Could digital learning be the key to a truly inclusive curriculum?

Mrs Rebecca Brown, GDST Maths Trust Consultant Teacher and Teacher of Maths at WHS, looks at how effective use of digital learning could have the potential to give all students personalised learning experiences.

The use of online video tutorials for learning, especially in Maths, can, if used carefully, provide an individualised learning experience where students study concepts at their own pace, allowing them to review, reflect, pause or accelerate. This in turn enables learners to learn in their own way, giving them more confidence to delve deeper into the subject, embed knowledge and solve problems. Suggestions like this evoke a range of strong emotions and opinions among teachers. Is digital learning the future of education? Or does it mean the de-skilling of teachers and students alike?

How do you learn something new?

If I asked you to learn how to make magic milk, how would you begin?  My own first step would be to Google it and watch a top-rated video. Then I would have a go myself. If a student can watch a carefully selected video at their own pace, pause, rewind, replay until they have good understanding of a concept, then surely this is potentially a beneficial personalised learning experience that can be inclusive of the needs of all learners. Moreover, it can help students to overcome anxieties they may face in the classroom.

Video tutorials also give the opportunity for recap, review and consolidation after a lesson or topic has been taught. During the pandemic we saw an increase in online learning and use of video tutorials that supported student and teacher absences and gaps in learning. Now back in the classroom, instead of reverting to what we have always done, what if we considered a different future? How can crisis turn into opportunity, as we use technology in different ways?

Why use digital learning?

Evidence shows that many digital learning resources can be used to develop students’ mathematical capabilities, especially when they are integrated into a rich teaching environment. In a nutshell, the students pre-learn the new content mostly independently, often as homework, and then most of the precious classroom time is spent practicing, asking questions and doing activities with the teacher there to support and guide them.

After watching appropriate, rigorous, considered tutorials, students can engage in richer in-class discussions that help them develop deeper conceptual understanding of Mathematics. This releases lesson time for social interaction, which Vygotsky’s theory of learning as a social process places so much emphasis on.It can also create more time for one-to-one support and direction from teachers. This is a good example of flipped learning, which can be a very powerful pedagogical process.

Fluency gives students the capability to be confident in their calculations and the cognitive capacity to focus on more complex, problem-solving aspects of the curriculum (Foster, 2019).

What could possibly go wrong?

This does all come with an important warning. We need to select the resources that we direct students to use very carefully. I am sure that you know the pitfalls of a YouTube search! This is where selecting and inserting videos into One Note lessons, Google Classroom, Firefly or using resources such as Ed Puzzle can be helpful. Ed Puzzle is an online video editor tool. Your students watch a video, selected by you, at their own pace. You hold every student accountable, observing who is watching and who answers the questions. They are not able to skip ahead or open other tabs. The process is simple – find a video, add questions, and assign it to your class. Watch as they progress, and hold them accountable on their learning journey.

Wimbledon High School Maths Lesson

Another drawback is relying solely on digital resources as a method of instruction for students to learn. While flipped learning does give you the opportunity to dive into applying the content rapidly, the teacher must assess learning quickly and be able to rectify misunderstandings. This method also centralises the role of homework. Students need recreation time for holistic development, so it could also become detrimental when only used outside of lessons, as the commitments of learners beyond the classroom could limit the time available, hindering progress. For it to work properly, parents also need to be fully informed and engaged to support this method.

To conclude

We want to empower our learners to become critical thinkers, curious problem solvers and resilient creatives. Perhaps a flipped learning approach, if rigorously thought out and planned, could help address anxieties, give more opportunities to accommodate different learning styles and needs, and give more time for complex, deeper thinking in the classroom. Developed in this way, it could become the future of a truly inclusive education.

You can learn more about Flipped Learning at the GDST EdTech25 event on 25th May – hosted by Trust Consultant Teachers Fiona Kempton and Rebecca Brown. Sign up here

Healthy, happy relationships really begin in Early Years

Children’s learning about relationships, personal agency and emotional wellbeing is the responsibility of the whole community from infancy onwards, writes the Head of Junior School, Claire Boyd

It has been eighteen months since the Department of Education made the teaching of RSHE (relationships, sex and health education) statutory in all primary schools. Informed by a recognition that “today’s children and young people are growing up in an increasingly complex world and living their lives seamlessly on and offline”[1], it is now expected that, by the end of Year 6, children will be able to recognise diversity of family set-ups, appreciate the tenets of caring, respectful relationships and understand how to navigate life online safely. 

