Can outdoor learning create thinkers, risk takers and environmental pioneers?

Mrs Sarah Brierley, Miss Tiffany McIntyre and Miss Jade Mayes explore the impacts of learning beyond the classroom on pupils’ social, emotional, physical development and academic progress.

We are the Wild Girls

Outdoor Education is an umbrella term for any educational session which takes place outside the classroom; from Maths lessons in the playground, to visits to the Tower of London. For us, Wild Girls provides our pupils with the opportunity to jump in puddles, build shelters, write poetry in the woods, fly kites and learn to love nature. As we like to say, there is no Wi-Fi in the woods, but you’ll find a better connection! Children are also given permission to play freely, to explore their natural environment and take controlled risks.

Meet the facilitators with a vision

Participants are destined to achieve. The Wild Girls’ facilitators aim to make observations based on each individual girl, in order to scaffold their learning and allow them to take controlled risks.

Sarah Brierley:
I moved to the centre of Wimbledon 4 years ago, from the beauty of The Lake District, which offers a different outdoor classroom for each day of the year. As a mountain leader and RYA dingy sailing instructor, when I shared my vision with my fellow outdoor instructors from the Lakes, they were bewildered at how I could possibly suggest delivering outdoor education in central London- but we’ve done it!

Jade Mayes:
As a Year 1 teacher, I fully understand the importance of hands on, child-led learning. I have a background in Forest School Education, and bring this knowledge to our new initiative. My vision is to foster a community of individuals, who have just as much love for the natural world as I do, and in return will take care of it for future generations.

Tiffany McIntyre:
As a Reception teacher, I aspire to make this project more than just taking learning from indoors into an outside area, but to go further and provide opportunities that cannot be achieved within the confines of a classroom. Once the walls are removed, children have a sense of space and freedom that allows their young minds to investigate, explore and create on a larger scale. They move freely, building confidence through shared enterprise and hands-on experiences. Whether this involves building a pirate ship or investigating the best consistency of sand to build a sand castle, it all supports the children in the acquisition of skills and encourages them to develop independent thought, where the possibilities are endless.

The importance of learning beyond the classroom

We can learn so much from nature. The trees in a forest care for each other, communicating through their roots. They warn each other about dangers and use this network to decide when to seed. We can learn so much from this ‘wood wide web’ (Flannary, 2016.)  The lessons trees provide us about team work are endless. Isolated trees have much shorter lifespans than those living connected together in the woods (Wohlleben, 2016.) Surely, this is a lesson that will support our pupils as they progress through life.

Our KS1 sessions include the use of a range of activities and resources to encourage our pupils to participate. Nature provides a therapeutic environment for pupils to truly be themselves and grow as individuals. This point of view is supported by Carl Roger in his book A Way of Being – ‘I love to create such an environment, in which persons, groups, and even plants can grow…real relationships with persons, hands dirtied in  the soil, observing the budding flower, or viewing a sunset, are necessary to my life’ (Rogers, 1995). This concept is at the heart of our practice and has already been successfully implemented within our Junior School.

Holistic pedagogy

The holistic approach is naturally engrained in the structures of a Wild Girls’ session, as emotions, fears, conflicts and friendships form an intrinsic part of each session. This offers children the opportunity to grapple with challenging processes, as they play freely within the woodland setting.

In an urban environment, it is essential for children to have access to nature. For us to be able to extend these opportunities as part of our Wild Girls programme is invaluable.

In addition to this, children need nature for the healthy development of their senses and consequently their learning and creativity. Asking children to use their senses to interpret the world around them can be challenging for those who have not had the opportunity to develop these faculties.

These classrooms come cheap too. London provides the world’s largest urban forest, ‘8.4 million trees for 8.6 million people’ (Wood, 2019.) In London, most areas of outdoor space are free to access and close to transport networks making it easy and free for schools to use them.

Wild Girls in Action

At Wimbledon High Junior School, we have created different activities for our girls to explore whilst outdoors.

In Year 6, our pupils study navigational skills in a woodland setting, in order to learn how to use compasses and read maps. These are skills that could be potentially get lost in the high-tech world our children are being brought up in. When learning about directions on a compass, one misconception emerged when a pupil suggested that North is always dictated by the direction of the wind! Even if she never uses a compass again in her life, she has been afforded a valuable learning opportunity.

In Reception, these experiences are focused on inviting the pupils to be a part of their environment, to observe and respect what they can see, hear and feel. Using stories as a starting point, we connect with nature and encourage the girls to lead the learning experience. However, the most fun our girls have had was splashing in the puddles on their way into the forest! These opportunities provide the foundation for these young learners to grow and to develop as they move through the Junior School.

Year 1 pupils have used free play to explore the woods, making wind chimes and mud cakes, whilst coming across many mini beasts to identify. In the outdoors, nature is in control. Although you can predict what the weather is going to do, you can’t predict what children will learn the most from in the natural classroom you’ve created. This is the beauty of outdoor education.

Final thoughts

This opportunity to roam unchecked and learn life skills in the outdoors is arguably the most important education any child can have. It is enriching for the soul and brings out character traits that may be hidden whilst learning indoors. In the short space of time that we have been delivering ‘Wild Girls’, we have observed social connections becoming stronger and more universal, and an even more cohesive sense of community emerging. Personality types who may be naturally more reserved, have been given the space to show the qualities of leadership and collaboration. In an ever-changing, evolving world, giving children the space and freedom to be a child, has never been more important.


References

Wohlleben P, The Hidden Life of Trees, London, William Collins, 2017

Wood P, London is a Forest, London, Quadrille, 2019

Dreams – what are they and why do they happen?

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

Sofia, Year 9, discusses what dreams are and why they happen.

When you think of the word “dream”, many questions may pop into your head such as ‘what do they mean?’ and ‘what are they for?’ and perhaps ‘can they predict my future?’ I guess the best way to describe a dream is a story or sequence of images your mind creates while you are asleep. Except of course there is a lot more to it…

The history of dreams

It is thought that people in the third millennia in Mesopotamia were the first to record their dreams on wax or clay tablets and over 1000 years later Egyptians made themselves dream books, which also listed their potential meanings. Priests would be the ones to interpret these since they were written in hieroglyphics. Interpreters were looked up to, as they were blessed with this divine gift.

