Making and remaking in a Coventry Primary School

As the new year education twitter wars renewed and with a good many wild generalsiation gaining purchase as is the way DisappointedIdealist @DisIdealist retweeted

Lovely bit of writing. Enjoyed that as a start to my day. This is a powerful blog from @MrEFinch. Lots in here that’s important and well worth reading to the end.

https://mrefinch.wordpress.com/author/mrefinch/

It was good to read something so concrete and real, and it helped to bring a number of thoughts together.

I had been re-reading Christine Doddington and Mary Hilton’s Child-Centred Education: Reviving the Creative Tradition [1].

The book sets out to explore the history and philosophy of child-centredness in primary education in order to revive its strengths. The book is in large part a response to the narrowing of the primary curriculum. The arts, play and experimentation are seen as the casualties.

Ed Finch in his blog Making and Remaking tells the story of a school trip to the Iron Bridge Museum in Shropshire. The trip is designed to bring alive the Victorian Era, the pupils’ current topic. Ed tells of the relative disinterest of the pupils in being shown this and that but then something happened. Ed. continues:

‘I love the iron bridge – I had fond memories of spending a day sketching it’s gentle, elegant tracery when my marriage was young – but I didn’t let myself hope that the children would get much from it. It is pretty much a bridge at the end of the day. I hadn’t counted on the Men of Iron.

On the bridge – usually occupied by groups of children being lectured on Abraham Darby and his blast furnace – we saw a crowd. Turned inward they were watching something. A steady throbbing beat became apparent. I peered through the crowd to see what they were watching. Twenty four men were turning, wheeling, coming together and moving apart. Complex figures were drawn and redrawn. Sticks crashed together and the voices shouted as one. Accordions and fiddles played in unison. A huge drum kept the beat.

The men wore tall stovepipe hats and red and black rag coats that made them into giants and into shaggy beasts. Their faces were unreadable – erased by a layer of coaldust and charcoal – with eyes and teeth gleaming unnaturally white.

My heart quailed, what would the children make of this? Men dancing? Blacked up faces? Accordions? This would not end well. I looked at them. They were puzzled but silenced. They stepped forward. Spaces were made for them. Shorter pupils were allowed through to the front. They became part of the crowd.

In the circle the noise became more powerful, the men and their dance more compelling, even reluctant children were drawn in. I looked around the crowd and saw my pupils silent and in awe. Transfixed.

The children were quiet on the coach home. It had been an early start and a set of strange experiences for them to process. The adults snoozed too. I stayed awake and thought about how the things we plan and anticipate the most so often go flat on us and how it’s the unplanned things that give us the most joy. I wondered how you could plan for that and my thoughts went around in circles and by Coventry I had a headache and dozed too. My wife used to tell me to take pleasure in the moment. I’d tell her that I’d make time for that when work had cleared a bit. Perhaps I should have listened.

I like to give teachers a bit of time back after a trip so I took Year Five in the morning. I was still woozy – I’d drunk a whisky by myself when I’d got in, and then another – I asked the children to write about their trip and leaned against the wall by the window to watch the last brown leaves drift to join their brothers in the mud by the playground. The room was quiet but for the scrape of Berol handwriters on the cheap paper of the exercise books. No child said “I’m finished” and I let them write on, longer than I usually would, until the bell rang for playtime.

When the last child had come back for her snack, bothered with her mittens and disappeared back outside I glanced at a book.

“The men were like mountain giants. They made magic on the bridge and hypnotised us all”

I looked at another book.

“Without speaking to each other the dancers knew when and how to move – they were a team”

“I liked seeing the men dance on the bridge – I felt like I was in a different time when everything is powerful and I’m strong too”

I took the pile of books to my office with a coffee. The children had fast forwarded through the bus trip and the Victorian town. They had barely mentioned the school house, the pump, the sweet shop or even those appalling pigs. Every one of them had something to say about that moment on the bridge. Stamping feet, sticks crashing together, shouts smoking in crystal air.

The children’s teacher popped her head in when she arrived to pick up the class. I showed her the books, “You’ve got a problem” I said “They’re not going to want to write their Victorian apprentice diary entries now. You’ll have to do something else.”

We went down to the playground together, she went over to the playground box to get the handbell and I watched the children. There was the usual scrappy game of football going on in one corner and a whole lot of standing about but over by the hut something very odd was happening. All year fives. They had formed two lines and were moving together and apart, round each other, away from lines and back into them. Some held plastic hockey sticks aloft…’

 

I hope you will read the whole of Ed’s story here:

https://mrefinch.wordpress.com/author/mrefinch/

Some observations of mine:

The children were in the playground at play making and remaking. May we say that they were being creative? I ask this in the light of attempts to bracket creativity out the curriculum altogether or at most to countenance it only after the accumulation of large amounts of so called domain knowledge.

Doddington and Hilton finish their book:

‘Rather than the current focus on ever narrowing learning objectives and lower order skills, higher order cognitive skills based on direct physical experience, on powerful texts and ideas, skills such as comprehension, enactment, and the expression and enrichment of individual voice, would be the main aim for all children. Children’s experience of life, of literature and moving image, play and meaning-making, would be recognised, respected and creatively utilized in school…’ [2]

The children whose imaginations had been fired on the Iron Bridge were learning to be productive in a way that enriched their subjective lives, deepened their knowledge of a living cultural practice and opened their minds to the world into which they were growing.

This is a powerful blog from @MrEFinch.

Notes:

[1] Doddington, C. and Hilton, M. (2009) Child-Centred Education: Reviving the Creative Tradition. Sage Publications.

Readers will learn that John Locke started things going and that Heidegger, Gadamer and other more recent philosophers contribute to understanding what might be meant by ‘the whole child’.

[2] Ibid. page 117.

 

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