Following closely behind these changes to RSHE, Ofsted also published its Review of Sexual Abuse in Schools and Colleges in June last year. A sobering read, the report found not only significant failings in the robustness of safeguarding frameworks in many schools, but also suggested that the teaching of Personal, Social & Health education frequently fell short of its intended purpose. The findings for girls were particularly concerning, with high numbers stating that they “do not want to talk about sexual abuse…even where their school encourages them to”, due to a fear of not being believed or being ostracised by their peers. Others worry about how adults will react and feel concerned that they will lose control of the situation in which they find themselves. Although most of the testimonies collected by the review focused on children of secondary age, children aged 11 and under were referenced as victims of sexual abuse and harassment in schools, often describing similar preoccupations as older girls about the implications of speaking up about their experiences.

Rising to the challenges

With these changes and recommendations from the DfE and Ofsted fresh in our minds, in the Junior School we have begun to evaluate the impact and efficacy of our approach to helping students navigate relationships. We are attempting to measure our success against broad and subjective statements, including whether a child is able “to recognise who to trust and who not to trust”, can “judge when a friendship is making them feel unhappy or uncomfortable”, and can “manage conflict [and] seek help or advice from others, if needed”[2].

Whilst there can be no doubt that high quality, systematic teaching of RSHE is imperative for twenty-first century schools, at WHS our reflections have led us to believe that real progress relies on much more than the rewriting of curricula and the upskilling of teachers on their safeguarding responsibilities.  Certainly, a nuanced, proactive approach – evident, for example, in the innovative Wimbledon Charter (the WHS-led response to Everyone’s Invited) – is urgently needed, and ultimately, sustainable and far-reaching change must start with the earliest childhood experiences.

A wholesale and deliberate realignment of how we – teachers, parents, families and communities – nurture our children from the Early Years onwards is essential. If the gold standard we want our young people to attain is self-knowledge that can be communicated with confidence and agency, then we must ensure we embed these skills in their everyday contexts from infancy. We must ensure that we place the principles of character development, emotional resilience and autonomous decision-making in the foreground of everything our children experience both at home and at school. This requires parents and teachers to fight the inevitable urge to smooth over and fix difficult situations for the children in our care. It means we must resist speaking on behalf of our young people, and must consciously fight against the gender biases related to the stereotypical behaviours of ‘troublesome boys and compliant girls’.

Schools as leaders and allies

Our ambition to release future generations from power imbalances such as those reported on by Ofsted depends on schools leading the way. Schools must support parents and families to engage, wholeheartedly, in giving agency to our girls to become comfortable with quiet assertiveness from a young age. We must prioritise opportunities to develop the skills which allow them to resolve conflict for themselves, even if this runs the risk of them experiencing some discomfort along the way. If our young children have not developed the voice to say no, to set their own boundaries and resolve the conflicts they have experienced during early childhood, how can we expect them to do so as teenagers and adults?

What our young people – and our girls in particular – require from us is the bravery to lead a step change; one that sees teachers and parents walking alongside them, coaching and empowering them to develop the resilience and character to be happy, successful and productive members of society.


[1] N.Zahawi, Department of Education, 2021, Statutory Guidance by the Secretary of State, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/relationships-education-relationships-and-sex-education-rse-and-health-education/foreword-by-the-secretary-of-state

[2] Department for Education, Relationships, Sex & Health Education (RSE), Statutory guidance for governing bodies, proprietors, head teachers, principals, senior leadership teams, teachers, 2019, p20 –p22, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1019542/Relationships_Education__Relationships_and_Sex_Education__RSE__and_Health_Education.pdf

Training for peace with the Model United Nations

Ms Lucinda Gilchrist (Head of English) and Ms Judith Parker (Head of Spanish), Model United Nations Advisors at Wimbledon High School, explore the value for students in taking part in MUN conferences, and the important collaborative and peacemaking skills they build

What is Model United Nations about?

Image from Pixabay

At Haileybury Model United Nations conference in March 2022, delegates and advisors heard about this passage of the Bible from Isaiah Chapter 2, during a chapel service:

He will judge between the nations

    and will settle disputes for many peoples.

They will beat their swords into ploughshares

    and their spears into pruning hooks.

Nation will not take up sword against nation,

    nor will they train for war anymore.

Established in the aftermath of the Second World War, the United Nations aims to ‘save succeeding generations from the scourge of war’ and ‘promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom’[1]. The image of taking instruments of death and destruction and transforming them into tools for productivity and growth inspired the statue pictured here[2], which stands in the UN garden in New York, and was a gift from the USSR in 1956.

The UN’s focus on finding solutions to conflict or global issues without recourse to military means makes the style of debating which Model United Nations (MUN) fosters quite different from parliamentary debating or other forms of school debating. Rather than being combative, MUN debates are collaborative, with delegates working together to draft and ideally pass resolutions which represent a commonly-agreed plan for future action.