Interestingly, in the Greek and Roman era, dreams were interpreted in a religious context, thinking gods or even those from the dead were sending them direct messages. They believed dreams forewarned and they even built special shrines where those who sought a message would go to sleep.

In China, dreaming was also seen as a place where your spirit and soul left your body and went to a different world while asleep. If you were awoken, your soul may fail to return to your body. In the Middle Ages, dreams were considered to be the devil’s dirty work and fill the humans’ minds with malicious thoughts while at their most vulnerable state.

Above: Photo by Andrew Neel, Unsplash

The psychology behind dreams

Dreams can sometimes be exciting, terrifying, boring and just plain random, and although it may not feel like it, we have multiple dreams in one night that actually only last approximately 15 minutes. It’s hypothesized that everyone dreams, even though people who don’t remember their dreams may think they don’t dream[1]. Within 5 minutes of waking up, you usually forget 50% and by 10 minutes almost 90% is gone[2].

Dreams typically involve elements from life such as known people or familiar locations. And yes, it has been proven that your brain is incapable of “creating a new face”. They can also allow people to act out certain scenarios that wouldn’t happen in real life and make you feel incredibly emotional if it is vivid enough. In 1899, Sigmund Freud wrote a study “Interpretation of Dreams” which has been controversial among other experts. He states that we only dream to fulfil wishes, but many have disagreed. The Continual Activation Theory explains that we dream to keep our brains working and to consolidate memories, so that when data is needed from memory storage, we have it, but it’s just expressed in a different way while we dream. It is also suggested that we dream to rehearse and practise. Have you ever had a nightmare of being chased by a bear or even a criminal? These have been proven to be very common and challenge your instincts in case you ever do come across a dangerous situation in your life.

 What does science have to say?

The scientific study of dreams is called oneirology (derived from Greek word ‘oneiron’) Dreams mainly occur in the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep when brain activity is high and feels similar to being awake; it occurs within the first 90 minutes of falling asleep. During this stage, the pons in the brain shut off signals to the spinal cord causing you to be immobile while sleeping. When the pons doesn’t shut down the spinal cord’s signals, people will act out their dreams which of course could be dangerous, perhaps if you run into a wall or fall down a staircase.

Above: Brain illustration by pickpik.com

This is known as REM sleep behaviour disorder, which is rarer than sleepwalking. Even though we are immobile, the brain is very active, and you could still move and accidentally hit your sister in the face thinking you’re in a netball match. The blue represents inactive parts in the brain during REM in the image shown. Linking back to a previous point, an additional reason we may dream is to forget. This may sound confusing, but our brain creates thousands of connections by everything we think and do. A neurobiological theory known as Reverse Learning told us that during REM sleep cycles, the neocortex reviews the connections and ignores unnecessary ones, preventing your brain from being overrun with useless connections.

Even if we never know the real reason why dreams happen or whether they have any significance, it is possible that we will eventually one day find out due to developing technology. However, they may always remain somewhat a mystery to us, but hopefully, the next time you go to bed, you’ll maybe consider the complex aspects of science behind them.


References 

[1] https://www.discovermagazine.com/mind/does-everyone-dream

[2] https://www.manifatturafalomo.com/blog/sleep-tips/15-incredible-facts-about-sleep/

 

How does Computer Science equip us for life?

Mr Ian Richardson, Head of Computer Science at WHS, examines the broader transferrable skills that pupils can develop in the subject, and how these can help pupils to prosper in life away from the screen.

Computer Science is a unique subject which is developing at an incredibly rapid pace. In many conversations with parents, it seems that everyone grasps the importance of understanding how computers work and of being able to bend them to our will. However, since the change from the Information and Communication Technology syllabi, a number of parents and colleagues are still unsure as to what it is we, as Computer Scientists, do in our classrooms.

The simple principle is that our pupils should be able to sit down at a computer and be presented with a problem. They should be able to start from nothing but a blank page and then design, implement, test and evaluate a program which solves that problem. The scale of the challenge is significant, whether at A Level or Year 7. The little victories and celebrations along the way are what get students into coding and make teaching the subject so enjoyable. In this article, I am going to look at what I think are the key transferrable skills for the subject.

Coding
Above: From Gov.uk

The Essential “Tools” for Computing

The curriculum for the subject is designed to promote thinking skills and metacognition. The first key skill with which pupils become acquainted is abstraction. A simple everyday example of abstraction at work is the map of the London Underground; the map does not depict the geographical placement of stations, but simply the connections between them. Abstraction is the skill of seeing the woods, despite the many trees that could obscure the view. By teaching our pupils the skill of abstraction, we can teach them to think beyond the details of a problem and to think about the patterns and the connections which in turn teaches them to make generalisations to help solve a problem.

Next comes decomposition; breaking a large problem down into increasingly smaller sub-problems until they can be solved easily. It is instinctive for most pupils, when presented with a problem, to worry about the entirety of it. It takes practice to learn to develop a structure, to work out the key parts of a solution and to build from there. Students learn to “Divide and Conquer” for success and this approach can help students to solve problems in any future learning tasks which require design skills.

Finally comes the programming itself. It can seem that there are simply huge numbers of confusing commands to learn within programming. However, it is the structure of the program which is of the greatest importance and in this respect there are relatively few things to learn. As a student continues, they may become familiar with subroutines, classes and modules but on the whole, it boils down to sequence, selection, iteration. Individual commands and keywords can be looked up in reference books, but the skill of structuring program takes time and practice to develop. It takes time to master (think Anders Ericsson and 10,000 hours) but encourages pupils to approach problems methodically.

As well as those all-important subject skills, Computer Science has the capacity to help us grow and develop as individuals.

