For the Love of… How nurturing passion can build Intellectual Resilience at A Level

In this week’s WimLearn Morven Ross and Callista McLaughlin explore how passion can build intellectual resilience at A Level.

We are two Early Career Teachers from very different fields – Design and Technology and Classics. However, in our conversations during our time at Wimbledon High School, we have constantly noticed similarities between our approaches to teaching, and the approaches of our students. Perhaps it is because we both teach subjects that are non-compulsory from the Middle School, and almost always sought for their intrinsic value, with our students’ desire to study them stemming from a particular interest and passion, or niche skillset. Given the same sort of motivation is what has led us to teaching, we seek to magnify that motivation in our students, by creating conducive conditions to instil the intellectual resilience prized in A Level students.

Breadth to match depth

In our A Level teaching, we have noticed that the courses in both Product Design, and Latin or Greek, focus on understanding a particular topic or text in depth, compared to the, albeit more cursory, breadth which characterises many GCSE courses. To build intellectual resilience though, students need to indulge their curiosity and open themselves up to further aspects of the subject at hand, weaving a safety blanket of breadth to match that depth. Furthermore, due to the intrinsically specialist nature of our subjects, our aim is not solely to get pupils through their A Levels, but to create Classicists and Product Designers.

While the A Level Latin candidates this year would only be tested on 124 of the 9883 lines of Virgil’s Aeneid in Latin, and only the twelfth of the twelve books in English, to inject real meaning and fulfilment into this study, the students are encouraged to read the whole of the Aeneid in English. While this kind of breadth would be of some obvious help to A Level, we have found the magic really starts when the breadth goes further. In Product Design, students are encouraged to go beyond the curriculum. The A Level Microsoft Team is used as a platform for inspiration; we post interesting products and articles as well as links to industry talks and external competitions. These posts create meaningful small talk at the start of subsequent lessons, bridging the gap between the outside world and the A Level in a way that can often be a nice segue into the lesson content. Socratic questioning is seen across departments as a method of building intellectual resilience – it’s interesting to note that the Socratic dialogues written by Plato would often start with this kind of small talk.

We would love to know…

In what ways to do you encourage students to go beyond the curriculum and engage with your subject from a purely curious yet scholarly viewpoint?

Modelling and nurturing passion

For students looking to continue to study our subjects in the future, the subject must exist for them outside as well as inside the classroom. We as teachers must model this. A Level Product Design students have come to understand that having a design sketchbook is not an over-ambitious and fanciful suggestion of their teachers, but an achievable must-have for a Product Designer. Students highlight how inspiring it is to see their teacher’s current design work in a raw, unfiltered sketchbook as well as hearing about, and seeing, their prior industry experience via their design portfolios. We like to model everyday subject engagement in Classics too: a small book of Sappho, tried and tested by their teacher as hand-bag size, is a proven realistic acquisition for a Classical Civilisation student with a long reading list.

This is not to suggest a binary between the prescriptiveness of the A Level syllabus and the passion that can be nurtured outside of it. We love finding quick hacks to exploit the joy our subjects can offer even in the most pressed moments of the course. In A Level set text teaching, reading the lines of Classical verse as a class in the metre reminds pupils that they are reading beautiful poetry before settling down to find the main verb for translation. In Product Design, the teacher stopping to scribble a rough napkin sketch in the middle of a lesson is not uncommon. After all we never know when inspiration might strike.

We would love to know…

In what ways to do you model an element of your subject to students in order to nurture their passion?

Care through challenge

We have found that when these attitudes are inculcated and this environment is created, intellectual resilience follows. Because young people in particular push harder when it comes to things they really care about. If you’re sketching all the time, you become comfortable with raw, unfiltered work. In A Level Product Design lessons, work is regularly laid on the table for open and honest critique by the class; this builds a culture of trust. True designers know the process is what’s important. Classicists can learn from this too; giving a pupil a deliberately hard Latin unseen and praising their guesses, or critiquing them from a place of mutual understanding, irrespective of their accuracy, can produce the most fascinating linguistic conversations.

As we look ahead to the vast openness of the summer holidays, Product Design are devising a list of intellectual challenges to stretch the pupils. Classics are always elaborating on their reading lists so that the aim of summer reading is not to get ahead for the A Level, but to warmly challenge their students to be Classicists all year round.  

A final thought…

How would you answer this question, posed by an A Level Product Design student this week, based on entirely independent and whimsical research. The question happens to be of just as much interest to a student of ancient languages. So, in true STEAM+ fashion, how would you use your language and design skills to signpost radioactive material which will outlive us all, and potentially the human race…?

How connecting the stage, the page and current events enlivens the Classics

Classics teacher Callista McLaughlin examines the deeply enriching influence that a school production of a drama from Classical literature has had on learning in Years 10 and 12.

A major focus of my teaching of the Classics this year has been the Tragedy genre, in the Greek Theatre paper in A-Level Classical Civilisation, and the Verse Literature component of Greek GCSE. The Year 10 production of Euripides’ Women of Troy invigorated this task in more ways than one.

Women of Troy is set in the aftermath of the capture of Troy by the Greeks, which ended the conflict that is depicted most famously in Homer’s Iliad. As one Year 10 remarked when Hattie Franklin and I were team-teaching an A-Level taster on Homer’s epic, ‘Euripidesdramatises the fate the women fear in the Iliad’. Our eyes were widening at breadth of knowledge of Classical literature suggested by this observation, when we remembered that this pupil was in the play. This was the first of many gifts from this production to reach our Classics classrooms.

