Scribbles and sketches: AI, Beethoven & the learning process

In this week’s WimTeach, Dr John Parsons, Director of Sixth Form, muses over AI, Beethoven, and the learning process.

Ludwig van Beethoven died in 1827. Within days of his death, Beethoven’s first biographers were swift to recognise the seismic impact the composer had made on the musical language, style and forms of the emerging ‘Romantic’ age. They also saw him as providing a blueprint for a new kind of human creative spirit; a composer embodying not just the artist contra mundum but also the artist struggling against himself. Beethoven’s autograph scores and extant sketches show us that frustration and struggle; energised, angry scrubbing-out, playful trial and error, revisions and reworkings, rejected ideas and erratic inky marks made so quicky (‘when the spirit moves me,’ as he himself had said) that they are sometimes barely legible. Here on paper is Beethoven showing his working (as an exam-board or teacher might ask) and evidently learning as he went along. A look at the page helps us to imagine the composer (doubtless brow furrowed) very much in flow – in the moment. The layers of creative struggle and his learning process are there in black and white.

In school we learn that Beethoven wrote nine symphonies. It is easy to see the slow-to-build but ecstatic exclamation of Schiller’s Ode to Joy in the closing section of the ninth as his final statement in the symphonic form. But it wasn’t; there is a tenth – or at least scribbles and sketches for one. Beethoven, it seems, had no intention of leaving it at nine. Musicologists for the next 200 years would be left wondering ‘what if…?’ Until now.

A ground-breaking project at Harvard university has brought together musicologists and computer scientists to see if an AI computer can be taught to create music that sounds like it was made by Beethoven and thereby to complete the composer’s missing tenth symphony. Here is a machine that has been taught not only Beethoven’s entire body of work but also his creative process in order to fill in the blanks and come up with a coherent and developed piece of music.

Beethoven was an intensively motivic composer, meaning that his compositional process saw him painstakingly derive complex and copious material from tiny motifs (just think of the famous four-note da da da daaa that opens the fifth symphony and the 40 minutes of music based on it that follows). As the Harvard AI task became more complex, so the machine became cleverer and more skilled at recognising such patterns in how Beethoven had reworked his motifs. The same happens when we as learners take on and stick with the struggle of learning something new and difficult, and (as with the AI, too) over time mastery is attained. Indeed, one of the computer scientists remarked ‘the AI reminded me of an eager music student who practises every day, learns and becomes better and better.’[1] Not for the first time, then, AI shows us something of what human learning is all about.

A year or so into their work, in 2019, the Harvard team travelled to Bonn and the composer’s birthplace museum to perform some of what had been ‘composed’ by the machine for a sceptical room of historians, journalists and musicians to see if they could tell where Beethoven stops and AI takes over. They couldn’t. There will be purists who say that AI should not try to replicate the human creative process, but of course the machine is not autonomous. Rather, it must have a multi-disciplined team of experts to teach it to do its thing (STEAM+ in action).

The human learning process is one of trial and error. Scrubbings out and puzzle solving is par for the course and the process owes as much to frustration as it does to playful experimentation and repetition. As teachers we see that in the classroom every day. The most effective learners accept and embrace the struggle. Evidently, that was the same for Beethoven – the most human of composers – as it is for any of us as we go about the business of learning new things and creating our own masterpieces.

Further reading on the Harvard Beethoven project here.


[1] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/how-artificial-intelligence-completed-beethovens-unfinished-10th-symphony-180978753/

School Life outside the Curriculum, is it important?

Ms Jenny Cox, Director of Co-curricular and Partnerships considers ‘School life outside the curriculum, is it important?’

“I need 3 A*’s to get to where I want to be. That means more focus on work less time on other things.”

I’m sure we have all heard this or possibly said this at some time in our lives, particularly when we feel under pressure. I’m pleased to say that Wimbledon High bucks the trend with the approach that promotes work, work, and more work, as being the key to success. We see the drive to achievement as a more rounded and fulfilling experience. However, is everyone convinced of this?

Anxiety, self-confidence, motivation and concentration can play a huge role in our mind during day-to-day life. How we choose to deal with these can affect our well-being and our ability to function effectively. Cognitive anxiety can exhibit itself as Fuzzy Head Anxiety, sometimes also known as Brain fog anxiety, which can occur when a person feels so anxious, they have difficulty concentrating or thinking clearly. At times, high somatic anxiety can lead to sickness, upset and a lack of appetite. Whilst it is normal to experience occasional cognitive and somatic anxiety, especially during times of high stress, it important to have strategies to help us lift ourselves out of this, as the worries about grades, about covid and about not being good enough, are all very real concerns as we ease ourselves back into ‘normal’ life.

Look beyond yourself

It has long been acknowledged that acts of generosity raise levels of happiness and emotional well-being, giving charitable people a pleasant feeling known, as a “warm glow.”

In the Medical News Today, Maria Cohut (2017) wrote an article on how ‘Generosity makes you happier’. She reported on a study of forty-eight people, all of whom were allocated a sum of money on a weekly basis for four weeks. In short, one group were asked to spend the money and the other group asked to make public pledges and all participants were asked to report their level of happiness both at the beginning and at the end of the experiment. The results found that all participants who had performed, or had been willing to perform, an act of generosity – no matter how small – viewed themselves as happier at the end of the experiment. It is studies like this, alongside others, that convince us that our partnership and charities work, so heavily and generously invested in by our students, is vital to maintaining a sense of perspective and our sense of well-being.

Work hard and play hard

In 2020, 98% of the top ten highest achievers in Years 7, 8 and 9 at Wimbledon High took part in at least five sessions of co-curricular activities per week; is this a coincidence? Previous research has also revealed positive and significant relationships between higher physical activity and greater academic achievement (Chih and Chen 2011; Bailey 2006; Chomitz, Slining, McGowan, Mitchell, Dawson, and Hacker, 2009). There are a multitude of benefits to taking part in a balanced programme of co-curricular activities. Whether they are in school or externally organised, both appear to be hugely beneficial.  