Failure as a Stepping Stone to Success

Coding is a discipline which gives us unparalleled opportunities to conquer our fear of failure. It is often estimated that the industry average for errors is “about 15 – 50 errors per 1000 lines of delivered code.”[1]. It can be daunting to receive error messages when you first start to learn to program and it seems like you struggle to type a single line without making a mistake. Over time, pupils can learn to:

1 – Accept that they have made a mistake

2 – Accept that they have the capacity to put it right

3 – Analyse their own work to find the error (often as simple as a missing parenthesis or extra space)

Exposure to lots of low-stakes risk-bearing situations through programming and debugging can teach resilience, independence and curiosity. It also helps to develop patience and a sense of humour can go a long way too.

Creativity and Curiosity

Computing can be easily overlooked when thinking about creative subjects. Computer programmers use the tools at their disposal to solve challenges every day. Successful computing students learn to master the simple techniques at their disposal and begin to apply them in new scenarios. Over time, they start to think up their own projects and to investigate their own ideas. Perhaps they start to see ways in which a project in another subject might be enhanced with some automation.

Flow

Programming can become an all-encompassing activity. There is always one more bug to fix, or one further improvement to make. Along the way, there are also small moments of joy and times when a pupil can make a computer do something fun or exciting. Between the two extremes of frustration and celebration, it is easy to lose track of time. The ability to focus on details and to deliver with precision are yet more useful skills that pupils can develop through the subject.

Independence

Whilst the theory aspects of the subject can be taught in a more traditional manner, the practical elements of Computer Science have to be learned rather than taught. Whilst individual students require more or less scaffolding to come to an answer, the PRIMM model for teaching (Predict, Run, Investigate, Modify, Make)[2] encourages independence of thought and a structured approach to tasks and trains the student to analyse and learn from what is presented to them, rather than expecting a teacher to impart knowledge.

Evaluative Thinking

One of the key skills that pupils are taught in computing is to evaluate. It is one thing to know how to understand or to build a program, but quite another to be able to compare two different algorithms for completing the same task.

Pupils are taught to look at algorithms such as “Bubble Sort” and “Quicksort”, to understand the differences between them and to make judgements as to which is best in a given situation. As they continue to study, they learn formal language for explaining the comparisons, as well as how to spot patterns in code that may lead to inefficiency.

In addition, given the impact of algorithms on everything from advertising to politics via driverless cars, it is also crucial for students to be able to articulate the ethical arguments for and against the use of technology. Students of the subject learn to understand the potential and the limitations of computers and have the potential to lead the debate in the future.

Conclusion

There is more to studying Computer Science than people first think. Students can equip themselves with a whole host of transferrable skills ranging from abstraction to patience, all of which will positively impact their school studies, their further education and beyond. To assume that Computer Science is simply about computers would be wrong.


REFERENCES

[1] S. McConnell, Code Complete: A Practical Handbook of Software Construction, Microsoft Press, 2nd Edition June 2004, p521

[2] S. Sentence, J.Waite and M.Kallia, Teachers’ Experiences of using PRIMM to Teach Programming in School (Author Pre-Print),[website], January 2019, https://primming.files.wordpress.com/2019/01/pre_print_teachers__experiences_of_using_primm_to_teach_programming_in_school.pdf,  (accessed 31 January 2020)

Do table top role playing games have a place in the classroom?

Mr Rob Dunn, Head of Physics at Wimbledon High School, known to some as Fyro, the half-Orc Bard, discusses the place that table-top RPGs (role-playing games) might have in schools generally and in supporting learning in the classroom.

I am proud to say, I’m a nerd. In the past, that term was defined as someone who loves ‘uncool’ things such as Physics, Maths, Computers, and of course Dungeons and Dragons. But now, thanks in part to the popularity of The Big Bang Theory, The Witcher, and Stranger Things, the nerd has become cool, and along with them, everything that they were associated with.

As educators, it can often seem that we are competing for the attention of our students with the influences of pop-culture, so when pop-culture directs their attention to us it would be missed opportunity not to capitalise on it.

Dice
Above: A d20, the most commonly used die in table-top role-playing via Wikimedia. 

For those readers who are unfamiliar with how table-top role-playing games (RPGs) work, they are simply a structure and set of rules that allow players a space to live in a shared imagination. This shared imaginary world is curated by one player known as the ‘Game Master’ or GM. For beginners, this world usually based on published source material, such as the ever-popular Forgotten Realms of Wizard of the Coast’s Dungeons and Dragons. However, once the basics of gameplay have been grasped the only limit is your imagination, or perhaps a handful of dice that seem determined to kill you!

You play all sat around a table together with the GM at the head. You’ll debate with your fellow adventurers over who needs to do what next to solve the seemingly endless torrent of problems that are being thrown at you, you’ll be running a constant string of probabilities through your head as you try to decide if the chance is glory is worth the risk of another throw of the dice, you’ll socialise with your friends, and above all, you’ll share in the telling of a story that is unique to you and your group.

Playing RPGs develops a player’s imagination, creativity, storytelling, confidence, and the depth of social interactions. These are all skills that as a teacher I long for my students to show in the classroom, regardless of the curriculum I am trying to teach. In Physics particularly being able to think outside the box to solve a tricky exam question is often the difference between an A and A*, so if we can teach just a little of that in an activity that the students voluntarily commit to, then to me that is a ‘critical hit!’

Above: Nikolai Telsa in his laboratory in 1899

Other topics we teach in Physics can be very abstract and difficult for some students to engage with. Perhaps if we could immerse the students 1880s New York and the electrifying battle between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, we might make the often opaque world of transformers a little less mystifying.

I wonder if this might work in other subjects as well. An English department might base a game in the world of the text they are studying, or a history lesson might take the students through the dizzying streets of medieval London. In Politics, students might develop their own systems of government for the world in which they’re playing, while the geographers draw topologically accurate maps that they can use in games that display the different land and rock formations they have studied. In Music, the composer Nobuo Uematsu, who wrote the music for the Final Fantasy game series, is a set composer at A Level, enabling pupils to study the link between music and gaming.