WHS Women of Troy

Beyond the classroom

While its dramatic content comes, like much of Tragedy, from myth, Euripides wrote and produced this play during the Peloponnesian War of the 5th Century, and it has been considered his response to its horrors.[1] His ever-empathetic, strikingly universal expressions have apparently enabled others to satisfy the same longing. Thus, millennia later, the play was notably produced with an astonishingly pacifistic slant, in Berlin in 1916.[2] In fact, the text has been re-translated and re-produced over time with constant urgency, in response to various world events, including the Boer war, European imperialism in Asia, the September 11 attacks and the US invasion of Iraq.[3] This term our school production of the tragedy was shot through with meaning and impact by the war in Ukraine.

The pain expressed by the chorus of women on the destruction of their homeland, and their questions for the future– where might they live? who might forcibly take them as a wife or lover? what might become of their children? – echoed the anxieties we see expressed by Ukrainian refugees on the news all too closely. Deb McDowell’s choice to set the production in a modern-day refugee camp meant it looked like what we see on television too: in class Year 12 remarked on the poignancy of each chorus member bearing baggage. The blue and yellow flag draped over the tiny casket of a slaughtered innocent towards the end of the play wove together the connections it was impossible to avoid throughout, as an audience member.

WHS Women of Troy

Inside the classroom

The unanimous observation of the Year 12 Classical Civilisation students who watched the production, and the Year 10 Greek students who were in it, was that these allusions increased their empathy with and understanding of Euripides’ characters. Moreover, just as powerfully as the modern setting brought the ancient tragedy to life, the tragic dialogues in turn brought the modern setting to life, with the potential to inform our understanding of the current state of war.

The play yielded high-level discussion from the Year 12 audience, from exploring their set author Euripides more deeply to making inspired proposals for setting their set plays in 2022. For the Year 10 actors, it was invaluable immersion. They have produced articulate, thoughtful responses to what they learned from the process, but also shown me what they learned, through the heightened emotion and energy with which they have tackled the – often tough and trying –[4] task of translating their set text.

The fantastic production set me up for an increased engagement with its content – though  their spontaneously wailing like a tragic chorus when a character disrespected a Greek god surpassed my expectations! Less anticipated, and truly exciting, is the effect it has had on their handling of what is challenging Greek, particularly for students who have been learning the language for less than a year. Seeing a play, rather than a mere puzzle of particles and irregular verbs, they have begun to use their instinct and intuition to make logical connections between the different lines of dialogue. I am also taking advantage of the now-revealed acting skills of the class. The activity of performing a dialogue, proven effective for studying plays in translation,[5] has in some ways even more exciting potential when tackling the original Greek.

Conclusions on co-curricular cultivation

With the theatre coming back into our lives, the Classics pupils will have seen two external productions this year (the Bacchae in January and an Oedipus / Antigone mash-up later this month). Such trips and exposure are inspiring, especially when trying to bring such ancient texts back to life, but co-curricular immersion, right here at school, magnifies this potential marvellously. And for the non-Classicists starring in the tragedy, it has been a brilliant intellectual and creative challenge, which will have allowed them to grow as students, whatever their field of interest.

[1] Croally, Neil (2007). Euripidean Polemic: The Trojan Women and the Function of TragedyCambridge University PressISBN 0-521-04112-0

[2] Sharp, IE (2018) “A Peace Play in Wartime Germany? Pacifism in Franz Werfel’s The Trojan Women, Berlin 1916.” Classical Receptions Journal, 10 (4). pp. 476-495. ISSN 1759-5134 (


[4] Hunt, S. (2016), Starting to Teach Latin. London: Bloomsbury p.126.

[5] Speers, C. (2020). “How can teachers effectively use student dialogue to drive engagement with ancient drama? An analysis of a Year 12 Classical Civilisation class studying Aristophanes’ Frogs.” Journal of Classics Teaching, 21(41), 19-32. doi:10.1017/S2058631020000112

How does collaboration give students vital life skills?

WHS Director of Drama, Deb McDowell, reflects on how Drama can help students understand the importance of recognising your limitations and engaging in productive conflict to achieve the best outcomes

At this point of the year, as another cohort of students prepare to stride out into the world beyond WHS, I always ask them for their reflections on the best and also the most challenging things about the Drama experience. Then comes the frown, a sigh or two and a blowing out of lips, followed by thoughtful raised eyebrows, a gentle shaking of the head and a wry smile: ‘Devising! For both!’

The students are referring to the exam requirement at both GCSE and A level to create a 20-minute piece of Drama for performance in a group.

Experiencing the highs and lows of collaboration, in a high-stakes situation, usefully prepares Drama students for the world beyond school, where the value of well-honed, independent study skills – key for fantastic exam results – so often depreciates rapidly, while the need to negotiate and work with others becomes more crucial to success.

