Monday, November 9, 2009

School's Out

It sometimes feels like I’ve run the full gamut of school-related experiences – from being kicked out of school at 17, to being invited back as a Governor. I frequently speak to students at universities around the world, but having an eternally curious granddaughter like Stella in my life has piqued my interest in the way primary schools approach the first few years of learning.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem we’re doing our children justice in this regard. Despite being one of the richest countries on earth, America’s education system is notoriously rife with difficulties. A recent in-depth report from Cambridge University on UK primary schools suggests a grim focus on state-determined curriculum and assessment is dampening childrens’ appetites for learning. The researchers recommend a new approach where formal learning begins age 6 (rather than 5), and that younger children be left to learn through play.

I’ve spoken here before about the importance (and fun!) of free-ranging play outdoors, and I think this principle remains the same in the classroom. Of course core frameworks are important – as long as they allow great teachers to inspire their young pupils to experiment, keep asking “why?”, and start coming up with their own answers. Sure, sometimes they’ll get it wrong. Sometimes they’ll get their hands dirty. But if their curiosity is sparked, they’ll develop a love and appreciation for learning as adventure that will last a lifetime.

I like the approach taken by President Obama in a recent speech to young American school children. Always big on hope and inspiration, the President pointed to where the best kind of education leads – discovery, innovation and creation. Not just retaining facts and ticking off boxes, but being able to take what you’ve learnt and use it to make something exciting and new that benefits everyone. His concluding questions put the future firmly in the hands of his young listeners:

“So today, I want to ask you, what’s your contribution going to be? What problems are you going to solve? What discoveries will you make?”

Fittingly, a bunch of open-ended questions best answered with imagination, not just textbooks.