"A school where learning is all about making? It sounds lovely in principle - or in a newspaper editorial or keynote - but it'll never work in practice."
Sometimes you give a talk or write an article, and you really wonder if it was any good in achieving anything at all. In 2010 I had addressed a group of Creative Practitioners and teachers, all part of the wonderful Creative Partnerships programme that put 'creatives' (artists, musicians, filmmakers and so on) into schools to imbue their way of working throughout learning and teaching. It was here that I started to really push the notion of creativity as being inescapably about making. How can you be creative without making something: a written poem, a car, a rocket?
Well, I discovered nearly 18 months on that Sam Hirst and Emma Farrow, teachers at West Park Academy, Darlington, had taken this to heart, and embarked on a maker's curriculum of their own. As with my own Creative Partnerships project, it was seven year olds that showed us how it's done.
Sam and Emma have given me some of their story to share with you:
A combination of the age of students and their varied socio-economic backgrounds had united them in the wrong way: the level of support they required and the constant questions they asked and assurances they needed were halting their capacity to learn.
It felt like they had stopped thinking for themselves, they had become passive learners unwilling to take any risks. looking only for the teacher to tell them what to do or else not to participating, opting out by remaining stuck.
The challenge was to get them to figure things out for themselves take away the certainty that there was a right answer to build up an approach to learning that was an active process. We also wanted a legacy, that would change the way we as teachers did things and resulted in independent learners who were able to persevere, make connections, take risks and ask and answer their own questions.
We needed John, our creative practitioner, power tools and time to explore, construct, create, fail, try again and a belief that we could build anything.
We realised that if children where going to construct they needed to explore how things were made and put together.
On the first day When the children arrived at school they were confronted with lots of stuff, old TVs, computers, toasters and hairdryers and lots of real tools. A day was spent taking things apart to see how they worked Children worked collaboratively, they talked they explained they showed us what they knew they were excited, curious and determined to discover. They spent over two hours, all on task, enthralled with what they were doing. They attempted to explain to each other what the purpose of each component was. The teacher was the observer, listening in, getting a window into their thinking. The purpose was for children to have an understanding of how ever day objects worked and that you can work things out just through exploration.
We then looked at what they could they turn all these bits into? No direction, totally from their imagination. Free rein just to explore, to construct, the fun of making something without a defined end product. Success was in the doing, the playing around with materials to generate ideas, the persevering the creating, exploring what might be possible. We immediately saw in some children a flexibility of thought, an enthusiasm and tenacity that we had not seen before.
Through discussions with John, the children identified the skills in order for them to realise their ideas, to prevent them becoming frustrated, they needed further exposure to different tools, techniques and skills in order to satisfy the demands of their creations. This was when we brought in the power tools. There was a risk assessment to complete but beyond there was no further complications children could see that we trusted them to use these tools appropriately and they did not let us down. They were the right tools for the job.
As a result we got....runways, villages, planes, dragons, the list was endless and we also got enthusiasm and a love of the learning and acquisition of new skills
As we progressed we found gaps in their understanding in other subjects that could be addressed through to exposure to learning and experiences within the context of construction. What is the best way to bend an iron bar, how to measure accurately and why it is important. Which materials will allow an electric current to pass through and why we need to know? Through the doing, testing experimenting, questioning they learnt knowledge and skills in a context that could see a purpose for.