At Wimbledon High School we have a growing extracurricular Dungeon’s and Dragons club with 3 different campaigns in play, some written and run by the students themselves, and one even counting teachers among the party of adventures. We have a great time playing each Friday lunchtime, and as I head to afternoon lessons I can’t help but wonder if a little bit of that style of fun and social learning can find a place in my next lesson.

So I’m calling on teachers everywhere, join me at the table and let’s ‘roll initiative’.

Does Drama have a place in the A in Steam?

Emily, Year 10, asks if enough emphasis is placed on drama as part of the A (Arts) within STEAM.

What is STEM/STEAM?

STEM was originally a government initiative to “help empower future generations through science, technology, engineering and maths to grow a dynamic, innovative economy”. Recently the A was added to STEM to include the arts, but how much emphasis, if any, is put on drama as part of this addition? Traditionally within education drama has been seen as a soft option. It was often viewed as a GCSE choice for students who are less academically capable, and few links are made between the benefits of drama and other areas of the STEM curriculum.

Why do people consider Drama as a lesser part of the A in STEAM?

When considering the A in STEAM, many people think of subjects such as art, design or and/or the humanities, with the performing arts (which includes drama) very much a secondary consideration.

Commonly drama is mistaken for a break from academia. Drama, music and dance are often under threat amongst underfunded schools subject to ever-increasing budgetary constraints. Even important figures within the performing arts world cannot be relied upon to promote drama within education. The head of the National Youth Theatre said in 2014 that “drama classes should be taken off the GCSE curriculum because they are irrelevant, and the subject is seen as soft and easy”.

Jungle Book
Above: Jungle Book by Year 8 earlier this year

How does drama help with STEAM learning in schools and in STEAM careers?

Learning drama at school, or participating in the performing arts, is beneficial and important in many different areas. The skills you develop through drama can help in all areas of your subjects including the traditional STEM subjects. Positive outcomes include:

Problem-solving – drama improves problem-solving and decision making, for example improvisation can help with quick thinking solutions. Developing problem-solving skills is a key reason why the STEM initiative started in the first place – to solve many of the world’s problems.

Imagination – In drama you need imagination; you have to make creative choices and think of new ideas. Imagination increases creativity and innovation; this is essential in, for example, engineering to design new products and processes to drive efficiency. Einstein himself said that “imagination is more important than knowledge.”

Team working skills – this is an essential skill in life which crosses all disciplines at school and in life. The ability to work well in a team, to be able to listen and incorporate other people’s ideas is as important in STEM careers as it is in any other. In drama lessons, or when putting on a school production, working well as a team is essential to the success of the project, whether you are front of stage or backstage, no project or performance succeeds unless every part of the team pulls together.

Empathy – drama teaches you the skill of empathy and develops your emotional intelligence. You have to understand a character’s motivation and actions by putting yourself in their shoes. EQ is becoming an increasingly important skill in the workplace.

Confidence in speaking – drama lessons often translate into better communication skills and self-confidence. Drama students are encouraged to ask questions and explain their thoughts, and of course to perform in front of a live audience. The ability to be able to speak effectively in public and present your ideas confidently is a key leadership skill that will help with an individual’s career progression.

WHS Play
Above: ‘Education, Education, Education’ – the WHS Senior Play this term

How else can drama help?

In 2012 the National Endowment for the Arts released a report showing that low-income student’s who had access to the arts tended to have better academic results, when music, dance and drama are part of people’s life they generally then go on to have better work opportunities. You also cannot underestimate the importance of a balanced education, and drama can act as an important emotional release from the demands of academia and the pressures of modern life.

Conclusion

Overall, I believe that drama does deserve a place in the A in STEAM. Many skills that drama help you develop are vital to those needed for success in STEAM careers and in everyday life.


References

https://www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2014/11/18/ctq-jolly-stem-vs-steam.html

http://www.childdrama.com/why.html

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/take-drama-off-gcse-curriculum-insists-national-youth-theatre-boss-9831791.html

https://leftbraincraftbrain.com/what-is-steam-and-why-is-steam-important

https://www.shoutoutuk.org/

https://www.teachercast.net/

Is contemporary architecture threatening London’s historic skyline?

Walkie Talkie Building

Maddie, Year 13, argues whether modern buildings are ruining London’s skyline and balances the advantages and disadvantages of modern projects.

London’s historic architecture is one of our greatest assets – culturally, socially and economically. It lies at the heart of London’s identity and distinctiveness, and its very success. It is at risk of being badly and irrevocably damaged. More than 70 tall towers are currently being constructed in London alone, prompting fears from conservation bodies and campaigners that the capital’s status as a low-rise city is being sacrificed in a dash by planners to meet the demand for space and by developers to capitalise on soaring property prices.
There have been many examples of tall buildings that have had a lasting adverse impact through being unsuitably located, poorly designed, inappropriately detailed and badly built and managed. For example, the so-called ‘Walkie talkie’ building which due to bad design concentrated the sun’s rays melting parts of cars on the streets below. And recently there has, yet again, been another proposed skyscraper in the Paddington area to the west of central London. The 224m-high Paddington Tower costing £1 bn would be the fourth highest in the capital and the first of such scale in that part of London. A building of this scale in this location threatens harm to many designated heritage assets across a wide geographical area, including listed buildings, registered historic parks and conservation areas.

London Bridge However, some people think that cities face a choice of building up or building out. Asserting that there’s nothing wrong with a tall building if it gives back more than it receives from the city. An example of a building succeeding to achieve this is the £435 million Shard, which massively attracted redevelopment to the London Bridge area. So, is this a way for London to meet rising demand to accommodate growing numbers of residents and workers?

Well, planning rules are in place in order to make sure that London achieves the correct balance to ensure tall buildings not only make a positive contribution to the capital’s skyline, but deliver much-needed new homes for Londoners as well workspace for the 800,000 new jobs expected over the next 20 years. Furthermore, tall contemporary buildings can represent “the best of modern architecture” and it encourages young architects to think creatively and innovatively making London a hub for budding architects. It also means that areas with already run-down or badly designed features have the chance to be well designed improving user’s day-to-day life whilst also benefiting the local landscape.

