Studying history.

The Sumerians believed that humans walked backwards into the future, our face pointing to the past, our back to the future. The past is in front of us as we can see what has happened, but the future is unknown; to navigate it we need to have a clear vision of our past.

Walking backwards into the future seems like a dangerous thing to do but there is a clear, practical and existential human need to face up to our past. History has created our present, the key question is, can we learn from it to live better in the future?

In the past, the study of history has been justified for reasons we may no longer accept. For instance, one of the reasons history holds its place in current education is because earlier leaders (and current ones) believed that a knowledge of certain historical facts helped distinguish the educated from the uneducated; the person who could reel off the date of the Battle of Agincourt or the name of the person who came up with the theory of evolution at about the same time as Darwin did was deemed superior—a better candidate for University or even a promotion. Knowledge of historical facts has been used as a screening device in many societies, from China to the UK to the United States, and the habit is still with us to some extent. Unfortunately, this use can encourage mindless memorization, turn students off learning history and make it irrelevant to understanding the present.

If we want to learn from history to live better, maybe the focus on dates and “great men” needs to give way to understanding something much more relevant to our daily lives. For instance, understanding the social conditions people lived under and how change took and takes place. Who were the agents of change? Who was in power and needed to be convinced? How did the powerful resist change? How were those in power open to change?  What means did change-makers use to communicate their message? What other factors contributed to change?

In humanities we have been studying the struggle for democracy from the Magna Carta to Peterloo to the Suffragettes. The stories of working people and of women making great sacrifices and working co-operatively for the right to vote shows us how the rights that we enjoy today came about. The stories show us that common people have always had to struggle for their rights all over the world, and it is still the same today. In the past people changed their present, which changed their future and ours, and made our history.

Just as interesting as the names of the protagonists and the dates is the spirit of the Suffragettes. The determination, selflessness and ingenuity that brought about positive change for this country. They saw themselves as agents of change. They were not content to just survive, they wanted live meaningfully and offer a better future for their daughters (and sons!).

At Hebden Bridge School we try to make learning as relevant as possible and to do so we take it into the world of experience.  Social history is relevant to children because it is the history of our families, not that of a stratum of society to which we have little connection.

We learned about and discussed the tactics used by the Suffragettes. Then we looked at how one can ethically go about campaigning for something.  This has led us to look at other contemporary examples of campaigns for change

For their last homework, (which is not compulsory as we want the children to do homework because they are motivated to do it – which is normally the case), the students examined some current campaigns for girls’ rights and conservation and young people involved in activism like Kid President and Avery McRae.

This week we have asked the children to do some research on what (if anything) they want to change. Once they find it they can find out who they need to convince, what action to take and what media they will need to communicate their message. The cause might be big or a little one, global, national or local, let’s see what they come up with.

History is not just something made by “great men” monarchs and leaders. We are all players in history and agents of change. The great thing about democracy in society, in the work place or in a school is that it allows you to feel that you have a voice and that you can make a difference. Children have a wonderful natural empathy for other people, animals and plants as well as a great sense of justice. The challenges of the future are great. The study of history can prepare them well to face up to those challenges and live meaningful lives as long as it is relevant to their and the planet’s needs.

February 10th 2018

Meditation in our school.

When you first ask children what meditation is, they normally cross their legs, make a circle between the index finger and thumb of each hand and close their eyes.  They might even throw in an OM. Of course meditation is not about what you see from the outside. Whether you take that form or another, the point is to sit in a posture that enables us to shine a light on our inner world. In the vast majority of schools, that inner world of the child is ignored. It’s there of course, banging on the door from inside, bobbing around, shouting to be recognised. But it has to be supressed for the teacher’s aims to be realised, to manage behaviour as the children must conform.

We think differently.

We encourage children to explore their feelings, their thought processes, their awareness of their bodies and their consciousness.  It is very difficult to do this without cultivating the ability to observe with attention. Meditation is a time-honoured way to develop this inner eye. It allows us to take a break from external phenomena, close our eyes and reflect calmly and deeply on our experience in the here and now. It brings a more peaceful state of mind, but it also opens the door to a hugely powerful learning resource.