All the feelings of immersing yourself in the activities you love will again enhance feelings of well-being and start to reduce levels of stress, should they be high. The well documented moments of Flow (Csikszentmihalyi, Harper and Row, 1990) refer to those times when people report feelings of concentration and deep enjoyment. These moments maybe found on the hockey pitch, in orchestra, chess club, debating, GeogOn, Femigineers, whatever is your passion. Investigations have revealed that what makes the experience genuinely satisfying is a state of consciousness; a state of concentration so focused that it amounts to absolute absorption in an activity. People typically feel strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of their abilities. Both a sense of time and emotional problems seem to disappear, and there is an exhilarating feeling of wholeness. This can be controlled, and not just left to chance, by setting ourselves challenges – tasks that are neither too difficult nor too simple for our abilities. With such goals, we learn to order the information that enters our consciousness and thereby improve the quality of our lives.

Life outside the curriculum, is it important?

Evidence seems to point in the direction that a well-planned and attainable life outside the curriculum will enhance academic studies, promote feelings of well-being, and give a sense of perspective on day-to-day anxieties.  Having said this, we have decided to research this ourselves. Look out for the opportunity to be part of a piece of research later this year, conducted by Ms Coutts-Wood and I, where we shall dig deeper into life at Wimbledon High. Specifically, we will be investigating the impact of our co-curricular and partnership programmes on academic progress and well-being.


References:

  • Csikzentmihaly, M. 1990. Flow: The psychology of optimal experience, Harper & Row
  • Bailey, R. 2006. Physical education and sport in schools: A review of benefits and outcomes. Journal of School Health, Vol. 76, No. 8.
  • Chih, C.H. and Chen, J. 2011. The Relationship between Physical Education Performance, Fitness Tests and Academic Achievement in Elementary School. The International Journal of Sport and Society, Vol. 2, No.1.
  • Chomitz, V.R., Slining, M.M., McGowan, R.J., Mitchell, S.E., Dawson, G.F., Hacker, K.A. 2009. Is there a relationship between physical fitness and academic achievement? Positive results from public school children in the Northeastern United States. Journal of School Health, Vol. 79 Issue 1, P30.
  • Cohut, Maria. 2017. Medical News Today ‘Generosity makes you happier’

What role can schools play in tackling violence against women and girls?

Deputy Head Pastoral, Ben Turner, questions what role can schools play in tackling violence against women.

The killing of Sabina Nessa, a 28-year-old primary school teacher, has again brought the media spotlight onto how the government, and wider society, is protecting women and girls against violence. Six months on from Sarah Everard’s murder, questions are rightly being asked about whether women are any safer.

As we acknowledge the grief caused by the loss of another young woman, we must also look at our continued work to help safeguard young women in our own school community. While the spotlight has focussed on other areas, Wimbledon High has been busy outlining the pillars of the Wimbledon Charter. A set of principles around protecting young girls from sexual assault and harassment, as well as taking a proactive, preventative approach with both sexes in meaningful partnership with Kings College School, Wimbledon, and other prospective partners. 

The Charter seeks to outline the key role every member of our and other school communities can play in safeguarding young people, as we seek lasting change in the way that girls and women are seen, recognising our role in wider society to protect and inform.

A safeguarding culture where voices are heard and protected

The Everyone’s Invited movement caused seismic shifts in the way that some institutions acted around reports of sexual assault and harassment. In our own school we have asked hard questions of how and when students are able to disclose what may have happened but also how those voices have been protected. Fundamental to the Charter is the acknowledgement that this is not solely a boys’ school issue. The importance of specialist training for staff, but also an acknowledgement and protection of peers, is essential in single and mixed sex institutions.  

As a school we have taken some definitive steps to ensure we continue to reflect an open and overt safeguarding culture. The appointment of a Lead Counsellor, with a specialism in sexual trauma, has been an important step. Making that role clear to students and staff is equally important however and adding another ‘space’ that girls can go has been vital. Building on the safeguarding update that all staff receive, we will also seek to train at least four key pastoral staff as specialists in sexual violence and harassment in partnership with Lime Culture, which will be mirrored by KCS.

We must always ensure that we are working in partnership with those agencies that can affect change beyond the school gates. We are working closely with our Police Liaison, and other partners in Merton, to ensure that the sharing of information around risk and vulnerable students is always our first priority.

A proactive and synchronised programme of Relationship & Sex Education

The time for tea is over, was a line I wrote at the time of EI and the murder of Sarah Everard. I wrote it out of frustration with the manner in which PSHE can often be forgotten or diminished by teachers, and therefore schools, who are more focussed on the scholastic integrity of their subject than paying credence to a curriculum outside of their own department. Instead, schools have often deferred to experts, experts who come in for thirty or forty minutes, finishing with the notorious ‘cup of tea’ consent video, and ‘job done!’. The Charter is a call to arms for all teachers, to recommit to the knowledge that discussion of these topics, uncomfortable as they might be, is just as important, if not more so, than the discussion of an historical text or Maths equation. Moreover, it is so important that we have a candid conversation with ourselves, and our Year Teams, as to what topics we are comfortable teaching, and how we need to be supported in order to deliver the best RSE provision that our students deserve, and require.

Even more important is the knowledge that, through contextual safeguarding, we know that teens need to learn about relationships and sex earlier. It is too late to be addressing these issues at GCSE, when wider society and peer group are much more influential to teens than their parents or their school. ‘Age appropriate’ needs to be rethought, and our long-term partners in the RAP Project, and It Happens Education, are at the forefront of changing the landscape of conversations within schools. Together we want to tackle such topics as dating, partying, sexting, lad-culture & revenge porn. Teenagers are vulnerable to any number of these issues, and we seek to empower them with the law, the power of practicing discretion, mutual respect, and mutual consent.

This, however, is all very well if we are not ensuring that the same conversations are happing with boys of the same age. We are working with KCS, and other prospective partner schools, to ensure that we are following a programme that is synchronised across year groups, across schools, to ensure that teens are given the same information, earlier.