Let’s take a moment to consider some of the wonderful things collaboration offers, as evidenced by the powerful devised work created by Drama students each year:  

  • It provides an inclusive and productive experience for everyone.
  • It teaches those who have confident voices to listen to those who are less extrovert, but also requires everyone to take responsibility for the work in progress, not just to sit back and let the ‘leaders’ take over.
  • It provides a positive platform for problem-solving, as a result of experiencing a range of perspectives; learning that that by pooling knowledge, skills and expertise, a group response can be nuanced and powerful.
Anastasia by Year 10-13 Wimbledon High students

However, actually learning how to collaborate is not easy. Negotiating the unavoidable personal and practical challenges of working with others must not be underestimated. Commentators cite the need to trust and respect each other as the most important part of a group dynamic, but in discussion, WHS Drama students perceptively commented that this trust and respect cannot truly exist at the outset of any collaborative project, neither can it be forced, but will only grow over time in the most effective groups.

Together we agreed on the following.

First, we must understand that collaboration is more than simply ‘working with others to produce something’. There must be a shared intention, which in Drama is to produce high quality work that has social, cultural, moral value.  There must also be specific agreed objectives, which for us means being precise about what we want the audience to think about or feel as a result of experiencing the performance.  

Collaboration also requires agreed acceptance of the need for organisation, and a methodical way of working, even if the actual responsibility for active time management and group discipline falls to the individuals within the group best suited for these roles.

Furthermore, outstanding outcomes are only achieved a result of ambitious thinking and a determination to achieve the highest standards of execution, where the process must allow for risk-taking and also tolerance of missteps along the way, both in terms of the work in progress, but also in relation to group interaction.  

Learning the personal qualities for collaboration

Many people have a deep-seated need to please, to be liked by others and to avoid conflict. Unfortunately – ironically perhaps – these traits undermine the very process of positive collaboration. Collaborations that aspire to be entirely harmonious soon find themselves mired in complacency, buoyed up by a cosy morale which ultimately leads to work that is clichéd, less sophisticated and ultimately unsatisfying.

What often lies behind the feelings of anger and frustration that can emerge is a perfectly reasonable anxiety about progress, or a sense of injustice borne from perceived unequal effort, or disappointment in the quality of input from others. We must accept that these feelings will bubble up when the stakes are high. It is really challenging to find a way to allow for them to be acknowledged properly as an integral part of the process, but when they are managed effectively, they can lead to collaboration of the highest order, which will make possible that fantastic sense of achievement and high morale experienced by so many of our students…in the end.

Positive collaboration forces us to understand our own limits; to recognise our own reluctance to be vulnerable; to be able to admit mistakes; and to see that challenges or failures along the way are not crises but a necessary part of the process.

And we have to truly respect others and evaluate their ideas openly and objectively. This is harder than it sounds, especially when we are often so used to measuring our progress relative to others, seeking out personal indications of approval to bolster our self-esteem, and becoming increasingly ‘set in our ways’ to feel more ‘in control’. Through collaboration we have an opportunity to learn from each other. The process should encourage us to see the value in asking for help, something far too many of us find very difficult (often perceiving this as an admission of weakness, when actually the opposite is true).

Working with others can allow us to become the kind of person we would want to work with ourselves – someone who can understand and respect others’ points of view, including across differences of background or expertise. And when faced with complex and demanding situations, we have to be able to admit when we need help. A confident, positive approach to collaboration makes all the difference. Listening to this year’s departing Drama cohort reflecting on why the experience of Devising embraced the worst of times but ultimately led to the best of times, I am happy that these students are striding out better equipped for life beyond WHS.

Reflections on decolonising the curriculum in A Level English

Following the introduction of a postcolonial literature unit in English Literature this year at A Level, Sarah Lindon writes up reflections from a discussion she had with fellow English teacher James Courtenay Clack and students in Year 13, to reflect on what has been valuable about it and what needs further thought

As part of an informal review of the English Department’s work so far on decolonising the curriculum at A Level, we met with Year 13 English Literature students to ask for their feedback before they went on study leave. Those who took part were from the first cohort to undertake the unit on postcolonial texts and theories, which culminated in a coursework task comparing Kiran Desai’s ‘An Inheritance of Loss’ and the poetry of Derek Walcott. We were keen to hear what they thought was of value academically and on a wider human level, and what some of the problems were.

Exploring human experiences

Students told us that while historical accounts gave them factual understanding of aspects of empire, what they valued about looking at Literature was gaining a sense of the plurality of human experiences under colonisation, and appreciating the imaginative depth involved in exploring individual lives through narrative and metaphor. When studying historical facts and following debates in the media, they felt it was easy to become distanced from the subject matter, particularly for those without their own experiences that might resonate with those of oppressed people.

Though they felt in some respects more ‘in touch’ with experiences of colonisation as represented in literature, through having them presented on a ‘narrative plane’, they were nonetheless alert to the danger of becoming ‘narrative tourists’. With Walcott’s poetry especially, metaphor was pinpointed as a powerful vehicle for conveying experiences and ideas. Desai’s use of narrative flashbacks as a tool for interrogating colonialism was highly effective in allowing exploration of the fracturing and evolution of identity. These were methods that they felt gave them deeper insight into the perspectives, thoughts and feelings relating to experiences of imperial domination.