What do pupils learn from Model United Nations?

The formality of the language used in MUN debates, and the typical forms of address (‘esteemed delegate’ or ‘the delegate of France’), avoiding the use of direct personal pronouns, takes personal elements out of debates. Delegates never represent themselves, but rather the views or policies of the country they are representing. The purpose is to engender debate that is civil, polite, and impersonal – although, admittedly, sometimes the heat of the moment can get too much for some delegates. They may well have to express views and ideologies which are entirely different from their own.

The removal of the personal does not preclude opportunities for individuals to shine: at Haileybury MUN, several WHS delegates were awarded for impressive contributions within their committees.  As with any form of debating, crafting one’s language and artfully applying knowledge to create impact are key, and our articulate, energetic pupils put their skills to the test, presenting powerfully on a range of issues. MUN is also distinctive in that those who speak most often, or most loudly, are not necessarily the most successful or admired delegates. Instead, it is powerful to witness younger or more reticent pupils quietly and calmly making their points in a fluent, cogent way. In our mini-MUN conference with Kings College School (KCS), we were delighted to see Year 9 pupils holding their own against Sixth Formers.

Some pupils can be intimidated by the formalised and highly-structured language required in MUN debate, but this is actually one of the benefits of taking part. Listening to a few debates in a relaxed context such as our weekly co-curricular club helps students acclimatise. This style is particularly effective for those who are nervous about public speaking. Formalised language provides participants with a script and a safe formula to speak from; it is striking how pupils who find social interactions more challenging open up when it comes to MUN debates.

The collaborative element of MUN goes far beyond the debating. We were particularly impressed by how our Haileybury delegates actively engaged with peers from other schools, persuading them to add signatures to their draft resolutions during lobbying sessions, or collaborating with them to submit co-authored resolutions. The most skilful chairs supportively encourage the less experienced delegates to contribute and coach them in the language of the debate, something our chairs at the KCS mini-conference exemplified.

Final thoughts

Ms Parker participated in MUN conferences as a school and university student, which led her to a human rights internship at the UN in Geneva where she witnessed diplomacy first-hand. And while Ms Gilchrist was new to MUN on joining Wimbledon High, she has always been intrigued by the relationship between language and power. The increasingly divisive nature of public discourse, not only on social media but also in the political sphere – often characterised by one-upmanship more akin to the swords than the ploughshares of Isaiah – is well-documented. Given current political contexts, with war in Ukraine, the rise of the far right in Europe and beyond, and the combative, highly performative format of UK parliamentary debates, the collaborative style of MUN debating is more valuable than ever. Diplomatic skills should be prized as part of a twenty-first century education.


[1] https://www.un.org/en/about-us/un-charter/full-text

[2] https://www.un.org/ungifts/content/let-us-beat-swords-ploughshares#:~:text=Bronze%20statue%20representing%20the%20figure,the%20benefit%20of%20all%20mankind.

Why studying English can help change the world

Miss Lucinda Gilchrist contests current political orthodoxies that devalue the study of Arts and Humanities subjects, and asserts the profound importance of English at A Level and beyond


Image Credit: https://pixabay.com/illustrations/fairy-tale-fantasy-dream-night-1077863/

The national picture

The study of English Literature and Language at A Level and at university in the UK is in decline – there has been a 23% drop in pupils taking A Level English Literature since 2017[i]. While numbers of A Level English Literature students at Wimbledon High remains robust, nonetheless there are powerful currents shaping the national context, which need to be challenged.

The political trend of steering of students towards STEM subjects has had a significant impact on the perception and take-up of English Literature, while reductions in government funding to the Arts is scuppering the effective running of departments and courses, devaluing the Arts conceptually and monetarily. This is entirely at odds with our STEAM+ agenda at WHS, which celebrates the power of interdisciplinary learning and the equal value of all subjects in our curriculum.

However, the National Association of Teachers of English (NATE) argues that the decline can also partially be attributed to neglect of the ‘big picture’ of English teaching, due to a model of literary texts as ‘cultural capital’[ii], which reductively posits literary study as developing declarative knowledge of canonical texts.

But where are students going if they aren’t studying English? Geography entries at A Level in the UK have risen by 16%, something that the Geographical Association has attributed in part to increased concerns in young people about the environment[iii]. Subjects like the Sciences and Geography are perceived to equip students with the skills and qualities they need to make an active and positive change in the world, while English and other arts subjects have been unflatteringly described by the former Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, as ‘dead-end courses that leave young people with nothing but debt’[iv].