Meaningful and diverse partnership

There are two crucial partnerships that the Charter hopes to formalise. The first, recognises the vital role that parents play, individually and collectively, in supporting what is happening within schools. Parents face any number of individual challenges with their teenagers, and as they age, we know that school and home are far less influential than peers and wider society. Through parent consultation we know that there is a great deal that can be done by giving all parents a set of guidelines around parties, social time and curfews. We are believers in ‘elastic parenting’ and empowering teens to make decisions within clear boundaries. Parents, however, need the support of schools, and most importantly, each other, to ensure that they can put those boundaries in place, consistently.

The second partnership, and what I believe is the long-term key to our education’s role in preventing violence against women, is diverse and meaningful partnership between boys and girls. It is essential that men see women as more than mothers and potential girlfriends. Intellectual and social interaction, formalised across year groups is vital if we are to change endemic attitudes. That is why the Charter is committed to links like debating competitions for Year 10, leadership conferences for Sixth Formers, and transition activities with Year 7.

So, what next?

We hope to launch the Charter before Christmas and ensure that all steps have been taken, by both schools before launch. We hope that when the media spotlight once again leaves this issue, we will continue to be at the forefront of advocating for the safety and protection of women and girls, and the Charter seems like a meaningful platform to widen our fight.

What does it mean to decolonise the English curriculum?

Director of Studies, Suzy Pett, discusses how the WHS English Department has started to decolonise the curriculum, including introducing a new A Level unit on postcolonial writers.

Rallying cries to decolonise the curriculum have been building for a while now. It is one of the most important conversations in education today and our recent alumnae have been vocal about it.

In a 2018 interview for Varsity magazine, Wimbledon High alumna, Mariam Abdel-Razek, speaks about her experience studying English at Cambridge. She says that, “sometimes it feels like I can’t be heard unless I’m shouting.”[1] In 2020, recent alumna, Nida, set up Wimbledon High’s first POCSOC (People of Colour Society). However, she emphasises that discussions need to be built into the curriculum, otherwise the “the burden is placed on the students of colour in schools to lead the conversations.” And, in a 2020 podcast at Oxford University, alumna Afua Hirsch raises the need to “[disrupt] the racket of positioning anything non-European as alternate”[2] as she discusses the role of the curriculum in structuring alternate worldviews and knowledges.

Alert to this vital dialogue and convinced of the necessity to make change, the English Department at Wimbledon High wanted to rethink the A Level course, among other elements of the curriculum. Our new postcolonial coursework unit explores the writers Kiran Desai and Derek Walcott. We are excited by the way our politically savvy students will respond and the impact it might have for them both as readers and citizens of the 21st century. The course carries with it weighty concerns that couldn’t be more important to our lives today: politics of power; societal alienation; belonging and dislocation; migration; diaspora; and identity. These are a complex nexus of issues that resonate for all of us in our lived experiences. This is a course that extends far beyond the A Level classroom, and as English teachers, that fill us with excitement and, to be honest, some nerves. 

Our new course has been a year in the making. So, how have we gone about it and what are the issues at the front of our minds when teaching postcolonial literature?

  • Naming the course

Whilst we are referring to our unit as ‘postcolonial’, this is a controversial term. Some suggest that it implies we have moved beyond colonialism, when clearly this is far from the case. Keen to learn from other educators, we set up a Zoom call with teachers in US. We heard it was for this reason that they had renamed their course ‘de-colonial literature.’  However, for us this is equally problematic. It seeks to politicise texts by non-white authors by positioning them as ‘writing back’ against colonial oppression. It risks distracting from the other aesthetic or experimental modes important to an author. Certainly, this was the view expressed by the brilliant writer Irenosen Okojie, who spoke candidly to our Year 12s and 13s last year about her experience as a black author. Alumna, Nida Ahmed, also suggested that the term ‘postcolonial’ risks singling out these groups of writers, signalling that they are ‘alternate’ to ‘official’ literature. Of course, these debates are all useful to have with our students. We are using ‘postcolonial’ not to imply that colonialism is a ‘completed’ act of the past. Nor does it suggest that the only intention of this literature and our reading of it is socio-political decolonising.

  • Interrogating our own default settings: Unpacking our own ‘ways of reading’ the world/texts

As John McLeod writes, “the act of reading in postcolonial contexts is by no means a neutral activity. How we read is just as important as what we read.”[3] As individuals, we need to unpack how we are approaching the texts. If you think you are approaching the texts from a ‘neutral’ perspective, then you are aligned with the dominant white culture. This approach to literature maps onto our approach to ‘reading’ our world. Understanding our ‘default settings’ to texts and life is important, and so revisiting our own identities throughout the course is essential if our reading practices “are to contribute to the contestation of colonial discourses.”[4]

  • Risks of intellectualising lived experiences 

We were interested to read the article of Edinburgh lecturer, Michelle Keown, who works in a similar socio-economic environment to Wimbledon High. She warns that in a predominantly white context, reading about other cultures could become “a form of intellectual or cultural tourism.” The risk is that students use the texts “to learn more about other cultures, which bespeaks well-meaning, liberal sentiments, but also the highly problematic assumption that one can gain knowledge of a culture by reading [fiction].”[5] To avoid this, we will be asking students to actively engage self-reflexively with the complex racial problems seen in the texts: How do those social problems manifest within their own circle of social connections? Students need to engage with their immediate contexts. We do not want to “tinker around the edges” in our teaching of postcolonial fiction with students “[failing] to really connect with racism as something that impacts them.”[6] For us, it is important in our reading of postcolonial fiction that, through self-reflexive thought and criticism, the social problems are relocated from “over there” to “here”.

The power of this course is undeniable. It involves a radical rethinking of our teaching practices and raises far-reaching questions about what it means to ‘read’ English literature. We’re intending to be bold and disruptive. In self-consciously re-examining how we ‘read’ literature, we are re-examining how we ‘read’ the world. By understanding the complex relationship between text-reader-author, we can similarly hope to better understand the complexities of our lived relationships.