These observations connect with debates about the role literature can play in developing empathy and altruism in readers. Ann Jurecic has suggested that while reading literature does not automatically produce empathy, ‘educators can encourage readers to take advantage of the invitation to dwell in uncertainty and to explore the difficulties of knowing, acknowledging, and responding to others’[i]. Building on this, Omri Cohen suggests the importance of exploring ‘the ways in which reading literature may curb or defeat empathic motivations’[ii]. Both writers engage with Raymond Williams’ view that ‘sympathy experienced [while] reading about…suffering…privatises a social emotion, counteracting the motivation for public action’, and the observations of Lauren Berlant that empathy can be a ‘civic-minded but passive ideal’ and a form of ‘false knowledge’ (cited in Jurecic), and that reading can even provide a ‘false transcendence’ through ‘passive empathy’ (cited in Cohen). Students didn’t seem to have reached a firm standpoint in this regard, but were indeed dwelling in uncertainty.

The importance of listening

Our Year 13s had learnt that the legacy of empire is very much present in the world around them now, which was new to them. All of them had reflected more deeply on their own identities. For those with mixed heritage, this brought increased interest in both areas of privilege and areas of difficulty that their identities entail for them, when considered through exploring figures in the poetry and the novel.

And yet, when the group reflected on whether they now felt more equipped to engage in discussions of empire and its ramifications, they were cautious. While they might have gained a stronger sense of its importance and meanings as a topic, they also felt that such discussions had become harder for them in some ways.

Rather than feeling more inclined to contribute to discussions on topics around empire, racial politics, social justice and inclusion, some students felt they would now have a strong preference for contributing less and listening more, to learn from others. They were aware of how they, like any other group, bring a very specific perspective to these conversations, as members of the majority culture. They had a new appreciation for the strong value of words and their unintended meanings. And they valued what they characterised as a new atmosphere in lessons, where they took more time to listen and connect, saying it wasn’t enough just to bring bubbly energy. They knew that they didn’t always have the answers, and that collaboration and taking in others’ views was essential.

They contrasted this with a kind of complacency they feel susceptible to in relation to the ‘Women in Literature’ component of the course, where their identification with female characters potentially blunts their critical attention and alertness to differences across texts, oeuvres, time periods and cultures. With new awareness of different kinds of oppression, they could now make connections and distinctions in relation to reading for ‘Women in Literature’. They were very engaged by finding new perspectives on more traditionally canonical texts such as Jane Eyre too. Overall, they felt a key legacy of this unit for them as readers was that they would be more aware of the benefits of reconsidering their first reading of a text and exploring other viewpoints.

Reading in the round

One of the most important areas for us to think about as teachers now is how the comparison aspect of the task often led students to read the poetry through their interpretations of Desai’s novel, which meant that the full richness of Walcott’s work and ideas was not brought out as much as we hoped. For practical reasons, students read the novel before turning to the poetry, and we would like to reconsider this for next year, especially since Desai arguably emphasises the traumatic aspect of postcolonial experience above all, while Walcott’s vision acknowledges this but also allows for a generative, creative, plural response to it, and looks to forms of identity that are not just constricted, defined or distorted by colonial legacies

In this vein, we are keen to think further about the dangers of looking at identity in reductive ways. Literature is by its nature multivocal, dialogic, intertextual and complex. The risk of ‘flattening’ texts with one-dimensional readings is one that we need to push against continually, and we will be thinking afresh about this after seeing how that tendency worked out sometimes in this unit to reduce Caribbean literature only to its representation of oppression and suffering , as it sometime does with ‘Women in Literature’ as well. This is diminishing of authors and texts, of what literary craft is about, and of our understanding of human diversity, creativity and identity. We will work further on bringing out more powerfully the communicative and recreative powers of literature, which allow it to ‘talk back’ to power, to social and cultural currents, and to difficult histories and experiences.

[i] Jurecic, Ann. “Empathy and the Critic.” College English, vol. 74, no. 1, 2011, pp. 10–27, Accessed 12 May 2022.

[ii] Omri Cohen (2021) Teaching self-critical empathy: lessons drawn from The Tortilla Curtain and Half of a Yellow Sun, English in Education, 55:2, 132-148, DOI: 10.1080/04250494.2019.1686953

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:

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.





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


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.



[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;

How can studying our surroundings enrich historical enquiry?

Emily Anderson, Head of History, reflects on how the pandemic has thrown the department’s thinking about place into relief, and how this is manifest in the History classroom and in inter-disciplinary thinking.

Let’s observe, Attenborough style, the historian at work. What comes to mind as you peer tentatively into your imagination, careful not to disturb? I would be certain that, to some extent, you would gravitate towards a library, or an archive, and rightly so. For this is where the historian finds their treasure, following lead upon lead to synthesise their research into new understanding, often of people and events far removed from our own experience. Whilst the primary location for our WHS historians is the classroom rather than the archive or library (with a healthy engagement with the latter, of course), the principle remains; understanding emerges through study of the sources.

And yet, how much poorer our understanding would be if we stayed in the archive. Venture outside, and our surroundings become another historical source, there to challenge and broaden our thinking. The potential of this has long inspired me: my Master’s dissertation in 2014 considered how far the political context of the debates over Home Rule in Ireland influenced the construction of Belfast City Hall, building on both an element of my undergraduate study but also my teaching at A Level at the time. Recently, I have felt the draw towards such lines of enquiry particularly keenly, as our world has shrunk due to the pandemic and the opportunities normally available to me and my department to explore the world for ourselves and, crucially, share this with our students on trips (always a wonderful experience) have not been available. Talking with family, friends and colleagues, I know that we are not alone in this.