Protected viewpoints of the city of London

The protected viewpoints of the city of London. Do skyscrapers threaten this?

Overall, I think that in a cosmopolitan and growing capital city, London needs contemporary architecture, to embody its spirit of innovation. However, this needs to be achieved in a considered and managed way so as not to ruin the historic skyline we already have.

 

Toward the Unknown Region: how do we impart the skills and knowledge required for students to be successful in careers that currently do not exist?

Future of Jobs 2

Toward the Unknown Region[1] – Mr. Nicholas Sharman, Head of Design & Technology looks at whether integrating STEAM into the heart of a curriculum develops skills required for careers that do not currently exist.

The world of work has always been an evolving environment. However, it has never been more pertinent than now; according to the world economic forum, 65% of students entering primary school today will be working in jobs that do not currently exist[2].

As educators, this makes our job either extremely difficult, pointless or (in my view) one of the most exciting opportunities that we have been faced with for nearly 200 years since the introduction of the Victorian education system. The idea of relying solely on a knowledge-based education system is becoming outdated and will not allow students to integrate into an entirely different world of work. Automation and Artificial Intelligence will make manual and repetitive jobs obsolete, changing the way we work entirely. Ask yourself this: could a robot do your job? The integration of these developments is a conversation all in its own and one for a future post.

So, what is STEAM and why has it become so prominent in the UK education system?

The acronym STEM was (apparently) derived from the American initiative ‘STEM’ developed in 2001 by scientific administrators at the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF)[3]. The addition of the ‘A’ representing the Arts, ultimately creating Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths. Since the introduction of STEM-based curriculums in the US, the initiative has grown exponentially throughout the globe, with the UK education system adopting the concept.

So why STEAM and what are the benefits? STEAM education is far more than just sticking subject titles together. It is a philosophy of education that embraces teaching skills and subjects in a way that resembles the real world. More importantly, it develops the skills predicted to be required for careers that currently do not exist. What are these skills and why are they so important?

Knowledge vs Skills

When we look at the education systems from around the world there are three that stand out. Japan, Singapore and Finland have all been quoted as countries that have reduced the size of their knowledge curriculum. This has allowed them to make space to develop skills and personal attributes. Comparing this to the PISA rankings, these schools are within the top 5 in the world and in Singapore’s case, ranked No1[4].

I am sure we cannot wholly attribute this to a skills-focused curriculum; however, it does ask the question – what skills are these schools developing and how much knowledge do we need?[5],[6]

  1. Mental Elasticity – having the mental flexibility to think outside of the box, see the big picture and rearrange things to find a solution.
  2. Critical Thinking – the ability to analyse various situations, considering multiple solutions and making decisions quickly through logic and reasoning.
  3. Creativity – robots may be better than you may at calculating and diagnosing problems, however, they are not very good at creating original content, thinking outside the box or being abstract.
  4. People Skills – the ability to learn how to manage and work with people (and robots), having empathy and listening
  5. SMAC (social, mobile, analytics and cloud) – learning how to use new technology and how to manage them
  6. Interdisciplinary Knowledge – understanding how to pull information from many different fields to come up with creative solutions to future problems.
Future of Jobs graph
The Future of Jobs Report by the World Economic Forum showing the pace of change in just 5 years

All of the above skills are just predictions. However, the list clearly highlights that employers will be seeking skill-based qualities, with this changing as future jobs develop and materialise. So do we need knowledge?

Well, of course we do – knowledge is the fundamental element required to be successful in using the above skills. However, as educators, we need to consider a balance of how we can make sure our students understand how important these skills will be to them in the future when an exam grade based on knowledge could be irrelevant to employers.

What subjects promote these skills?

As a Technologist, I believe there has never been a more important time in promoting and delivering the Design & Technology curriculum. The subject has for too long been misrepresented and had a stigma hanging around it due to previous specifications and people’s experiences, comments such as ‘so you teach woodwork then?’ really do not give justice to the subject.

With the introduction of the new curriculum, allowing students more opportunity to investigate and build these future skills, the subject has never been more relevant. Looking at the list of promoted skills, I cannot think of another subject that not only promotes these skills but also actively encourages the integration into every lesson. Do not get me wrong, all subjects are as equally important. Design & Technology is a subject that is able to bring them all into real-world scenarios. If we think about the knowledge that is developed in Science for example – where students can look at material properties and their effect on the user’s experience, or Religious Studies and how different signs, symbols or even colours can have different meanings in cultures affecting the design of a fully inclusive product – they can all be related to Design and Technology in one way or another.

Comparing the Design & Technology curriculum to the future skills list, we can break down the different skills it develops. It encourages mental elasticity through challenging student’s ideas and concepts, thinking differently to solve current and real-life problems. It allows students to develop critical thinking, through challenging their knowledge and understanding; ensuring students develop the ability to solve problems through investigation, iteration and failure, ultimately building resilience. It goes without saying that the subject not only encourages creativity but allows students to challenge concepts and ideas through investigating and questioning. Furthermore, it teaches the concept of ‘design thinking’ and collaborative working, allowing students to develop people skills, understanding how people work, interact and think; enhancing empathy and understanding. As technology progresses the subject follows suit, permitting students to implement and understand how new and emerging technologies are embedded, not only into the world of design but the Social, Moral and environmental effects they create. Lastly and probably most importantly, is how the subject teaches interdisciplinary knowledge. I like to describe Design & Technology as a subject that brings knowledge from all areas of the curriculum together, the creativity and aesthetics from Art, the application of Maths when looking at anthropometrics, tolerances or even ratios, how Religious Studies can inform and determine designs, how science informs and allows students to apply theory, or even the environmental impact Geography can show. I could go on and explain how every subject influences Design & Technology in one way or another, although, more importantly, it shows how we need to look at a more cohesive and cross-curricular curriculum; when this happens the future skills are inherently delivered in a real-world application.