[1] J. Chan, ‘Rethinking the canon: the burdens of representation’. Varsity, 16 November 2018, https://www.varsity.co.uk/features/16578

[2] Discussion: How does a curriculum introduce and structure alternate worldviews and knowledges? [online podcast initially held at TORCH], University of Oxford Podcasts, February 2019, http://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/discussion-how-does-curriculum-introduce-and-structure-alternate-worldviews-and-knowledges

[3] J. McLeod, Beginning Postcolonialism, Manchester University Press, 2000, p. 33

[4] McLeod, p. 34

[5] E. Denevi and N Paston, ‘Helping Whites Develop Anti-Racist Identities’, Multicultural Education, vol. 14, no. 2, 2006, p.70

[6] M. Keown, ‘Teaching Postcolonial Literature in an Elite University: An Edinburgh Lecturer’s Perspective’, Journal of Feminist Scholarship, 7 (Fall), 2015, p.103

Does sharing your passion for your subject enhance teaching and learning?

Clare Duncan, Deputy Head Academic, looks at the impact sharing passion for your subject can have on learning outcomes and STEAM.  

‘Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire’ W.B Yeats 

I’m guessing that most, if not every, teacher came into the profession, not because they had a love of assessment and report writing, but because they had a passion for something – whether that be the writing of W.B. Yeats or, in my case, the beauty of the Fibonacci sequence. I find it fascinating that such a simple recurrence sequence, where each subsequent number is the sum of the previous two numbers, is found so often in the natural world. The sunflower seed formation – from the centre outwards, of 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13… and so on – is one such stunning example.  

As educators, we have the envious position of having a captive audience on whom to unleash our enthusiasms. As teachers we are always reflecting, always thinking of ways not just to impart knowledge but also to spark pupils’ interest in our subject. By demonstrating passion and curiosity ourselves we allow pupils to do the same – surely a worthy aim in itself, particularly if we want them to become lifelong learners. 

Even more than this, students modelling your behaviour can assist them in their next steps. It’s clear that the university applications that achieve the greatest success are those in which students demonstrate their deep enthusiasm for the subject, whether through their personal statement or at interview. In a recent Telegraph article about the application process, Peter Claus, the new access fellow for Oxford, discussed this idea:

‘Naturally we’re crazy about our subjects as tutors – so we look for people of equal fervour. Demonstrating independent intellectual fervour around your subject is much more important than any Duke of Edinburgh awards. We need to see that students have gone above and beyond and are aware of the culture of their subject.’ 

Our own Sixth Form Review reinforces that what teachers say and how they say it is hugely important, particularly in terms of the expertise and interest they themselves demonstrate. One student commented:  ‘(it’s) impressive when teachers know their stuff‘ and described taking the time after such a lesson to ‘let things sink in’.

So my tips for teachers to think about would be to:  

  1. Impart your passion to your students. By showing your excitement you may ignite it in them. 
  2. Find resources that fuel your passion and allow you to show them what excites you about your subject. (For me one such example is the BBC’s More or Less1 where the presenter explains – and sometimes debunks – the numbers and statistics used in political debate, the news and everyday life.) 
  3. Don’t underestimate the power of interdisciplinary learning. It is at the heart of our STEAM+ agenda. The best way to help reinforce a student’s passion is to show them that it can be applied to, and enriched by, multiple subjects.  

And why is instilling passion in students important? Here are words of Sara Briggs.  

‘When students are passionately engaged in their learning – when they are mesmerized by their learning environment or activities – there are myriad responses in their brains making connections and building schema that simply would not occur without that passion or emotion.’ 2 

So what will I be adding to my lesson plans this Autumn? The Year 13 Further Maths students will be introduced to the beauty of the catenary curve and how it can be modelled in using hyperbolic functions.

Footnotes

1. BBC More or Less: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qshd

2. S. Briggs, ’25 ways to institute passion-based learning in the classroom’, 2013. Originally published on opencolleges.edu

Can we reawaken an age of debate?

Students debating at WHS

The Head of WHS, Ms Fionnuala Kennedy, introduces Civil Discourse, a new strand of the school Curriculum which will equip students to join and influence crucial debates on the issues of our time with confidence, integrity and nuance.

Many critically important issues have arisen in the last eighteen months and many injustices are rightly being uncovered. Outrage is being expressed, with good reason, and Generation Z are politically active, knowledgeable and engaged, in a way that generations prior to it simply were not. Larger numbers of people than ever are seeking for a fairer, more equitable world for all, and it feels timely and positive that this is the case; not least because the unfolding events in Afghanistan this summer have served as a shameful and terrifying reminder of how fortunate we are to have access to an education system which is open, free, and encourages debate and diversity of thought.

Yet at just the moment when the world should be pulling together in our battle against a global pandemic, it seems we are more polarised than ever. At a time when we are questioning the notion of binaries in all sorts of arena, argument itself has become trenchantly binary. This is an era of no-platforming, of cancel culture and of offence.

Asking questions, not seeking answers

And so at Wimbledon High, we want to ask the following questions, and explore their potential answers together:

  • How do we balance challenging and calling out hate speech with protecting freedom of speech? 
  • How do we resist the digitally driven mode of oppositional, reductive discourse which has begun to dominate, and which leads to the silencing of so many voices?  
  • How do we access opinions which differ to our own, avoiding getting stuck in the echo chamber created for us by social media? 
     
  • How do we reclaim the art of listening, of reasoning, and of thinking with nuance?  
  • How do we articulate through our emotion, rather than relying on emotion alone to express us?
  • How do we learn to be offended and to argue back, both learning in the process, but also – crucially – teaching the listener why our viewpoint deserves to be heard, perhaps even changing their mind in the process?
  • And how do we explore the very notion of offence, ensuring the term does not get weaponised by those keen to fight what has become known in the press as a ‘Culture War’, and acknowledging that prejudice and hatred can cause genuine hurt and distress, not just ‘offence’?