Within the curriculum

We can, however, still incorporate the study of places into our curriculum. At A Level, we teach a study of the British Empire from c1857-1967. It is, of course, a very wide-ranging unit in terms of geographical reach and this is one of the things which drew us to it; the opportunity, not widely available at A Level, to study global history. The uniting focus of the course is Britain, but to only study the impact and debate from this perspective would be a severe dereliction of our duty as historians. The impact of the European empires on the physical landscape of periphery and metropole alike is striking – the more you look, the more you see and traditional narratives are disrupted. In our city, Notting Hill, now a by-word for the celebration of multi-culturalism, has become so because of migration from what was the Empire. To wander the streets and museums of South Kensington is to experience, to my mind, a showcase of the imperial project. Reading the testimonies of those involved in the Morant Bay uprising in Jamaica, and coupling these with the incredible sense of place evoked by David Olusoga in his documentary work, means that even sites of memory far away and currently inaccessible to us can be explored in the classroom.[1]

At GCSE, our course looks at Berlin during the Cold War. I find the city both wonderfully vibrant and hauntingly evocative, and love taking our students there to experience it for themselves. It is the unexpected, small-scale artefacts that intrigue the most – the oversize floodlight which lit up the approach to the Berlin Wall, still on the front of an apartment block though the Wall is long gone; the first memorial to the Holocaust, barely registered by those who pass it in the suburb of Schöneberg; the American-style cinema built for the occupying troops but more at home in the Midwest. The questions students ask both on such trips and back in the classroom show how such experiences enable them to see the history they study in new ways. Excitingly, our new GCSE, which the current Y9s will study from September, gives us the opportunity to conduct a study of Spitalfields, an area shaped and enriched by the diverse communities which have settled there. Classroom and in-situ enquiry will work together to bring our understanding to life.

At Key Stage Three, we are embarking on a total overhaul of our curriculum. This gives us the exciting opportunity to reconsider how we incorporate our surroundings into historical study, and how we can use trips to their best advantage to complement it. Inspiration has abounded – one of the upsides of the past year has been the extraordinary availability of online seminars and training. We have been trialling some new enquiries with Year 9, including ‘What secrets of the past are hidden within the walls of a house?’, which uses the BBC programme and book ‘A House Through Time’ as a starting point for a study of social change in Liverpool in the 19th and 20th centuries.[2] Again, we have found ourselves drawing on a place – here a home – to focus and enrich our historical thinking.[3]

Inter-disciplinary opportunities

An interest in place, in all its complexities, is something we share with our colleagues and friends in Geography. You will have seen Dr Stephanie Harel’s article in October on this blog and this sparked thinking about how we could collaborate to share expertise and experience and develop understanding.[4] The Y12 History and Geography students participated in an initial exploration of themes around place during the STEAM+ event in November, and led the first joint session of Geog On, History Girls and Politics Society, sharing what they’d discussed. We are continuing our joint meetings this term.

I hope that this has given you some insight into an aspect of our current thinking as a department. We would love the wider community to be part of the conversation about our curriculum. Please do get in touch if you would like to via email or Twitter.

Further reading/ideas – along with the material referenced in the post

There are some wonderful walking tours of London which I would thoroughly recommend – some are online at the moment. Try, and

Brian Ladd’s ‘The Ghosts of Berlin’ – a wonderful reflection on this most fascinating of cities.

‘The Companion Guide to…’ series – for in-depth itineraries around different cities and countries.

[1] P. Gopal, Insurgent Empire, London, Verso, 2019; Black and British: A Forgotten History, D. Olusoga, BBC, 2016

[2] A House Through Time, D. Olusoga, BBC, 2018; D. Olusoga and M. Backe-Hansen, A House Through Time, London, Picador, 2020

[3] With thanks to Holly Beckwith for masterminding and planning this enquiry


What has COVID taught us about our relationships with others?

Mr Keith Cawsey, Head of Religious Studies at Wimbledon High, looks at the impact that COVID has had on our local community and the impact that small acts of kindness have in helping those in need.

Last December, as I was sitting having a cup of tea with a colleague in the Humanities office, our conversation moved on to this ‘mysterious virus’ that was emerging from China. It was spreading through a city called Wuhan and no-one knew what it was or the impact it had on health. It seemed a million miles away, far, far away from SW19. We discussed what would happen if it travelled over to London, but we both agreed that this seemed highly unlikely. We all know what happened next. Case after case, COVID 19 crept closer and closer and took over our lives in a very short space of time and in a way that we would never have imagined.

I believe that COVID has taught us a great deal about ourselves and the community that we live in.

The first thing to happen was sheer panic. I remember visiting my local supermarket at 0700 when it opened. What I saw was nothing short of apocalyptic – people running through the supermarket (and over each other) to grab the last remaining packets of toilet roll. Quite a few had five / ten packets in their trolley and they then selfishly guarded their ‘booty’ as they waited at the checkouts. Others snatched bread, milk, eggs, teabags, meat, butter – whatever they could find and piled their trollies sky high with food so that their families would not be without. What followed in the news? Pictures of bins piled high with out of date food and meat. It seemed that the whole country had become increasingly selfish and the only people who mattered were the people in their families. What had happened to us?

Every religion is unique, but what is particularly interesting is the similarities between them. One thing that stands out as a ‘golden thread’ from all worldviews is charity and caring for others.

