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Unexpected questions – Headmaster’s Blog – Wednesday 23 May 2018

May 23, 2018

Unexpected questions

I return each year from the annual Independent Schools Association (ISA) conference with much to consider and this year was no different. The stand-out speaker for many of us was Dr Barry Hymer of the University of Cumbria. He addressed our conference theme, ‘Taking care’, by urging us to consider how we help children to think – and so care for their whole selves, their opinions, their ideas and their questions.

We’ve taught you that the earth is round,

That red and white make pink,

And something else that matters more –

We’ve taught you how to think

Questions, Questions and more Questions…

Dr Seuss and friends in Hooray for Diffendoffer Day, encourages us to move away from the ‘normal’ teaching approach of IRE (initiate, response, evaluate) towards challenging pupils (and ourselves) to ask questions, questions and more questions – and to be prepared to have our views challenged and reviewed. No more the ‘intrusions’ into pupils’ minds that led Miss Mackay to be criticised in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Instead we need to embrace the approach of John Locke (1690):

‘There’s more to be learned from the unexpected questions of children than the discourse of man’.

Dr Hymer told us about the primary school boy who had come up with the amazing conclusion, at the grand age of 10 years, that time was an illusion, ‘a worldwide theory to organise everyone’.

Now there’s a thought!

Peter Alliss, the well-known golfer and commentator, has urged us not to ‘over coach’ but to leave room for creativity. As another World Cup football competition approaches, let’s see if Alliss’ dictum has been given any room in that sport!

As with much in life, there’s often a balance to be struck. The Dr Seuss quotation above leaves room for teaching some facts, for the discipline of mastering received knowledge and wisdom but the trick is to be open to correction, to be willing to be challenged and to be prepared to alter our opinions. For teachers, under pressure from a results-driven educational system, from parents understandably expecting the best possible exam results and from a desire not to let down the pupils in our care, it takes courage to depart from the script – even occasionally!

Lessons from the school room

I wonder what lessons we most remember from our own school days?

Mine are often focussed on the eccentric teachers: Mr Charles Whittle, my Latin teacher, who had a cavalier approach to time (one lesson ended after ten minutes but it was time for us to guess what was in his ‘Field’ magazine – and then on to a discussion about the countryside, conflict and even warfare!). Then there was Mr David McMurray, my A level English Literature teacher, who rarely let us get away with a sloppy reading of Shakespeare: we were challenged to find out where his iambic pentameters were leading and why some characters, such as MacBeth, delivered his ‘dagger’ soliloquy in a discordant way.

I was pleased to hear Dr Hymer commend the philosophy course we have been following weekly with our Y3-5 pupils – P4C (philosophy for children). Since we introduced this course at Ballard a year ago, teachers have noticed how much more our pupils are inclined to be inquisitive, creative and questioning. I wonder what we might make of the discussion in a recent P4C class where pupils were actively engaged in considering this question: ‘What luxuries would you be prepared to give up to prevent further climate change?’ Philosophy – yes – but with a practical, relevant and crucial application. As Voltaire said,

‘No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking’.

And so, let’s celebrate schools which dare to be a little different – Dr Seuss’ Diffendoffer School, perhaps, and his teacher, Mrs Bonkers – and consider what it might mean to care by giving reflective time and, even occasionally, going off piste in a lesson.

William Blake, poet, painter and printmaker of the Nineteenth Century, wrote:

‘Improvement takes straight roads, but the crooked roads are roads of genius’.

Let’s look for those ‘crooked roads’!

Alastair Reid (Headmaster) with thanks to Dr Barry Hymer and to Dr Seuss

We tweet from @BallardSchool

Ballard School is an independent, private co-educational school in New Milton, Hampshire, providing an outstanding level of education for nursery to GCSE. With small class sizes and proven academic excellence, we strive to nurture the academic potential of all students. Learn more about our academic programmes, pastoral care, facilities and school ethos by visiting our website or by requesting a prospectus here.

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