These are big questions, and not easily answered – but that’s the point. The important discussions aren’t easy but that’s exactly why they should happen. 

Bridging the generation gap
And, crucially, these discussions need to happen in an inter-generational forum. We cannot submit to the lazy and divisive notion that our age and level of experience renders us either too naïve/impassioned/‘woke’ (Gen Z) OR cynical/entrenched/outmoded (Boomers and beyond) to understand and learn from those of a different generation. As the Head of a leading school filled with amazing young women, it is not only my privilege but also my duty to listen to all of the voices around me and take on board a diversity of viewpoints – those of the students, of course, but also of the parents, the alumnae and the staff. It’s such a fine balance between allowing our amazing girls to feel heard and valued and respected, and also understanding that those of us in authority have wisdom and the perspective of experience to bring to bear. As one of our former Head Girls put it in an email to me:

“It really is people like you and the WHS teachers who make the difference, by acting on the recognition that the wisdom of your generation can be supported and enhanced by listening to and engaging with the voice of ours.”

Hear, hear.

What next?
And so, we will be threading Civil Discourse through the curriculum, through academic and pastoral, with sessions for Y7-9 in PSHE with Ms Kennedy, for Y10 in their PPE studies, Y11 in form times and Sixth Form in their Onwards programmes.  

And the aim? Well, it’s simple: for our students to be truly flexible, robust and open in their thinking, and for the world to re-awaken itself to the notion of real debate and discussion, based on authentic encounters between enquiring hearts and minds.  

21st Century Design for Life

Rachel Evans, Director of Digital Learning & Innovation, considers the impact of this year’s CPD on 21st Century Learning Design, evaluates the Social Robots project against the rubric and reflects on the value of this approach for teachers and students.

During the last term of this unprecedented school year, groups of teachers have been lifting their gaze beyond the challenge of the pandemic to reflect on the way we teach and learn. Since April, colleagues from the Junior and Senior Schools have been considering 21st Century Learning Design.(1) An academic research programme funded by Microsoft in 2010, the Innovative Teaching & Learning Research Project described and defined this pedagogical approach. Collaborative research was carried out across ten countries, with the Institute of Education in London as one of the partners. The outcome formed the basis of a framework for evaluating and designing schemes of work, and subsequently a programme of study for teachers.(2)


The six components of 21st Century Learning Design (21CLD)

21CLD is a lens through which we can view the planning and delivery of the curriculum – as broadly as across a whole topic, or down to the level of an activity within an individual lesson. The rubric-based approach across the six topic areas prompts teachers to think about how to effectively build skills which are not necessarily well understood or embedded by other pedagogical approaches. Whilst we may not accept the popular discourse about the necessity of ‘21st century skills’, the framework addresses the need for students to beopen to new ideas and voices, direct and be accountable for their own work, and conduct effective and meaningful collaboration: all skills which are valuable in a swiftly changing world.

A collaborative professional development opportunity

Teachers were assigned a module of the course to work through independently, and then came together in study groups to discuss the concepts and teach each other the module they had studied. This has proved an exciting way to learn about 21CLD and apply it to our own classroom practice. Mixed group discussions outside the silos of departments and key stages revealed how this pedagogy is applicable across different subject areas and age groups, and identified where there are connections with existing approaches, such as Kagan structures or Harkness method for communication and cooperation, and our STEAM+ interdisciplinary work.

The discursive approach allowed teachers to be candid about their experience. Delving into the detail of the rubrics brought self-reflection: one teacher saying “I thought we’d be brilliant at collaboration, but actually we often co-work rather than collaborate.” Teachers evaluated existing activities against the rubrics and considered how they could adjust their lesson plans and projects to create deeper engagement and more agency for their pupils, and substantive and meaningful work as a result. New plans for a science project about pollution and the revision of a history research topic are among the outcomes of this period of study. Junior School teachers investigated how different levels of the rubric might appropriate at different Key Stages: they plan to create examples of suitable activities to inform the planning of lessons which will develop skills over the pupil’s time in the infant and junior years.

The process was not uncritical, with much debate in both parts of the school around the knowledge construction module: balancing innovative approaches with the needs of the examination system and our own belief in the value of scholarship made for interesting conversations.

A real-life example of real-world problem-solving

As I studied the course myself and designed the programme for teachers, I evaluated one of my own projects.

The Social Robots Club, which the Head of Computer Science and I began two years ago, is an excellent example of real-world problem solving and collaboration within the 21CLD framework, which has arisen organically through the interests of a group of Year 10 students. You can read about their work in this week’s WimTeach[link], where the girls have written about their project and experiences.

The purpose of the club was to experiment with our Miro-E robots (3), in order to plan their inclusion in the curriculum. It is the students who have driven the project forward. From our early brainstorming about uses for the robots, they chose a goal, defined their project and set to work. How does this activity measure up as an example of 21st century learning?

Collaboration

Students work as a team, assigning roles for each task, and making their own decisions about the process and product. The work is interdependent – for instance, dividing up the writing of code into segments which will be later combined.

Skilled communication

Students have produced presentations for Junior school staff, a lesson plan for Year 5 pupils, surveys and a leaflet for parents and an assembly for the school community. They carried out academic research including writing to the authors of papers with further queries.

Knowledge construction

We had never used such sophisticated robotics at school previously, but the group are already competent coders, so are applying their knowledge. Research for the project has covered psychology, pedagogy and computer science – certainly interdisciplinary.

Self-regulation

This group of students have worked on this project for a year and are clear about their aims, and what success will look like. They plan their own work – in fact, Mr Richardson and I joke that we are superfluous! – but we are there, of course, to offer feedback and guidance to help the team make progress when the project stalls.

Real-world problem-solving and innovation

The project is problem solving on a macro and micro level. The real-world problem is about improving reading progress for primary age children, but every week is micro problem-solving as we navigate a new and unfamiliar coding interface and sophisticated but temperamental robots. The project will have a real-world implementation when the robots are used by Year 1 next year.