Indeed, every religion encourages its followers to care for others, particularly the poor and vulnerable.

  • Hinduism teaches about ‘atman’ – the aspect of God that is in each and every one of us. As equals on this planet, we need to protect every living thing, including animals.
  • The Buddha taught about compassion and how to alleviate suffering, ‘dukkha’.
  • Guru Nanak taught about the importance of providing for others, physically and spiritually.
  • Jesus Christ taught us to ‘love your neighbour’.
  • At the heart of the Jewish faith is ‘Tzedakah’ – a religious duty to provide for anyone in need.
  • One of the Five Pillars of Islam is ‘Zakah’ – 2.5% of all income is shared amongst those in society who need it most.

As we all know, you don’t have to be religious to feel a moral duty to help others. Humanists believe that by helping others, we make society fairer and it is an obligation of us all to provide for those in need.

So while some where piling their trollies sky high with food that would go to waste, what happened next was nothing short of a miracle. As most of us sat safe at home, we started to think about those in our community who carried on regardless: our refuse collectors, our post people, policemen and women, our firefighters, our nurses and doctors. I am sure that no-one will ever forget standing on our doorsteps clapping for our NHS workers who went to work each day putting themselves in the eye of the storm, quietly, diligently and without any fuss.

It became clear to me that in the middle of such a national catastrophe, there were two types of people – those that cared only about themselves and those who put themselves out to help others in whatever way they could – a phone call / a doorstep conversation / a text to people who lived alone. Streets became connected like never before. People were knocking on their neighbours’ doors. Shopping lists were exchanged and those who were shielding were cared for – food deliveries were made. We realised that even though we were scared about the pandemic, it was our moral duty to care for those who needed us.

In Merton, the following charities helped those in need:

  • The Faith in Action Merton Homeless Project
  • Merton Giving Coronavirus Fund
  • Merton Mutual Aid
  • MVSC Covid-19 Community Response Hub
  • Stem4 (Teenage Mental Health Charity)
  • The Dons Local Action Group
  • Wimbledon Food Bank
  • Wimbledon Guild

Some volunteered, others gave tinned food outside supermarkets and others were able to give a financial contribution.

We realised that even though we live our separate lives, the one thing that unites us is our community.

We will be talking about the pandemic for years to come but I hope that the one thing we will reflect on is the power of community. We will never ever again take for granted the tireless work of our NHS staff and our key workers and we should all aim to keep the conversations going with our neighbours.

We are stronger together and we should always aim to be kind. These are the connections and relationships that really matter. Happiness is sometimes a cup of tea, a meal cooked by someone else or a text from someone who you haven’t heard from for a while. These acts of kindness can often cost very little but are invaluable to the recipient and really matter.

Let’s hope that we are turning a corner with COVID and can get back to a ‘normal’ life soon. But when we do, we should always remember the connections we have made and the power that our community has when we truly work together and show kindness and love for one another.

‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.’

Matthew 25:35

If you would like to support Wimbledon High’s Christmas 2020 Project please do visit our Christmas Firefly Page where you can find out all about our Access to Learning Project, where we are raising funds to support the purchase of computers for pupils in two of our local primary partner schools, enabling their pupils to access learning when they are at home owing to self-isolation requirements. If every pupil in Wimbledon High raised just £10 each, we would have raised over £10000 in total, enabling the purchase of 40 iPads or laptops!

Learning what to do when you don’t know what to do – tackling unseen texts in English

Miss Lucinda Gilchrist, Head of English, considers the virtues of being ‘stuck’, and how this can help pupils tackle challenging tasks with more confidence.

A growth mindset and being ‘stuck’

Carol Dweck’s influential work on growth mindset has become common parlance across schools now, and we know that helping pupils develop grit, perseverance and resilience is key to supporting them in their learning. A growth mindset is one in which ability is seen as ‘changeable’, and which ‘can be developed through learning’ (Dweck, 2006), rather than innate or fixed. As teachers, we want pupils to be able to reframe their thinking about things they struggle with to develop a growth mindset. We therefore provide scaffolds and supports to ease pupils into the ‘zone of proximal development’ and enable them to see smaller successes on the path to larger ones.

However, small and incremental scaffolds may actually serve to make them more reliant on the support from their teachers than on their own reasoning. An example of this: as part of some of my MA action research, I declared ‘war’ on the PEE/PEA structure, which I knew pupils had become too reliant on and which was making their writing too mechanical, and many of them simply relied on another acronym they had learnt in the past. By easing pupils into a task too gently, we run this risk: ‘if a task does not puzzle us at all, then it is not a problem; it is just an exercise’[1].

We therefore sometimes need to remove even more of the support structures, and defamiliarise pupils even further in order to make them less reliant on the scaffolds we put in place, and make them more aware of the ways in which they can get themselves unstuck, helping them to understand what to do when they don’t know what to do. We can expose them to challenges which they might consider beyond their ‘zone of proximal development’ – be this a new style of Mathematics problem, an unusual context for a theory in the Sciences, or a piece of music unlike anything they’ve heard before.