What can we do to change this?

NATE recommends thinking about English as than ‘a means of pleasurable reflection on and participation in life’, through we can examine ourselves and the world around us. Diversifying the curriculum is one crucial example of how English can engage in and contribute to work of great cultural and social value. The English department are working hard to identify ways to decolonise the curriculum, with a new post-colonial literature unit at A Level, a new ‘Singing the Self’ Year 9 poetry unit, and the addition of texts by a diverse range of writers into the Year 8 Fiction Fest. This is not a fast process, and it’s important to avoid superficial measures, instead interrogating our own assumptions and contesting dominant narratives.

Furthermore, as Angus Fletcher argues in Wonderworks, literature is responsible for some of the greatest philosophical and psychological inventions in the history of mankind: ‘[it is] a narrative-emotional technology that helped our ancestors cope with the psychological challenges posed by human biology. It was an invention for overcoming the doubt and pain of just being us.’[v] Fletcher gives a compelling account of how writers have maximised neurological and psychological processes, using the language and structure of texts as ways into the human mind, enabling humanity to improve itself in the process.

The study of literature, therefore, is just as important a tool to make the world a better place as the Sciences and Geography. For example, as Ms Lindon has suggested, eco-poetry ‘can generate the imaginative power to help us dwell better, if we allow it to act upon us’[vi]. Fletcher comments on the power of poetic diction to help us look at the world anew: the inverted word order of ‘the flower blue’ rather than ‘the blue flower’ defamiliarizes us with something we might ignore as ‘boringly ordinary, and [inspires] us to see fresh details, fresh points of emphasis, fresh opportunities for discovery’.

What does this look like in English at WHS?

The texts explored in English at WHS offer many opportunities to examine or defamiliarize the world and summon up ‘imaginative power to help us dwell better’. For example, in studying Shakespeare, we deconstruct 16th century attitudes to issues such as gender, sexuality, wealth, race and colonialism, helping us contextualise the discourses and complexities of debates around the same topics today. At GCSE, you may read Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go and explore the pressures of being ‘normal’ through the perspective of Kathy, a clone created for organ donations, desperately trying meet social expectations for human behaviour when that same society views her as less than human. As Fletcher argues, literary forms themselves are ‘inventions’ which unlock our empathy, defamiliarize and refamiliarize, and help us understand and interact with the world and each other better.

Thus, English lessons are likely to be in equal part inspiring and challenging, especially where we need to acknowledge our own blind spots and where we have been influenced by powerful social and cultural narratives. We need to have a flexible ‘growth’ mindset about tackling complex issues and encountering literature’s transformative power over our minds. The English Department’s new mission statement articulates our aims in tackling the ‘big picture’ of learning in English head on.

The study of language and literature is the study of the human condition: how we behave, think, feel, how we respond to political and social changes. As such, in English we can expect to come across issues and themes which are complex, challenging, troubling and exciting, and which speak to society and culture today as much as they did in a text’s original context. In exploring these texts we have an opportunity to interrogate the issues which affect us in society at large, and in English lessons we agree to sit in the discomfort, pull apart these topics, searching for ways of understanding and ways to engage with the world, and developing the language to speak about what affects us. We know that these debates resist easy answers and that everyone gets things wrong sometimes, so English lessons are a mutually respectful open space to explore, develop new ways of looking at our society and culture, and finally to create and enjoy those texts which inspire us.

English may often deal in hypotheticals, imaginary worlds, or historical contexts far removed from our own, making it seem detached from the immediate problems of our world. But in fact, this very quality is why the study of literature allows us to develop frameworks and language to engage more deeply in life, and to effect meaningful change in this world and in ourselves.


[i] https://inews.co.uk/news/education/gcses-a-levels-2021-english-literature-geography-1023545

[ii] https://www.nate.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/NATE-Post-16-position-paper.pdf

[iii] https://inews.co.uk/news/education/gcses-a-levels-2021-english-literature-geography-1023545

[iv] https://www.conservativehome.com/platform/2021/05/gavin-williamson-skills-jobs-and-freedom-my-priorities-for-this-weeks-queens-speech-and-the-year-ahead.html

[v] Fletcher, A. (2021) Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature, New York: Simon and Schuster.

[vi] http://whs-blogs.co.uk/eco-blog/ecopoetry-can-literature-really-change-world/

Why we need plants in every classroom

Plant

In this week’s WimTeach, Miss Judith Parker, Head of Spanish, explores the positive impact of biophilic classrooms on students’ learning outcomes and wellbeing, and advocates for plants in every classroom.