We use Mediation in a variety of ways at our school:

  • Preparation for learning: Before starting a class or a meeting, we do a few minutes of reflection on being in the moment. It allows us to be aware of thoughts which are extraneous to the experience and let them go. We can then engage the mind with what is about to come. We do this before classes, before the democratic meeting and even with trustee meetings.
  • Processing learning: At the end of a class, the plenary will involve getting the students into a relaxed state sitting or lying on a mat. The teacher will read the key language and concepts studied. The students listen and connect them to their own imagination or experience. They make their own connections freely and this calm contemplation allows them to process the learning and own it. The child can link what is learnt to their own experience, to their own feelings and to their own inner world. It allows the child to process the learning, find their own meaning for it and this is what makes it memorable.
  • Behaviour: Nobody likes being told what to do so why not help the children manage their own behaviour? When the atmosphere is fractious or one child in particular is becoming fraught, taking time out to sit and reflect allows the student to become aware of the mental and emotional processes that are taking place. It allows them to see what they can do to change themselves to create a more positive environment for themselves and others.
  • Conflict resolution: Related to the above but very powerful when used in a group setting. Often the immediate causes for the conflict are buried in a group dynamic that needs unravelling. Taking the time to reflect as a group to resolve problems can allow us to see what we are putting into the pot. It takes us out of a spiral of blame and into self-awareness; developing respect and humility. Last year the children decided they wanted to perform Alice in Wonderland as the school play. They wanted to write it, direct it, and produce it. However, the scenes were too long, with too many characters. There were numerous squabbles, tears and stormings off the stage, with much blaming of each other for the failure. We decided to sit as a group and meditate on what was going wrong. Afterwards, we discussed what had come up and then meditated again on what we could do to make it work. Another discussion ensued and finally we came up with some practical proposals. As a result we tore up the original script, decided on a plan for a new one and who would write what. Then we decided when they would do it by, and the students accepted a teacher could support them. A shorter, more essential version of the play was written, and the rest of the group were won over to taking roles and working together. How many times are able to just stop, see what we are doing is wrong and then start again? Deep reflection and being honest with ourselves allows us to access powerful reflection and decision making. As John Dewie said, “We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.”
  • Creativity: Meditating on our inner eye deepens and widens our internal vision, this manifests in our imagination. Imagination is a huge learning tool. It allows us to go where our senses cannot take us, into the past, the future, to another place, or into another person’s skin. We use meditation to plan artistic work. It helps the students to create stories, images, ideas, and theories and bring out the authentic uniqueness of each one of them.

Not only is the internal world of the child to be valued and embraced, but it also opens onto an ocean of possibilities for learning about the world and ourselves; and this is just the beginning….

Friday 2 February

Joined-up learning

Recently I heard an interview with Eugenia Cheng, the mathematician and pianist who said that her greatest learning moments were heralded by a feeling of her brain expanding.  In our school we try to inspire our children to think widely and deeply so we do not learn through separate subjects but through topics where science, humanities and art merge into each other. Children think more freely than adults. They tend to make free associations in their minds, linking experience to knowledge through memory as they come across the “new” in life. This is particularly true for pre-school children and explains why these early years are full of the wonder of discovery.

Good primary schools can prolong this golden age of learning but often when the child arrives at secondary school the river of learning is split into many disconnected channels. For example, the student goes from a physics class to history to French and each subject has no relation to the other. The child might have been inspired by something in the physics class, but they must drop it to move onto something unrelated where the teacher is too busy with their own lesson plan to worry about what has been learnt elsewhere.

This compartmentalised learning creates divisions in knowledge for the convenience of teaching and exams. They prevent us from making the connections that allow us to see the big picture. Students want to learn in a way that engages them by making connections between the theoretical and the practical, between one subject and another. They want to feel that learning is useful, fun, enchanting, inspiring and relevant. Life is not separated into subjects.