An example from English – analysing ‘unseen’ texts

Many students of English Literature at KS4 are anxious about the concept of ‘unseen’ – the part of the examination where pupils have to write an essay about a text they have never seen before. It’s particularly challenging with poetry: a poem is often by nature oblique and abstract, resisting an easy answer. While this is what we love about poetry, it can be frustrating for some pupils who want the ‘right’ answer! Pupils who find developing their own interpretations of texts hard sometimes rely on ‘getting’ the notes about texts, and thereby the ‘right’ answer, rather than developing the habits they need to be able to respond to any text, whether one they have encountered before or not. This is understandable: while English teachers will argue that all texts are ‘unseen’ before they are studied, pupils can become used to the scaffold of discussing with pairs or small groups, and the reassurance that, at the end, the teacher would eventually confirm the ‘right’ response by guiding the discussion and asking purposeful questions.

As Angela Duckworth says in Grit, ‘We prefer our excellence fully formed’ (2016). We would prefer to show the world the successful final outcome, rather than the training and experimenting, which means that committing pen to paper and articulating an interpretation of an unseen poem, or even just verbally expressing an idea in class discussion, could make unseen poetry a locus of fear and failure where pupils may feel intimidated by the myth that some people just ‘get it’ and others don’t, rather than seeing it as an enjoyable challenge. When I surveyed my Year 10 class about what they felt the biggest challenges in responding to unseen poetry were, several of their responses focused on the idea of a fixed, or correct interpretation – they were concerned about “analysing the text correctly” or finding “the right message/s of the poem”.  While many of them commented that they liked “reading new poems” and to have a “fresh start and use things we’ve learnt from other poems”, it is interesting that the pressure to ‘get it right’ still prevails.

So I decided to give my pupils a challenge which would deliberately make them feel stuck. As a starter activity just as we started our unseen poetry unit, I gave them a poem which was on a Cambridge University end of year examination in 2014, and which consists only of punctuation[2]:

They were definitely daunted by this – in a survey after the lesson I asked them how they felt when they saw it:

  • I felt a bit out of my depth, I struggled to analyse any of it
  • Quite stuck for words… I wasn’t really sure where to start seeing as we had no context and there were no words so how were you able to deduce anything from it?
  • Freaked out, how was I meant to be able to understand a poem with no words!These phrases echo exactly the sort of being ‘stuck’ feeling I’m sure we’ve all experienced when encountering something unfamiliar. The pupils spent some time on their own examining and annotating the poem, and then in a Teams video call we discussed the kinds of clues they could look for to help them understand the poem – although there weren’t words, they gradually began to use the information they did have, and came up with some insightful ideas, utilising the ideas about the structure and clues from the punctuation marks to try and gain some meaning from the poem. Here are some of the ideas from the Meeting Chat:

They were beginning to notice some really interesting ideas: the open-ended nature of the poem because of the unfinished last section, the implications of the punctuation marks which were there, and the fact that the lines were bracketed, suggesting some sort of devaluing of whatever words might have been inside them. I then revealed the title of the poem: ‘Tipp-Ex Sonata’, and explained that the poet, Koos Kombuis, was a South African performer and writer. With additional context, and using another pupil’s observation about apartheid, they then made some even more impressive deductions:

They had got very close to what Koos Kombuis had said about the poem himself: that it’s a protest against censorship of anti-apartheid voices in South Africa. So far, so good: the pupils had proved that they could reframe their thinking and use different clues to help them analyse the poem.

I then showed the pupils a poem in German:

This, naturally presented pupils with a different problem. However, they could identify rhyme and internal rhymes, alliteration and sound iconicity, and when they heard the poem aloud they could hear the regular, almost monotonous iambic pentameter. They identified that the first and last words of the poem were the same (although one is a pronoun and the other is a verb, they were using the right sort of reasoning!), and made an interesting point about the poem having a cyclical structure as a result. We spoke about how these gave the impression of something enclosed or making repeated movements – and of course, they were actually very close! This poem, ‘Der Panther’ by Rainer Maria Rilke[3], is about a panther, trapped in a cage and moving around in tiny circles as his mind calcifies. Without realising it, and without knowing any of the words, the pupils managed to understand this poem at a surprisingly deep level.

I then asked the pupils their feelings about unseen poetry, having attempted these two poems which would have been certainly at best uncomfortable, and at worst enough to make them feel ‘stuck’:

  • I like analysing unconventional poems, because you can interpret it on a much broader range, rather than analysing the meaning of words and literary devices.
  • less confused and a bit more confident in my capability to analysis texts
  • it made me more confident in understanding different ways to analyse and use other methods to deduce a message from a poem
  • Slightly reassured that annotations aren’t all there is to a poem and you can find other key elements elsewhere.
  • After these activities, I feel like I have a better approach to unseen poetry, and am able to discover the writer’s meaning without context or the internet.
  • now I understand that there is more than just the words on the page that can be understood.
  • it makes it a lot clearer because I now know there are other ways to look at a poem, for example after looking at “der panther” it made me realise I could’ve looked at the rhyming structure or words that rhyme in order to get a sense of the poem.These pupils’ responses suggest that putting them out of their comfort zone and possibly dangerously close to their ‘panic zone’[4], actually made them understand that there were more tools available to them than the most obvious ones. (It is particularly gratifying to see that at least one has learnt they don’t need to consult Google!) Not only is unseen poetry now less daunting, because they had successfully engaged with something even more unfamiliar, but they had also deepened their understanding of a greater range of devices which poets use to create meaning.This is a really useful strategy for helping pupils engage with something which they might feel daunted by, especially when it’s a new topic. Another example is from a Year 13 lesson when we started Chaucer: I was concerned that my class would be daunted by Middle English when they encountered it for the first time, so gave them versions of a text in Old English dating from the 10th and 11th century, and then the same text in Middle English from the 14th century, at which point the pupils began to recognise trends and similarities in the language and structure, eventually identifying it as the Lord’s Prayer, before I provided a more familiar 16th century translation. Making these connections helped pupils feel less alienated by Middle English and more confident to approach Chaucer.

