The keys to life…

I’m currently sitting at home in my PE kit, a bit sweaty, and pretty tired, thinking of Will Smith. Or more specifically, his maxim “the keys to life are running and reading.” Why? Well, I’ve just returned from the first day back from School21, our small East London school based in Stratford, Newham. We’re going into our 7th year this year, which is hugely exciting as it is the first time ever we will be full, with an entire cohort of students from 4-18. Anyway, we ended our day today with an optional session with Run21, our staff/student running club.  This has been going for just one year, since the opening of our sixth form, Six21, and has gone from strength to strength with a core team of year 12 students (our oldest cohort) and staff from across the school running weekly though the year, joining in park runs, competing in running events including a couple of half marathons, and at one point getting a whole load of our wider school community to run 5k.I’m a pretty unenthusiastic runner at the best of times – I do it, with relative regularity, but have failed to get to a point where I actually enjoy it (yet).  I run partly as I’m a fan of Will Smith’s words, and partly as I suspect it may be good for me. But I just don’t enjoy it. I do, however, enjoy Run21. It is a wonderful, supportive, inclusive and challenging community; a collective striving to be better, work harder, run faster.  It is 100% a place of, as Will Smith says “learning to defeat that person […] learning how not to quit when things get hard”.Tonight we set out in the beautiful evening sun on our usual short warm up jog to the Olympic Park.  Chatting along the way, the runners (staff and students alike) caught up on summer exploits, lamented our lack of exercise in recent weeks and generally shared stories. The session tonight was organised and led entirely by five Six21 students, who not only came in on their holiday to do this (they don’t return until next week), but had also taken time to plan a session designed to bring together new and old staff and induct everyone into the ways of our club.On reaching the park, we stretched and then the students introduced the plan for the session – after a quick 400m run to set up balanced running pairs, we would run 4 minute bursts in relay around the course with our partner. Between each 4 minute burst, the students posed questions in our relay pairs about the values they perceived to underpin Run21; inclusivity, resilience, vulnerability, growth…  They talked briefly about their journeys with each and challenged us to consider the implications of these values in our wider lives. It was magic. The authentic (side point: making you have a really deep conversation when you’ve just legged it round a track leads to increased candour: discuss) discussions and probing questioning taking place pushed genuine reflection and realisation.But this was no coincidence.I saw in that session the wider purpose of our school in action.  These students embodied reflectiveness, empathy, grit and a desire to grow others (seriously, read the blogs I linked in above). These are students who have had a diet of deep exploratory learning, rich conversation and challenge both in and out of the classroom, and adult-to-adult relationships with each other and staff. And it got me thinking; what we prioritise in our classrooms is absolutely what we will see lived out in our students, our communities and our society.

Fighting the silent arguments: culture in the classroom

Many of the UK’s schools, and it seems inner city ones in particular, appear to agree that behaviour holds the key to successful teaching and transformational outcomes. Repeatedly, we hear teachers and politicians speak on the need for more stringent behaviour systems. The extreme end of this spectrum sees arguments for schools where behaviour is micromanaged to the action and even calls for beginner teachers to use scripted lessons so they can focus on behaviour management until they have that ‘toolkit’ as an automatic set of skills.

The issue this raises for me is that a developmental, learning culture and ‘behaviour’ often work in direct contradiction with each other; a school which says it wants to develop inquisitive, independent thinkers, yet develops teachers who control behaviour tightly, is screaming a ‘silent’ undermining counter-argument to their own cultural goals. With their words, their attributes and mottos they say ‘we want young people to think and act for themselves’ but with their actions, they say ‘we want young people to follow the establishment, not question it’.  And in a world where the establishment is becoming increasingly terrifying, we need to be extremely wary of this ‘silent’ argument that we make to young people. Of course, as teachers, we have an important responsibility to develop young people’s social skills, thoughtfulness and consideration of others. But instead of ruling by control, micromanagement and restriction, shouldn’t we be developing young people who can think, question and challenge for themselves within a realm of humanity and integrity?