Use of ICT for Learning

Technology is crucial to the project, obviously, but most significantly, we will create a product for authentic users – a robot creature who will respond with encouragement to a child reading – a great deal of code will lie behind those simulated behaviours!

The benefits of 21st Century Learning Design

On a practical level, 21CLD offers teachers tools for creating learning activities which promote skills that we would all agree are essential for study, work and life – to communicate clearly, collaborate well and solve problems. When combined with our emphasis on scholarship and our interdisciplinary STEAM+ philosophy, I find three further important outcomes:

Building knowledge and appreciating complexity

In a fast-paced world, the experience of going deeply into a topic or project for a sustained period will develop sound knowledge and critical thinking skills. Grappling with complexity brings an appreciation that not all problems are solved or ideas best expressed with a sound-bite response. All fields of study are rich with nuance once we go beyond the superficial.

Identifying unknowns, living with uncertainty and resilience

The deeper students go into complexity, detail and a wealth of knowledge, the more aware they become of what is unknown, either to themselves or to others. In a year which has been filled with uncertainty, an awareness that what we understand of the world is not fixed or fully known is, at first, unsettling. Sitting with that uncertainty – whether academic or otherwise – can build resilience. As the students write in WimLearn this week, persevering through difficulty brings its own joys.

Curiosity and exploration

Having appreciated complexity and experienced uncertainty, where do we go next? We have the answer enshrined within our school aims: Nurturing curiosity, scholarship and a sense of wonder. To achieve sufficient mastery of an area of study that we can begin to push at the boundaries is where exploration and innovation happens; or, as we wrote at the start of this year (4), in the spaces and connections between traditional subject areas with our STEAM+ philosophy. Depth of study, knowledge and skill is a firm foundation for exploration.

In conclusion, the exploration of this course on 21st century learning design has been incredibly valuable. At a time when we have been caught in the weeds of logistics and change, the programme of study and our collaborative approach has opened up big ideas and new conversations between teachers, which we will continue to explore next year. This feels like the start of a new conversation about the way we use technology in the classroom.


References

(1) 21st Century Learning Design, Microsoft Educator Center, https://education.microsoft.com/en-us/learningPath/e9a3beec

(2) You can read the original research papers and other references here, within the Microsoft CPD course. https://onedrive.live.com/redir?resid=91F4E618548FC604%21300&authkey=%21AOE-MnST_ZCMc1Q&page=View&wd=target%28Embedding%2021CLD%20in%20practice.one%7C2989f197-22e1-42a9-b2d5-2a71628825c1%2F21CLD%20Readings%7Ce58d3c47-38fa-47da-9077-18571f525580%2F%29

(3) Miro-E are programmable social robots designed for us in schools. http://consequentialrobotics.com/miroe

(4) Bristow & Pett, STEAM+, http://whs-blogs.co.uk/teaching/steam-2/, September 2020

Cross-Curricular Education: fostering links between English and PE through cricket

“What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” – CLR James

“I understand cricket – what’s going on, the scoring – but I can’t understand why.” – Bill Bryson

Mr James Courtenay-Clack, English Teacher and Head of Year 9 at WHS, looks at the possible links between English and PE.

You may have noticed that the idea of ‘cross-curricular’ education is having a bit of a moment. Making links between disciplines and across subjects is undoubtedly rewarding and helps pupils to move beyond a straightjacketed approach that keeps everyone and everything in their own place. There are some subjects that fit together so naturally it hardly seems worthy of mention.

As an English teacher, it is rare to plan a unit of work that doesn’t in some way cross over with both the arts and humanities subjects. To pick one example, the current Year 13 students have been writing a coursework essay that compares Cormac McCarthy’s The Road with the poetry of TS Eliot. In this unit they studied the philosophy of Albert Camus and Soren Kierkegaard, post-WW1 European history and the climate emergencies of the 21st Century. They also explored the fragmented voices of Eliot’s poetry alongside Picasso and jazz. All of this I (and hopefully they) would argue, helped to enrich their experience of the literary texts they were studying.

There have also been links made with other subjects that are not usually seen as having much to do with literature. We have had a STEAM lesson that explored the science of nerve gas alongside Wilfred Owen’s poetry and I know that the Maths department produced some wonderful number-based poetry. What I would like to draw attention to in this article, however, is the links between English and another part of the curriculum that have for too long gone unnoticed.

Now, it might be thought that English and PE are not natural bedfellows. In the staff rooms of our cultural imagination, you could not ask for two more diametrically opposed tribes. The stereotype of the PE teacher, head to toe in school stash, whistle at the ready and exuding the aura of good health that comes only from breathing in the sweet, sweet fresh air of Nursery Road, does not fit well with that of the bookish, tweedy English teacher. Of course, all of this, as stereotypes so often are, is complete rubbish. Mr Daws seems to have run more marathons than had hot dinners and if I wanted a book recommendation I could do far worse than turn to Ms Cutteridge.  

Now this article is far too short to be able to tackle the many links between English and all of the sports played at WHS, so I am going to focus on just one, cricket.

WHS Cricket

You may roll your eyes at this, but I believe that cricket can tell us as much about the messy business of being a human being as any other cultural practice. This is something that has been explored by a surprising number of writers and so I would like to take a look at just four examples where cricket and literature combine in illuminating ways.

The Pickwick Papers – Charles Dickens

Whilst Dickens doesn’t actually appear to understand the laws of the game, the cricket match between All-Muggleton and Dingley Dell in his wonderful novel does reveal an important truth about cricket and life: friendship and conviviality are far more important than material success. Also, that exercise is more fun when followed by a substantial multi-course feast.

‘Vitai Lampada’ – Henry Newbolt

This almost impossibly Victorian poem begins in the final moments of a school cricket match – ‘ten to make and the match to win’ – before moving to a soldier dying on a battlefield in an unnamed part of the British Empire. Newbolt’s refrain ‘Play up! Play up! And play the game!’ gives us insight to a worldview that is almost entirely alien in 2021, but that goes someway in helping us to understand our own history.

