Failing in Education

In June Hidden Giants and West Lothian Creative Learning Network will host Scotland’s first ‘Failing in Education’ conference as part of the 2015 Emporium of Dangerous Ideas.   The daylong event will take place at Howden Park centre and contain voices of those who have failed or are failing in West Lothian schools and beyond.

As I write the words ‘failed’ and ‘failing’ the fear folklores fill my thoughts.  Will the parents be up in arms?  Will the Head Teachers raise concerns?  What will the funders think?  Will the papers see an easy target?  Will the Scottish Government introduce a ‘no failing’ policy?

The term ‘failing’ within an education context has become synonymous with something that should be avoided by those who are determined to succeed at all cost.  This suffocating and mindlessness journey to succeed will un-doubtedly have casualty; the first is probably creativity.  Despite the many claims I’ve heard from those working in education of welcoming failure I’m yet to see much authentic evidence.  Unfortunately our current system is dominated by the perilous journey to the exam room where failure will not be tolerated.

My journey into a world of failing started many years ago through a collaboration with a playwright and a group of young theatre makers.  Together we created a scratch performance entitled ‘the project that might fail’.  Through a series of theatrical experiments we explored what it felt like to fail; mostly by caring for and destroying eggs.

Last year I felt failure for the first time in my professional life on a monumental scale.  A project devised for the Emporium of Dangerous Ideas went badly wrong and it could not be resuscitated.  I then had to stand in front of an audience and explain why it and I had failed.  It was ugly, uncomfortable but incredibly cathartic.

As a result of this experience, and some others in 2014, Hidden Giants and West Lothian CLN decided to better understand how failure manifests itself within our education system.  Since January four creative practitioners have been working with four classes and their teachers to explore failing and risk within their learning environments:

  • Philippa Clark has explored ‘impossible tasks’ with Williamston Nursery
  • Julian Pearly has explored musical disruption with P6 in Dedridge Primary
  • Matthew Sowerby has experimented with the unknown with S1 and S3 CDT classes in James Young Academy

I’ve had the privileged and one of the best learning experiences of my career working alongside the P3’s and their teacher in Dedridge primary.  Much of what has happened will be discussed at the conference.  We hope the children will invite delegates to join them in their continual hunt for fairies.

Friday was my penultimate session with the class.  Their task was to convince me (an adult and non-believer) to believe in fairies.  The morning session was full of imaginative, explorative and insightful learning.  We worked mostly on the carpet, we told stories and we learned together.   One boy decided a great storyteller was someone “who could put images in your head; the more detailed the images the better the story”.  The children were at play and constructing their own learning through it.

After the interval I asked them to work in groups to create a story based on the time they saw a fairy.  I asked them to work at their desks, gave them paper/pens, and 3 instructions:  everyone would tell part of the story, it should include sound and movement, and they could use any part of the classroom to perform.  I didn’t realise it until 10minutes into the task but the learning had become adult led and the unwritten rules of the classroom had started to derail the children’s natural ability to play:

  • The ‘better’ or ‘more confident’ writers emerged as leaders
  • The boys struggled to sit at desks
  • The ‘product’ the adult desired suffocated their creativity
  • The pen and paper became shackles. Their limited written vocabulary stifled their imaginative vocal vocabulary
  • The desire for correct sentence structure over took their curiosity about the subject matter
  • The disruptive behaviour, due to not being included, was evident
  • Their play had become formalised by the rules

Their stories were weak in comparison to the improvised ones seen in the morning session.   I think they realised this as well.  Unfortunately we ran out of time to unpick what had happened.  Luckily golden time started and the classroom was returned to its rightful state – child led.  The boys wrestled their action men figures, two girls drew, others made Lego, as the teacher floated between them.   They were curious, imaginative, problem solving, collaborative, playful, resilient, and deciding their own success criteria.   We forget to value golden time as the moment in the week the children show us the true meaning of Curriculum for Excellence.  Maybe it should be extended to golden day, week, month, or even year?

Are we failing to place value on the real purpose of primary education; allowing children to be children for as long as possible?  Are we too quick to condition them into robotic exam sitting students or the adults we expect them to become?  Should we ban chairs and tables from P1 – 3 classrooms?  Should we be attentive to the ‘pictures in their heads’ rather than forcing them to see the curriculum in ours?

This year Finland will have a National failure day:  We’re not going national yet but West Lothian is a good place to start.  If you’ve ever failed in education or feel that education is failing then I invite you to join us at Howden Park Centre on Friday 12th June.  It might fail, in fact, if it doesn’t, I’ll be disappointed.

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