Yesterday I had the pleasure of visiting Clare Sealy’s lovely school, St Matthias, tucked in just off Brick Lane. I had the best time. When I arrived, she was about to take the daily assembly, promoting one of their core values ‘awe and wonder’. To do this Clare had chosen to celebrate the ‘awe and wonder’ of the fact that all the materials in the universe, everything we see and touch, are made of only three things, arranged in different combinations.
A deeper layer was to show this in more detail with a model for electrons, protons and neutrons. I was invited to join in as Clare’s assistant as we used giant duplo blocks to show the children how first hydrogen, then helium, then lithium.. and later on, carbon.. are made by adding different numbers of electrons (yellow blocks), protons (red blocks) and neutrons (blue blocks). It’s such a powerful idea.. one that hopefully will feed into their future understanding of the world around them. Just getting them thinking about the idea that materials have hidden structure was amazing; hearing them using the words felt like a great way to begin; electrons, protons, neutrons. Just words and patterns of simple things – nothing to fear.
This was just my most recent encounter with the process that makes teaching such a great joy. Of course the relationships and community aspects are wonderful – but, isn’t it just so fabulous to be the people who get to pass on the knowledge. I think so.
This is a bit of my all-time favourite board work – deriving the ideal gas equation; it combines so many elements of basic physics and some neat maths and has amazing predictive power, linking macro observations to atomic-scale behaviour. Whenever this comes up in the syllabus I’m genuinely excited about it; I really feel the privilege of the moment of passing the baton; the moment of sharing the knowledge that I once had passed to me by Mr King in 1981.
This blog, Why Teach, by Ben Newmark is getting deserved praise from all quarters: it’s a gem, full of highly quotable passages:
Our curriculum should whisper to our children “you belong. You did not come from nowhere. You are one of us. All this came before you, and one day you too might add to it.”
……allow yourself to feel the privilege and enormous weight of responsibility you carry, a weight that goes back hundreds of thousands of years. Picture yourself as a link in the only chain that really matters, a runner with a flaming torch you are thrusting into the hands of younger athletes…..
That captures it perfectly.
Of course, passing on knowledge is just one part of a more complex process. This is where Martin Robinson’s superb Trivium 21c is so powerful and why is remains one of my touchstones for any curriculum thinking. ‘Powerful knowledge’ – the ‘grammar‘ of any subject discipline, is located within a wider frame where the dialectic is also important – the journey, the experience, the debate, the consideration of alternative perspectives; the logos – getting their hands dirty. The ability to communicate ideas – to perform, to make, to engage in the dialogue – the rhetoric of the Trivium is also a central element in what we should be aiming to teach.
But, with the wider context in mind, the idea that every subject discipline has its ‘grammar’ is so powerful. I often find that curriculum leaders and teachers find this message empowering; inspiring, liberating. You have expertise; you have knowledge that you have gathered through engaging with a body of ideas formulated over centuries and you – yes you – are the one, possibly the only person, who gets to be standing there in the moment when that bit of knowledge gets passed on to those children, to the next generation. It’s profound. It can be a bit daunting (partly because you really don’t want to stuff up something so precious) … but mainly it’s a real joy. Let’s celebrate that as loud and as often as we can. As Ben has done in his epic post. At its heart teaching is all about the great gift of knowledge and the joy of passing it on.
Thanks again to Clare and her wonderful children for their warm welcome at St Matthias. Duplo-atoms will stay with me forever.