Looking back at the question at the start of this article, we can start to conclude why having the concept of STEAM at the heart of a school environment is so important. However, it is not good enough to just ‘stick’ subjects together, there has to be a bigger picture where knowledge and skills are stitched together like a finely woven tapestry. Ideally, we would look at the primary education system, where we remove subject-specific lessons, develop co-teaching, learning that takes place through projects bringing elements from all subjects in to cohesive projects; teachers would become facilitators of learning, delivering knowledge not in a classroom but in an environment that allows more autonomous research and investigation. However, until the exam system changes, this is not going to fully happen.

So what could we be doing more? I believe we should be focusing on more cross-curricular planning, developing skills application and using knowledge to enhance learning. By developing a curriculum centred around a STEAM approach, we can start to develop the skills required for our students and the careers of the future.


References: 

[1] See https://whitmanarchive.org/published/LG/1891/poems/245 for the text to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ piece for choir and orchestra entitled ‘Toward the Unknown Region’
[2] https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-future-of-jobs-report-2018
[3] https://www.britannica.com/topic/STEM-education
[4] http://www.oecd.org/pisa/
[5] https://www.weforum.org/focus/skills-for-your-future
[6] https://www.crimsoneducation.org/uk/blog/jobs-of-the-future

The importance of collaborative learning

How can we encourage collaborative learning? Alex Farrer, STEAM Co-ordinator at Wimbledon High, looks at strategies to encourage creative collaboration in the classroom.

Pupils’ ability to work collaboratively in the classroom cannot just be assumed. Pupils develop high levels of teamwork skills in many areas of school life such as being part of a rowing squad or playing in an ensemble. These strengths are also being harnessed in a variety of subject areas but need to be taught and developed within a coherent framework.  Last week we were very pleased to learn that Wimbledon High was shortlisted for the TES Independent Schools Creativity Award 2019. This recognises the development of STEAM skills such as teamwork, problem solving, creativity and curiosity across the curriculum. Wimbledon High pupils are enjoying tackling intriguing STEAM activities in a variety of subject areas. One important question to ask is what sort of progression should we expect as pupils develop these skills?

The Science National Curriculum for England (D of E gov.uk 2015) outlines the “working scientifically” skills expected of pupils from year 1 upwards. Pupils are expected to answer scientific questions in a range of different ways such as in an investigation where variables can be identified and controlled and a fair test type of enquiry is possible.

However, this is not the only way of “working scientifically”. Pupils also need to use different approaches such as identifying and classifying, pattern seeking, researching and observing over time to answer scientific questions. In the excellent resource “It’s not Fair -or is it?” (Turner, Keogh, Naylor and Lawrence) useful progression grids are provided to help teachers identify the progression that might be expected as pupils develop these skills. For example, when using research skills younger pupils use books and electronic media to find things out and talk about whether an information source is useful. Older pupils can use relevant information from a range of secondary sources and evaluate how well their research has answered their questions.

The skills that are used in our STEAM lessons at Wimbledon High in both the Senior and Junior Schools utilise many of these “working scientifically” skills and skill progression grids can be very useful when planning and pitching lessons. However, our STEAM lessons happen in all subject areas and develop a range of other skills including:

  • problem solving
  • teamwork
  • creativity
  • curiosity

Carefully planned cross-curricular links allow subjects that might at first glance be considered to be very different from each other to complement each other. An example of this is a recent year 10 art lesson where STEAM was injected into the lesson in the form of chemistry knowledge and skills. Pupils greatly benefited from the opportunity to put some chemistry into art and some art into chemistry as they studied the colour blue. Curiosity was piqued and many links were made. Many questions were asked and answered as pupils worked together to learn about Egyptian Blue through the ages and recent developments in the use of the pigment for biomedical imaging.

There are many other examples of how subjects are being combined to enhance both. The physiological responses to listening to different types of music made for an interesting investigation with groups of year 7. In this STEAM Music lesson pupils with emerging teamwork skills simply shared tasks between members of the group. Pupils with more developed teamwork skills organised and negotiated different roles in the group depending on identified skills. They also checked progress and adjusted how the group was working in a supportive manner. A skill that often takes considerable practise for many of us!

Professor Roger Kneebone from Imperial College promotes the benefits of collaborating outside of your own discipline. He recently made the headlines when he discussed the dexterity skills of medical students. He talks about the ways students taking part in an artistic pursuit, playing a musical instrument or a sport develop these skills. He believes that surgeons are better at their job if they have learned those skills that being in an orchestra or a team demand.  High levels of teamwork and communication are essential to success in all of those fields, including surgery!

Ensuring that we give pupils many opportunities to develop these collaborative skills both inside and outside of lessons is key. We must have high expectations of progression in the way that pupils are developing these skills. Regular opportunities to extend and consolidate these important skills is also important. It is essential to make it clear to pupils at the start of the activity what the skill objective is and what the skill success criteria is. It is hard to develop a skill if it is not taught explicitly, so modelling key steps is helpful as is highlighting the following to pupils:

  • Why are we doing this activity?
  • Why is it important?
  • How does it link to the subject area?
  • How does it link to the real life applications?
  • What skills are we building?
  • Why are these skills important?
  • What sort of problems might be encountered?
  • How might we deal with these problems?

Teacher support during the lesson is formative and needs to turn a spotlight on successes, hitches, failures, resilience, problems and solutions. For example, the teacher might interrupt learning briefly to point out that some groups have had a problem but after some frustrations, one pupil’s bright idea changed their fortunes. The other groups are then encouraged to refocus and to try to also find a good way to solve a specific problem. There might be a reason why problems are happening. Some groups may need some scaffolding or targeted questioning to help them think their way through hitches.

STEAM lessons at Wimbledon High are providing extra opportunities for pupils to build their confidence, and to be flexible, creative and collaborative when faced with novel contexts. These skills need to be modelled and developed and progression needs to be planned carefully. STEAM is great fun, but serious fun, as the concentration seen on faces in the STEAM space show!