The Legend of Pradeep Mathew – Shehan Karunatilaka

I love this novel. Karunatilaka uses cricket – or a dying sports journalist’s futile attempts to track down the greatest bowler of all time – to explore the political and social history of postcolonial Sri Lanka. If that all sounds a bit dry, please don’t be put off. It is rambunctious, hilarious and well aware of both its own and cricket’s ridiculousness.

Beyond a Boundary – CLR James

This is widely argued to be the best book about sport ever written. James, a Marxist intellectual, traces his own interest in the game alongside Trinidad’s journey towards independence. He reflects on how both cricket and English literature were introduced to the Caribbean as ways of enforcing British supremacy and sees in both the potential for anti-colonial rebellion.

I hope this whistle stop tour goes some way to showing that the cultural practices of cricket and literature both help to illuminate what it means to be a human being and that the symbiotic benefits that arise from studying English and playing cricket together are just as valid as those that arise from any other subject.

The two epigraphs I have chosen sum this up beautifully. I deliberately misread Bill Bryon’s puzzlement as to the point of cricket and imagine that he too wants to know all about its cultural value. More seriously, CLR James paraphrases Kipling by asking ‘what do they know of cricket who only cricket know?’ and urges us to look beyond the boundary at the world around us. This is the best metaphor for cross-curricular education that I can think of and for that reason I am proposing a mighty union between the English and PE departments. Perhaps we could even build our own version of the STEAM Tower…

Je suis tout ouïe – being all ears: the importance of listening when learning to speak another language

Suzanne Stone, French teacher at WHS, considers the importance of listening in the language classroom and asks how we can make pupils more confident, and ultimately better, listeners.

Who hasn’t experienced first-hand, in the good old days of international travel, the frustration of not being able to understand the language we can hear around us; where seemingly basic, everyday interactions can sound like a fast stream of unintelligible phrases that can leave us feeling all at sea?

Within a school setting, the classroom can evoke similar frustrations as students try to make sense of the language spoken by their teacher or heard through audio files. Consequently, groans, sighs and puzzled brows are not an uncommon sight for MFL teachers at the front of the room, nor are comments such as ‘Why is listening so hard?’ particularly when progressing from KS3 to GCSE, and then on through to A Level.

It comes as little surprise, therefore, that several studies have documented that students can approach listening tasks with a sense of anxiety (Graham 2017). Indeed for some, it can be the skill that is enjoyed the least and feared the most. Some students see listening tasks as a test or measure against which they assess their understanding and ability. A more challenging exercise can dent existing confidence, or ‘self-efficacy’ (Graham 2007), in other words the feeling that you are good at something, so undermining motivation and possibly the desire to continue with that subject later on.

So, why can listening in the classroom conjure up anxieties such as this?

‘Our brain needs to perform in real time in order to extract meaning from any utterance we hear’ (Conti and Smith 2019)

It goes without saying that listening to an audio file on OneNote is not exactly the same as listening to a real-life person who is looking at you, whose interactions, intonations and gestures can help you decipher mood and meaning. When listening, we are making many demands on our memory. We have to master holding on to all the incoming information at varying speeds whilst being able to ‘sift’ this information as we hear it, breaking it down into its component parts of words, phrases and grammar. All these processes present a challenge, particularly as any new information can often erase the previous one, especially in time-pressurised situations (Field 2008).

So, why does it matter?

‘Nature gave us one tongue and two ears so we could hear twice as much as we speak’

Epictetus, Greek Stoic philosopher

Surely listening is just one of many skills involved in learning a language? I would argue that it is the most important skill, as it is the precursor to speaking and inextricably linked to responding. How can you ever hope to master speaking if you are a poor listener?

Listening is not the ‘passive’ skill it was once said to be. We acquire our first language through listening to several thousand hours of being spoken to before we begin to speak intelligibly, so our brains are hard-wired to work out meaning from what we hear around us (Graham et al 2010). Julian Walker (2021), a linguistic historian, describes the ‘Tommy French’ that arose from the interactions of English-speaking troops with civilians during WW1. Their experience in France during the war led to the special language they invented in order to cope with their situation. ‘San fairy ann’, ‘toot sweet’ are anglicized French phrases (Ça ne fait rien, tout de suite) that came into use on the Western Front during the First World War as British troops struggled to communicate in French. Fortunately for us, we have a greater understanding in education of the processes of how we listen and have moved away from this rather limiting, sink or swim approach.

How can we help students become better listeners?

In learning a language, we can develop our students’ ability to listen. We can reduce anxiety and build confidence by incorporating strategies in our MFL teaching which hone the skills needed to process and respond to information we hear. It is not only the exercises we use in lessons such as dictation, dictagloss, gap-fills and games that make listening fun, but it is also the work on phonics, reading aloud and oral practice in our classroom interactions which, in turn, enable students to become better listeners.

Dictationsimprove our ability to respond to what we hear, so helping us become more authentic speakers of the language too.

How can students improve their MFL listening skills?

  • Try different approaches

Some of our Year 11 and Year 12 French students have been trying out different listening strategies to gain an understanding of different ways to cope with harder texts.

Y12 Review of preferred listening strategies       
Y11 Post Spring Listening Assessment Review

Sharing our thinking and working through strategies together in this way will hopefully promote independence and confidence and reduce anxiety in the process.

  • Build up your vocabulary!

Having a broad vocabulary is key to learning and understanding another language. Try making Quizlet flashcards and use the audio file to practise pronunciation. Alternatively, listen to a podcast such as Coffee break French, or a foreign language film or series with the subtitles in French or in English – Lupin on Netflix is a popular choice here!

Final thoughts

Know how to listen, and you will profit even from those who talk badly.

Plutarch, Greek biographer

So, how can we become better listeners? As discussed in a previous blog by our Director of Sport, in mastering a skill, repetition is crucial and listening is no different. In short, you get better at what you practise and by improving our listening, we can hope to become better speakers too.