In our school we choose a topic, which is discussed and decided by the democratic meeting involving all the children and the staff. Then the teachers get together to plan out a scheme of work. The teachers try to strike a balance between making the topic interesting to the students, relevant to their needs, creative, interconnecting the subjects, with plenty of opportunity for experiential learning.

They also try to include GCSE content in the topic where possible as this helps our children to decide which ones (if any) they would like to do. They cover the content in an interconnected way with no exam pressure, no compulsory homework and have the space to discover their own motivations and manage their own learning, helping them to become analytical, reflective, and creative thinkers.

One term we studied the topics of sugar and slavery together, with three teachers: one each for science, humanities and art. From the science of sugar students could appreciate its importance in our diet and the dangers of consuming too much. Studying this alongside slavery allowed them to see how the growing demand for sugar in Europe and America increased production and the consequent astronomical growth of the slave trade. They were able to see how slavery was the oil in the machine of these transatlantic economies and how individuals made large profits.

The reaction of students to this way of learning was eye-opening. In art, one student created a 3D map which showed the slave triangle from Europe to Africa to the America where all the countries were made of different coloured sugar. Another student said she would give up eating sugar as not only was it bad for her health but even today workers are paid very low wages in sugar plantations around the world and she wanted to boycott the industry. Another student found out that one of his ancestors was involved in helping slave to escape from plantations in the Deep-South, something he was proud to tell everyone else about.

This term the topic is Democracy and we are studying how decisions are made in society and how people have struggled to get the vote over the centuries. In science the students are learning about how decision-making takes place in animal societies. How bees, buffaloes and ants make decisions and organise themselves. In art we are looking at how the struggle for rights and democracy is represented artistically in posters and protest art. This will lead us back to humanities where next half-term they will decide on something they want to campaign for.

Friday 26 January 2018

From now on, every Friday, we will be publishing a blog to record what happens at our alternative democratic school.

I hope you find it informative and entertaining. I will change the names of the students and teachers, and since there are so few of us I may change other identifying aspects too, so you will have to think very hard to guess who I am talking about. In fact, you won’t even know who I am. I could be one of the teachers or a student, or perhaps even one of the trustees. I could even be someone completely unrelated to the school who relies on a mole to leak what’s going on. Who knows?

Today, as an introduction I will open a window to how we start the day with yoga and meditation. We begin by sitting and exploring our posture until we feel balanced and at ease. We then get into contact with our breathing and become aware of our feelings and physical sensations.

We do a lot of work on the basic movements of the lumbar-sacrum area. Bending forwards, backwards, side-wards and twisting. This limbers us up for more complex stretches like the downward dog, the cat, the cobra, the crab and the butterfly. Of course, the animal themes go down well with the children, and some used to accompany the postures with animal noises. This has lessened somewhat over the last few months although giggling fits do sometimes occur.

Recently we have been following the stretches with a concentration exercise throwing a small bean bag to each other around a circle. Eye contact, control over the throw and one-point concertation for one bag, and then whole circle concentration when we have two bags flying around. Experienced yogis may notice that we are practising dharana and dhayana. The children love it and we have noticed that it does seem to improve concentration and each week the students get slicker at playing the game. Making yoga game-like has obvious attractions for children but more than that it enriches the practice by making it more joyful and relaxed. So, if you are taking your yoga too seriously….

We then finish with a short mediation. Recently we have been working on gratitude towards ourselves and gratitude for the presence of everybody else in the group. Gratitude triggers acceptance and valuing, and it leaves a warm vibration of good will in the room to set us up for the communication circle. Everybody can speak if they want to, if they don’t it is fine. This is where everyone gets the chance to say how they are feeling. It is important to know if someone has not slept well or has skipped breakfast (and is now famished) or has some good news to share. It is helpful to have small window into the inner world of the children and staff to help us navigate our relationships through the day.

Then it is 9:30 and time for science. More on that next week.