Twitter: @STEAM_WHS
Blog: http://www.whs-blogs.co.uk/steam-blog/

Artificial Intelligence & Art: A Provocation – 14/09/18

Rachel Evans, Director of Digital Learning and Innovation at WHS, looks at the links between Art and Artificial Intelligence, investigating how new technology is innovating the discipline.

What is art? We might have trouble answering that question: asking whether a machine can create art takes the discussion in a new direction.

Memo Akten is an artist based at Goldsmith’s, University of London where much exciting work is taking place around the intersection of artificial intelligence and creative arts.

Akten’s work Learning to see was created by first showing a neutral network tens of thousands of images of works of art from the Google Arts Project.  The machine then ‘watches’ a webcam, under which objects or other images are placed, and uses its ‘knowledge’ to create new images of its own. This still is from the film Gloomy Sunday. Was it ‘thinking’ of Strindberg’s seascape?

I have been fascinated by this artwork since I first saw it and have watched it many times. The changing image is mesmerising as the machine presents, develops and alters its output in response to the input. It draws me in, not only as a visual experience, but for the complex response it provokes as I think about what I am seeing.

Akten describes the work as:

An artificial neural network making predictions on live webcam input, trying to make sense of what it sees, in context of what it’s seen before.

It can see only what it already knows, just like us.

In 1972 the critic John Berger used the exciting medium of colour television to present a radical approach to art criticism, Ways of Seeing, which was then published as an affordable Penguin paperback. In the opening essay of the book he wrote “Every image embodies a way of seeing. […] The photographer’s way of seeing is reflected in his choice of subject. […] Yet, although every image embodies a way of seeing, our perception or appreciation of an image also depends on our own way of seeing.” When Akten writes that the machine “can see only what it already knows, just like us he approaches the idea that the response of the neural network is human-like in its desire to find meaning and context, just as we attempt to find an image which we can recognise in the work it creates.

If the artist is choosing the subject, but the machine transforms what it sees into ‘art’, is the machine ‘seeing’? Or are we wholly creating the work in our response to it and the work is close to random – a machine-generated response to a stimulus not unlike a human splattering paint?

Jackson Pollock wrote “When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’ period that I see what I have been about. I have no fear of making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own.” Is the neural network performing this role here for the artist, of distancing during the creative process, of letting the ideas flow, to be considered afterwards?

Is the artist the sole creator, in that he has created the machine? That might be the case at the moment, with the current technology, but interestingly Akten refers to himself as “exploring collaborative co-creativity between humans and machines”.

I find this fascinating and it raises more questions than I can answer: it leaves me wanting to know more. It has prompted me to delve back into my own knowledge and understanding of art history and criticism to make connections that will help me respond. In short – encountering this work has caused me to think and learn.

In the current discussions in the media and in education around artificial intelligence we tend to focus on the extremes of the debate in a non-specific way – with the alarmist ‘the robots will take our jobs’ at one end and the utopian ‘AI will solve healthcare’ at the other. A focus for innovation at WHS this year is to open up a discussion about artificial intelligence, but this discussion needs to be detailed and rich in content if it’s going to lead to understanding. We want the students to understand this technology which will impact on their lives: as staff, we want to contribute to the landscape of knowledge and action around AI in education to ensure that the solutions which will arrive on the market will be fair, free of bias and promote equality. Although a work of art may seem an unusual place to start, the complex ideas it prompts may set us on the right path to discuss the topic in a way which is rigorous and thoughtful.

So – let the discussion begin.

Printmaking and the Teaching of Art and Design – 06/07/18

Rebecca Owens, Head of Art at Wimbledon High School

Printmaking has always been one of the things I enjoyed the most when I studied at Camberwell School of Art. So, when I started at Wimbledon High School I decided to introduce as many of the techniques as possible. There is something magical about the processes as the results are always a bit unexpected. Rather like a good gardener will learn some strategies to help achieve the results she wants, and tame nature in the garden, she will inevitably have moments of surprise. The same is true of printmaking. Whilst you can learn the techniques and become more familiar with the results, there is often a WOW moment, and an unexpected outcome. As the German Expressionist Ernst Ludwig-Kirchner said:

‘The technical procedures doubtless release energies in the artist that remain unused in the much more lightweight processes of drawing or painting’ (remark on printmaking).

In this article I have outlined why I think printmaking is important, what the different types of printmaking are and how we use printmaking at Wimbledon High School.

Printmaking

Printmaking revolutionised how images were disseminated, with the first publication of books and the subsequent development of printed images in the mid fourteenth century enabling more people to own images, and for these images to be moved around. The letter press or moveable type, first mentioned in 1439, was designed by Johannes Gutenberg. The increased production of books over the next few decades meant that the price of paper dropped, and as a result, that artists had cheaper access to the media. Artists started to work in different ways, with woodcuts, wood engravings or engravings on metal often used to create the printed images found in books. In this respect, printmaking allowed the artist to be more egalitarian, and reach a much wider audience, as each print could be sold for less money than the original.

Why use printmaking in school

The process of printmaking allows students to work and think in a completely different way, as printed outcomes often have unexpected results. This characteristic of the process allows students to experiment liberally with the further development of their images. Indeed, the disconnection between a student’s expected outcome, and the physical reality of their print is part of the pleasure of printing, it liberates the artist and helps them to investigate unexpected and exciting ways of working. Once the screen or block has been created, the student can explore overprinting onto different surfaces, try differing colours schemes or experiment with making the two-dimensional print into a three-dimensional piece. Some students thrive and gain in confidence when they are constrained by some conventions to react against, or rules to break, as David Hockney states “limitations in art have never been a hindrance. I think they are a stimulant”.

There are many advantages to introducing the different skill set required for Printmaking, but one important reason to me is that it allows Art to be rewarding to a greater range of people. The boundaries in the technique encourage creativity.

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” 
― Pablo Picasso

Types of printmaking

Drypoint

A drypoint needle is used to scratch into the plate, which may be metal or plastic. Ink is then rubbed into the plate. The paper is dampened before printing, so that as it passes between the two rollers, the ink is lifted out from the scratches.