    At WHS, we are fortunate enough to teach thoughtful, perceptive and independent students, and it’s encouraging to see the ways that they engage with really tricky material, and begin to see that, if they can tackle an undergraduate exam text in Year 10, they can tackle any poem! The same strategy could be used in many subjects – a piece of artwork which doesn’t look like what someone might assume to be ‘art’, a piece of music which challenges the expectations of a particular genre, data which might seem to buck a trend in science subjects.  These lessons are memorable as well: one of the girls in my Year 13 class signed up for my elective module on Sociolinguistics on the strength of the introduction to Middle English activity which she had enjoyed several months earlier! By challenging pupils’ expectations and perceptions of their own limitations, they are able to see their subjects in a broader light than the examination syllabi, make connections with wider experiences, and learn a valuable lesson about what to do when they don’t know what to do.


References and Further Reading

Duckworth, A. (2016) Grit: Why passion and resilience are the secrets to success, Vermillion.

Dweck, C. (2006) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Ballantine Books.





Can the Harkness approach to delivering Maths lead to a deeper understanding?

Mrs Clare Duncan, Director of Studies at WHS @MATHS_WHS, describes the Harkness approach she observed at Wellington College and the impact that this collaborative approach has in the understanding of A Level Maths.

Named after its founder, Edward Harkness, Harkness it is a pedagogical approach that promotes collaborative thinking. Edward Harkness’ view was that learning should not be a solitary activity instead it would benefit from groups of minds joining forces to take on a challenging question or issue. What Harkness wanted was a method of schooling that would train young people not only to confer with one another to solve problems but that would give them the necessary skills for effective discussion. Harkness teaching is a philosophy that began at Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire in the 1930s.

Edward Harkness stated:

“What I have in mind is [a classroom] where [students] could sit around a table with a teacher who would talk with them and instruct them by a sort of tutorial or conference method, where [each student] would feel encouraged to speak up. This would be a real revolution in methods.”

This was very much what the classroom looked like when I was lucky enough to observe Maths teaching at Wellington College last term. Their newly refurbished Maths rooms had floor to ceiling whiteboards on all the walls. On entering the classroom, the students were already writing their solutions to problems that were set at preparatory work for the lesson. Whether the solution was correct or not was irrelevant, it was a focal point which allowed students to engage in discussion and offer their own views, problems and suggestions. The discussion was student led with the teacher only interjecting to reinforce a significant Maths principle or concept.  The key learning point is giving the students their own time before the lesson to get to grips with something before listening to the views of others.

The Maths teachers at Wellington College have developed their own sets of worksheets which the students complete prior to the lesson. Unlike conventional schemes of work, the worksheets follow an ‘interleaving’ approach whereby multiple topics are studied at once. Time is set aside at the start of the lesson for students to put their solutions on whiteboards, they then walk around the room comparing their solutions to those of others. Discussion follows in which students would discuss how they got to their answers and why they selected the approach they are trying to use. In convincing others that their method was correct, there was a need for them to justify mathematical concepts in a clear and articulate manner. The students sit at tables in an oval formation, they can see one another and no-one is left out of the discussion. The teacher would develop the idea further by asking questions such as ‘why did this work?’ or ‘where else could this come up?’.

The aim of Harkness teaching is to cultivate independence and allows student individual time to consume a new idea before being expected to understand it in a high-pressured classroom environment. This approach can help students of all abilities. Students who find topics hard have more time than they would have in class to think about and engage with new material and students who can move on and progress are allowed to do so too. In class, the teacher can direct questioning in such a way that all students feel valued and all are progressing towards the end objectives.  It involves interaction throughout the whole class instead of the teacher simply delivering a lecture with students listening. It was clear that the quality of the teachers questioning and ability to lead the discussion was key to the success of the lesson.

Figure 1: WHS pupils in a Maths lesson solving problems using the Harkness approach

This was certainly confirmed by my observations. The level of Maths discussed was impressive, students could not only articulate why a concept worked but suggested how it could be developed further. I was also struck by how students were openly discussing where they went wrong and what they couldn’t understand; a clear case of learning from your mistakes. Whenever possible the teaching was student led. Even when teachers were writing up the ‘exemplar’ solutions, one teacher was saying ‘Talk me through what you want me to do next’. Technology was used to support the learning with it all captured on OneNote for students to refer to later. In one lesson, a student was selected as a scribe for notes. He typed them up directly to OneNote; a great way of the majority focusing on learning yet still having notes as an aide memoir.

Although new to me, at Wimbledon we have been teaching using the Harkness approach to the Sixth Form Further Maths students for the past couple of years. Having used this approach since September it has been a delight to see how much the Year 12 Further Maths pupils have progressed. Being able to their articulate mathematical thinking in a clear and concise way is an invaluable skill and, although hesitant at first, is now demonstrated ably by all the students. The questions posed and the discussions that ensue take the students beyond the confinements of the specifications.