, testing things out and taking risks. In other words, they leave little room for creative explorations.
A learning goal can link with a project. Projects suggest making something. And while making with Lego pieces or writing a monologue for a talking tomato are also great ideas, these have to have some form of connection with the child and his or her interests, personal understanding and knowledge and motivations. This, of course, is not to propose the restructuring of the whole educational system. It is a proposal to make time and create opportunities – a workshop amalgamated into or replacing the usual ICT lesson that follows the linear methodical distribution of knowledge – where children can group in two or three, self-organise, and self-direct to create their own projects, stories, objects, gifts, and so on. This is not to say that children must be left to their own devices. Teachers – as facilitators, coaches and mentors – matter greatly in such a self-organised arrangement. Not as a dictator or necessarily the sole leader but as a partner in a team where roles are flexible and those who fulfil them can change.
Sugata Mitra (2005) conducted a ground-breaking study on self-organised learning. He says: “It’s not about making learning happen, it’s about letting it happen” (Mitra, 2007, TED Talk). How we organise the learning experience will let learning happen.
David Gauntlett, my PhD supervisor, developed a creative method where children demonstrated their knowledge and awareness of environmental issues by making their own personal videos (Gauntlett, 1997). What better way to let a child learn than to ask him or her to build and make things! But not according to what the teacher wants and assigns, although a teacher’s suggestion, direction, and advice may come as a precursor to the child’s own ideas to start flowing, but with the child’s initiation, perspectives, and agency.
Can schools make room for making? Creativity, as my professor has said, is a means to self-expression and an everyday experience (Gauntlett, 2007). Schools must make room for children to self-express and not necessarily in accordance with the teacher’s expectations but as the children see and think.
- Dweck, C. (2000). Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality and development. London and New York: Routledge.
- Gauntlett, D. (1997). Video Critical: Children, the Environment and Media Power. John Libbey Publishing.
- Gauntlett, D. (2007). Creative explorations. Cambridge: Polity Press.
- Mitra, S. (2005). Self organising systems for mass computer literacy: Findings from the ‘hole in the wall’ experiments. International Journal of Development Issues, 4 (1), 71-81, https://doi.org/10.1108/eb045849
- Montessori, M. (1915). My system of education. New York: The House of Childhood, INC.
- Papert, S. (1993). The children’s machine: rethinking school in the age of the computer. New York: Basic Books.
- Tan, J. P. (2008). Cognitive playfulness, creative capacity and generation ‘C’ learners. Cultural Science, 1 (2), 1-7.
- Vygotsky, L. (1978). Interaction between learning and development. In: Gauvain, M. and Cole, M. (eds.). Readings on the development of children. New York: Scientific American Books, 34-40.