In fact, when we focus on developing culture rather than controlling behaviour, we do far more for personal growth and development. As I’ve deepened my thinking on this, I’ve moved away from classroom rules and behaviour contracts and towards thinking about how everything I do makes an argument for cultural growth.  What does the way I set up a task say about the wider culture of my classroom? How do I interact with students and challenge actions that contravene wider cultural goals (both mine and theirs)? 

The difference for me, I believe, has come in the lens I view my classroom through when I think in terms of culture rather than behaviour. Behaviour is inward looking, shutting down and curtailing; culture is outward looking, focusing on what can, not what can’t. Behaviour is about control; culture is about community, crew, togetherness. Behaviour is about imposed beliefs; culture is about shared beliefs. Behaviour is about me and them; culture is about us. Behaviour is about stopping; culture is about doing.

Vitally, considering culture over behaviour is a shift in thinking more than a shift in actions. It doesn’t mean a classroom becoming a wild, unsafe space.  On the contrary, it means a classroom being a place where cultural norms are cultivated and fiercely, consistently protected.  So yes, that ‘toolkit’ mentioned above is of course a key element of pedagogy – I challenge, hold to account, restore and resolve as much as I always did, if not more – but what I protect, cultivate and underline are much more purposeful and positive. 

Fighting the silent arguments

On a practical level, the question I would pose to teachers over behaviour management and expectations in their classroom is simply, ‘why?’ What is the purpose behind the rules you impose and what ‘silent’ counter-arguments is imposing those rules making?

Cultural development comes through everything: curriculum design, interactions with students and teachers, group norms and expectations, lesson and activity design, experiences, assessment…the list goes on. For example, with my current year 11 class, who this week sit their final GCSE English exams, I have spent 2 years crafting a culture where risk taking and independence of thought are central to everything we do, and interpretation is king.

I had taught the group in year 8 and then not in year 9, picking them up again at the start of year 10. My cultural vision (a culture where risk taking and independence of thought are central to everything we do, and interpretation is king) was built out of where I wanted them to be as students of English by now (June 2018), as I leave them for their next steps.  My starting point as I planned for their year 10 was to ‘break’ my own norms of the classroom, questioning everything and making practical decisions against my cultural vision, stripping my thinking back to the class and an empty room. This meant reconsidering everything: the room set up, the use of a board, the ‘front’ of the classroom, the use of seating plans, how I mark and give feedback, my role within lessons, the structure of our terms/our year, what we spend our time doing. From this, I then set myself a short list of strict ‘freeing limitations’ to disrupt my own ways of working and my own contradictory silent counter-arguments. They were:

  1. There is no front to the learning space. Lessons take place in the round.
  2. In lessons, I am part of the group; I do everything they do.
  3. We won’t use the projector.
  4. We will study a text together, that none of us have prior knowledge or experience of.

I strictly worked to these limitations for 2 full terms. It was fascinating.  The limitations themselves forced me into fresh thinking and constant questioning. Of course, being in a circle and having no projector is not always the best way to teach, and neither is selecting a text I don’t have any prior knowledge of and intentionally avoiding learning about it in advance, but it made me rethink so many of the things that I had just done without thinking previously: the ‘silent arguments’ I was making by setting up my classroom in a certain way, and the pre-confirmed ideas about education that I was reconfirming in doing so.

Regarding that class, the ‘freeing limitations’ led to a place where we spent (for the whole 2 year course) much of our week sat in a circle, or in self-selected chosen analysis groups; where I regularly paired or group-wrote or discussed with students; where I wrote essays and exams with them, and we had brilliantly challenging debates over each other’s interpretations and ideas; where we comparatively assessed all our analysis, including mine; where we invested (really invested) in reflecting on how as much as what.  

It was a flat classroom, with no hierarchy of ideas. When anyone threatened the development of risk taking or independence, they apologised to the circle, not to me. And I was a guardian of this culture, not a controller of behaviour. 

For my teaching more broadly, the impact has also been significant (and ever evolving). I currently plan around notes, not slides.  In lessons, I only project something if there is something we all really need to see – I ‘teach’ from a clipboard, not a board. Most of my lessons use the circle as the norm, and as a habit now I do tasks that students do, including often (though not always) homework. And more than anything, I currently design a classroom around what I want us to be; behaviour is about stopping; culture is about doing.