Never mind the wow factor………how about, “What did you just say?”

Programmable micro circuitry in a laser cut case. Electronic Products work from our current Year 11


Working with kids is great!  One project I do with them really makes them think.  I tell them all at the start that I am going to see some funny faces as they wrestle with the business of translating an idea into a working mechanism.  I warn them that they will get a headache and I promise them that they will keep hearing, “Ahh!” and “I get it!” from their fellow students as the work of thinking bears fruit.  It is a really good opportunity to explore the idea that learning is fun; it is what the human brain is designed for and when you do some learning you get  a rush from doing it.  Sure enough once they get to grips with the problem they start pulling faces, you know the ones, furrowed brows, contorted mouths, tongue sticking out of the side of the mouth.  Then the clouds clear, the face lightens into an expression of delighted surprise and the “Ahh!” comes.  Time for me to say, “See? I told you so.”  Teach them how to learn and what fun it is.

Then every once in a while you get a moment of feedback that rocks you.  My most recent was with a group of year 9 pupils, (14 year olds in real speak).  The conversation had arrived at the point where I mentioned Equivalent VIII, a sculpture by Carl Andre that cause quite a sensation when it was purchased by the Tate Gallery. (Check it out at )   It is an easy way to provoke discussion about the value of art and the gallery system as it is a carefully arranged pile of firebricks, fresh from the builders merchant.  And so, of course, it was heralded by the press when it was purchased by one of our national galleries; just a pile of bricks that anyone could do, not art.  Well I trailed this in front of the noses of my class and they all bit, agreeing that it was pointless, not art and a waste of money.  I can resist anything except the chance to play devil’s advocate so I defended the sculpture by providing a possible reading to do with a reference to the way that society structures our existence and arranges us just like the bricks.  So far, so good.

Then it happened.  “But that’s a very Marxist reading of the work, isn’t it?”  My first response was to agree, how could I do other?  Then the reality hit me.  A fourteen year old had taken my reading in her stride, analysed it with considerable accuracy and responded in a flash.   I agreed with her instantly and the conversation moved on.  I am delighted to tell you that the pupil in question has been identified as one of our gifted and talented  and as a school we make some special provision for her.  The bigger question for me is this; how much do we under sell ourselves and our subjects when we structure our teaching programme?  I would love to argue that the very fact that we had the discussion is evidence that my lessons at least provide the opportunity for that kind of debate but I have to be honest and say that all too frequently they don’t.  As a good student I would expect this pupil to accept challenge in her designing and making, I would expect her to have selected a personal target that would focus on stretching her abilities but realistically, do the projects that I set allow her to stretch herself to the degree of capability that is suggested by her remark?

I am proud to say that in my team we do provide opportunities for pupils to explore learning in designing and making that is outside the scope of normal school curriculum provision.  We do it in a variety of ways and we do it for children of all levels of ability.  Sometimes the remarks they make tug at my heart strings, when they volunteer that a project is the best thing they have ever done, when they tell you that the experience is better than Christmas, as one lad did recently, then you know you have done something worthwhile.  The challenge remains.  Having unpacked the thrill of learning and the mechanics of the learning experience for my pupils have I built into what we do the opportunity for that thrill for all my pupils?

I have to admit that sometimes I meet teachers who don’t have the confidence to lift the lid on projects so that they very brightest can fly.  Sometimes I am sure this is a lack of security in their own subject knowledge, sometimes it is because they believe that they have to address the National Curriculum, sometimes it is to do with working to a fail safe level because they are being inspected or appraised.  I am sure there are as many other reasons as there are teachers.  The problem, is that to fail in this is not to be safe; to fail is to lose the very brightest and best, to miss the opportunity to develop their thinking, to miss the chance to be a part of that.   A very recent  research project, (whose title I do not have to hand but I promise I will rectify that in the near future), identifies the criteria that allow organisations to make above expected progress.  One of the findings that sprang out to me was the one that suggested that healthy organisations  encouraged people to take risks while accepting the risk of failure, supported them when things worked and when they went wrong.  Does that not sound like an education system that you want to be a part of?

Of course our culture of measuring school performance tends to do the obvious, it forces people to provide what ever you are measuring.  An easy idea that seems to have escaped our current political masters who are intent on proving that education has improved because of their intervention.  To do this they have contrived a strategy that forces schools to provide what they measure.  Nothing is going to measure the quality of the exchange that I enjoyed with my year 9 class except me sharing it with you.




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