Sources and further reading:

Gianfranco Conti and Steve Smith, Breaking the sound barrier: teaching learners how to listen, 2019

Steve Smith – A process approach to listening – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQhh6b6BTJI&list=PL_FfkTb7PcMG7V_KE-N9r9NMmB1-GrF0c

John Field, Listening in the Language Classroom, 2009

Julian Walker, Tommy French: How British First World War Soldiers Turned French into Slang, 2021

Graham S, Learner strategies and self-efficacy: making the connection, 2007

Graham S, Research into practice: listening strategies in an instructed classroom setting, 2017

Graham S, Santos, D, & Vanderplank, R, Strategy clusters and sources of knowledge in French L2 listening comprehension, 2010

Coffee Break French https://coffeebreaklanguages.com/category/coffee-break-french/

What progress has been made this year towards creating a diverse curriculum at WHS?

WHS Classroom

Miss Emily Anderson, Head of History at WHS, evaluates the progress of the diversity in the curriculum working party since September, and reflects on our next steps.

It has been both a challenge and a privilege to have been leading the working party examining diversity in the curriculum since the Autumn Term. Ensuring that our curriculum is fit for purpose in both empowering our students to be active citizens of the world in which they live, and reflecting both their identities and those they will live and work alongside in their local, national and global communities could not be a more vital part of our work as teachers, individually, in departments and as part of the whole school. Such a curriculum would simultaneously support our students and ensure they feel that they belong in the WHS community, and would empower them to understand and champion diversity in their lives beyond school. The curriculum is not a fixed entity, and the constant re-evaluation of it is one of, to my mind, the most challenging and important parts of our professional lives as teachers.

As members of the school community will be aware from his letters and assemblies, in the autumn Deputy Head Pastoral Ben Turner asked staff, as part of our commitment to systemic change, to scrutinise three different areas of our work as a school in order to better inform our future direction. Alongside our scrutiny of the curriculum, colleagues have been looking at our recruitment of students and staff and how we reach out to a broader and more diverse range of communities, and at our work with our students beyond the curriculum, in our pastoral, super-curricular and extra-curricular contexts.

WHS Partnerships

Examining the curriculum were staff from the arts, sciences and humanities, bringing a variety of perspectives. I wanted to make an ambitious but absolutely necessary distinction from the outset – that we cannot approach the curriculum by diversifying what is already there, but need to create a curriculum that is inherently diverse. We discussed the need to broaden our collective understanding of different identities (the GDST’s Undivided work has been very valuable in this regard), and to model open, honest and often difficult dialogue. The difficulties of the process of change were also considered, especially the transition from an old to a new curriculum, and the fear of being labelled knee-jerk or tokenistic until it became embedded and normal. This is, however, no excuse for not trying. Doing nothing is not an option. Three areas for evaluation emerged for us to take to departments:

  1. The day-to day – teachers’ understanding about different types of diversity, our use of language and resources in the classroom, encouraging more challenging and reflective discussions in the classroom.
  2. The medium term – creating a diverse curriculum at WHS – looking again at KS3, and evaluating our choices at KS4 and KS5 to identify more diverse lines of enquiry or exemplars in existing specifications, or opportunities to move to other boards.
  3. The bigger picture – joining the growing national conversation with exam boards to make changes to GCSEs and A Levels to better reflect diverse identities, critically evaluating the cultural assumptions and frameworks through which our knowledge is formed and which privilege certain identities over others, to problematise and ultimately change these in our teaching.

The reflections that came back from discussions at department level showed that much carefully considered planning is being undertaken across departments, in terms of the individuals whose voices are heard through study of their work, the enquiries that are planned to broaden our students’ horizons and the pedagogical implications of how we create an environment in which diverse identities can be recognised and understood.  

My own department (History) are completely reconceiving our curriculum. My colleague, Holly Beckwith, wrote a beautiful rationale for this in WimTeach last year which I would highly recommend reading.[1] We have been preparing for major curriculum change for a number of years, firstly through trialling experimental enquiries to pave the way, such as a new Y9 enquiry on different experiences of the First World War. Our choosing of a unit on the British Empire c1857-1967 at A Level – a unit whose framework could, if taught uncritically, be problematic in terms of what it privileges, but which enables us to at least explore, understand and challenge such power structures and give voice to some of the people it oppressed through the study of historical scholarship – also helps facilitate changes further down the school as it demands significant contextual knowledge about societies across the world before the age of European imperialism.[2] Now, we are in a position to put in place major and increasingly urgently needed changes for September 2021 at Year 7 and Year 10, which will lead to a transformed KS3 and KS4 curriculum over the next three years.

To pivot back to the whole-school context, I also met with student leaders from each year group who had collated ideas from their peers to feed back. These were wonderfully articulately and thoughtfully put, often critical, and unsurprisingly revealed a great appetite for change. As teachers and curriculum designers, there is a balance to be struck here between taking students’ views into account, and creating coherent and robust curricula where knowledge and conceptual thinking builds carefully as students progress up the school – areas of study cannot simply be swapped in and out. As I have alluded to above, for example we start sowing the seeds of contextual understanding for GCSE and A Level at Y7. Furthermore, this process will take time, as meaningful change always does, and so managing expectations is also something we must consider. In and of itself, modelling the process of systemic change is such a valuable lesson for our students so this must be seen as an opportunity to demonstrate this.

So far, this process of evaluation has prompted profound and necessary reflection by teachers not only on what we teach in the classroom, but on how our own understandings of our disciplines have been conditioned by our experiences and educations. As well as educating our students, we are also continually educating ourselves, often unlearning old ideas. There is still a significant way to go in creating the inherently diverse curriculum we are aiming for, and I look forward to continuing to challenge and be challenged as we work together as a community to, ultimately, try to do right by our students and our world.


References:

[1] http://whs-blogs.co.uk/teaching/vaulting-mere-blue-air-separates-us-history-connection/

[2] Akala, Natives, London, Two Roads, 2019; R. Gildea, Empires of the Mind: The Colonial Past and the Politics of the Present, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2019; P. Gopal, Insurgent Empire, London, Verso, 2019;