These prints are based on portrait images that the students took of themselves, their friends and family. The theme was reflections and distortions, where the students explored different reflective surfaces and other ways of distorting their images. The prints were created using an etching needle and a plastic plate. Professionals would use metal plates as they are more durable and so a bigger edition can be created.

Ruby (Year 10)

Zara (Year 10)

Issie (Year 13) 

Using a combination of etchings, rubbings of textured surfaces Issie created the laminates from which this installation was created. The images explored the contrasting shapes found in Kew gardens.

Etching

Plates are coated with different grounds, and the ground is then removed using the etching needles. The plates are placed in acid, where the acid etches into the metal, creating areas which will hold the ink during the printing process. This process is often combined with aquatint which achieves the graduated tones, as evident in the work of Norman Ackroyd.  The artists’ beguiling, monochromatic works of the British Isles achieve a soft, seemingly watercolour-like effect through a combination of etching and aquatint processes. Explore his work here.

Woodcut printing

This technique uses blocks of wood where the grain is parallel to the printing surface. This allows for working on a bigger scale than wood engraving, and as the cuts follow the grain there can be some slipping as the design is cut. The grain of the wood is also evident in the print, with artists like Nash Gill using this characteristic of the process to add texture and interest to their compositions. Ink is applied using rollers and the lines cut remain the colour of the paper. The work of Kathe Kollwitz shows how the simplicity of a print can be used to create images which elicit an emotional response. She used her work to comment on society at the time focussing on poverty and loneliness. See her work here.

Wood engraving

This uses the end grain of wood, often box or lemon wood, as the grain is fine and consistent. As these woods are slow growing, the blocks available are smaller. The cutting process is very hard, requiring sharp tools, but there is less slipping as the tools are cutting across even grain. Ink is applied using rollers and the lines cut remain the colour of the paper. John Lawrence delicate and fine wood engravings have been used as illustrations in numerous fine art publications and books. See his work here.

Lino printing

Using linoleum to create the block. Lino is hessian backed and made from cork. It is easier to cut than wood prints, but has a similar bold effect. The lines cut do not hold the ink as the ink is applied using rollers to the surface of the block. Grayson Perry uses large scale lino prints to create his exciting images which present his critique and commentary on contemporary life. View his work here.

Year 7 Lino prints

Lino prints, akin to wood engravings, require the artist to work in reverse as the areas which are cut away do not hold the ink. Whereas lines are normally drawn in a dark colour on a light background, when working on a lino design it is necessary to reverse that process. For that reason, it is helpful when designing a lino print to make a plan using white chalk on black paper. As an introduction to lino printing Year 7 are shown how to work in this way. It has the additional benefit that white chalk is relatively tricky to create very fine marks with, so it encourages everyone to be bolder. Indeed this is also beneficial as it is difficult to cut out shapes which are too intricate.

Shanalia (Year 7)

Tulip 1 by Rebecca Owens

 

I made this piece using Linocut prints on white tissue paper, collaged together. The rhythmic patterns in organic forms have always inspired my work. ‘Tulips 2’ aims to contrast the fluid shapes found in tulip flowers and leaves, with the geometric composition of the collage. I am fascinated by the delicacy and semi-transparent nature of the thin paper. The way the overlaying of the bold Lino prints creates unexpected focal points and a subtle range of colours, is also intriguing.

Monotype printing

 

Kate (Year 9)

On the theme of Text in the Environment students in Year 9 took some amazing reference photographs from which to develop their ideas. They used these to create their monotype prints. As the name would suggest, these are one off prints, where the ink is rolled out or laid onto a board, paper or other flat surface and a second sheet of paper is laid onto the inked area. By drawing on the back of the paper the ink is transferred. It has the same wonderful sense of excitement and often gives an exciting moment in lessons, when students reveal their prints.

Eryngium – Monotype print by Rebecca Owens

Silk screen printing

Using a silk or synthetic mesh stretched over a screen. The ink is then pressed through the screen using squeegees. Stencils can by created for the screen using papercuts, by photographically transferring images onto the screen using light sensitive materials or by blocking the screen using stoppers. This media was used by artists such as Rauschenberg and Warhol in contrasting ways. Recently Ciara Phillips immersive installations created with prints engaged and intrigued the viewers, through her exploration of the process of printmaking. See her discuss her work here.

Year 11 and 13 mixed media work including prints.

These images demonstrate the exciting ways in which the students have experimented with these techniques.

Ava (created when she was in year 11)

Her screen prints on the theme of natural forms were folded to create this sculpture.

Lucy (Year 11)

In this piece she has combined pen drawing with screen printing.

Imogen (Year 13)

This large scale mixed- media piece contains etchings and screen prints which she used to create this sculptural piece.

Lithography

Using a stone or metal plate which has been sensitised to any greasy material, drawing is added using wax or chinagraph pencils. The plate is then brushed with liquid etch and coated with gum Arabic. The second stage of the process sees the black disappearing and leaving a waxy shadow. These will be the areas that hold the ink when printing. With lithography the plate has to be wet before ink is applied and kept damp.

Conclusion

Printmaking allows students flexibility and freedom to experiment. The contemporary artists included earlier in this article use printmaking to tackle important and universal themes through their printmaking. They are evidence that printmaking today is used by artists in increasingly diverse ways, to create artworks relevant to contemporary society.

Creativity allows students to develop different ways of thinking and as Art never has a right or wrong answer, there is a different thought process involved in solving a visual conundrum. Printmaking feeds into student’s visual vocabulary, allowing them the ability to express their ideas in a range of sophisticated ways, and helping them to express their thoughts and ideas..

“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

Pablo Picasso

Bibliography

A History of pictures by David Hockney and Martin Gayford –  Thames and Hudson

Art The definitive visual guide by Andrew Graham-Dixon – Dorling Kindersley

The Encyclopaedia of Printmaking Techniques by Judy Martin – Quarto publishing