A couple of years ago I decided to brighten up my classroom and office by bringing in some plants from home. Aside from the accidental watering of the inside of someone’s locker, the effects were remarkably positive. The introduction of plants not only enlivened previously drab spaces but also invigorated students and colleagues. Research studies, including a project led by one of our GDST schools, are revealing the hidden benefits of classroom plants.

Mindfulness and wellbeing

When I first brought plants into my classroom, students and colleagues expressed reverently how calm they felt upon entering the space. There are plenty of opportunities for mindful moments of appreciation with plants. We delight in the gradual unfurling of a new leaf or the surprise appearance of a new shoot. Research studies on the psychological impact of indoor plants have demonstrated that they improve mental wellbeing through suppressing the sympathetic nervous system and reducing blood pressure.[1] A study[2] on hospital patients noted the therapeutic benefit of indoor plants and recommended them as a low-cost, straightforward intervention to improve post-surgical recovery.

The benefits of biophilic classrooms

Specific studies into the impact of plants in classrooms have shown that they enhance students’ learning. ‘Biophilic’ classrooms, which are designed to connect students and teachers to nature, have a positive impact on focus and creativity. Putney High School has paved the way here with their 9-month study on the impact of biophilic classrooms.  This led to a report[3] and exhibition of their designs and findings at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show. Their project is based on ‘The Flourish Model’ which aims to facilitate creativity through a tranquil environment. We are, of course, more likely to explore and innovate when we are feeling calm and safe, rather than anxious and stressed. Plants help us to get into that comfortable state. The report also demonstrates how better air quality from plants improves students’ concentration and engagement in lessons, as well as their emotional wellbeing.

“There are no gardening mistakes, only experiments” – Janet Kilburn Phillips

Plant care offers a new learning experience. It provides the opportunity to contribute towards a shared space through teamwork. There is a collective effort and pride in managing to keep plants at the very least alive, and ideally thriving.

I brought in several plants for my new tutor group in September. In typical WHS spirit, my wonderful Year 10s immediately embraced them with enthusiasm and affection. I returned for afternoon registration that same day to find that they had already added name labels to the pots. A consultation had taken place as to their ideal placement in the form room. Plant care brings out the nurturing instinct of our students, who earnestly confer about the optimum moisture level of the soil and in what parts of the room each species might be happiest. Our form’s ‘Head Gardeners’ take on their responsibility with the utmost diligence.

When faced with imminent school closure in the first lockdown, I entrusted my leafy collection to my students. Some had enthusiastically volunteered; others simply happened to pass through the MFL corridor and found themselves unexpectedly becoming surrogate plant parents. Email updates on my beloved plants, now scattered around students’ homes across London, punctuated the long months of lockdown and school closures. One student gently broke the news to me that a particular plant, despite her efforts, alas, had not survived the challenging times.

The plants of 10JIP have recently spent the half-term break in the homes of different form members, and several students are excited to bring in their own plants from home. Some students were hesitant about looking after plants as they had no experience in doing so, which is an even better reason to put them in charge. After all, at WHS we encourage students out of their comfort zone and towards experimentation, even in the face of potential failure.

Incorporating nature into our daily lives

For those of us living and working in congested and polluted urban areas, the sad reality is that we are spending very little time interacting with nature. We all want to be eco-friendly and care for our natural environment. However, we can easily spend consecutive days exclusively indoors and without any direct contact with the natural world. We need plants in our classrooms to maintain our connection with nature.

Plants make us happier, calmer and more creative. They should be an integral part of a classroom environment. At Wimbledon High, we are fortunate already to have a committed Eco Team, Blog and Gardening Club. Let’s bring plants within reach of all teachers and learners.

Top tips for introducing plants to the classroom:

  • Start with the most resilient species, such as sansevieria (snake plant), spathiphyllum (peace lily) and chlorophytum comosum (spider plant).
  • Make sure that there is a suitable spot for your chosen species, taking into account temperature, levels of light and humidity.
  • Appoint one or two students to take the lead in plant care and establish a weekly routine of watering.
  • Invite students to bring in their own plants.

[1]Lee, M. et al. (2015) Interaction with indoor plants may reduce psychological and physiological stress by suppressing autonomic nervous system activity in young adults: a randomized crossover study. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4419447/

[2] Park, S. and Mattson, H. (2009) Ornamental indoor plants in hospital rooms enhanced health outcomes of patients recovering from surgery. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19715461/

[3] Bowman, C. et al. (2019) The Biophilic Classroom Study. https://317307-971812-raikfcquaxqncofqfm.stackpathdns.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Biophilic-report-for-website-1.pdf

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.

Students performing music at Friday Jammin

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.

Photo by Anete Lusina from Pexels

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