The Head of WHS, Ms Fionnuala Kennedy, introduces Civil Discourse, a new strand of the school Curriculum which will equip students to join and influence crucial debates on the issues of our time with confidence, integrity and nuance.
Many critically important issues have arisen in the last eighteen
months and many injustices are rightly being uncovered. Outrage is being
expressed, with good reason, and Generation Z are politically
active, knowledgeable and engaged, in a way that generations prior to
it simply were not. Larger numbers of people than ever are seeking for a
fairer, more equitable world for all, and it feels timely and positive that
this is the case; not least because the unfolding events in Afghanistan this summer
have served as a shameful and terrifying reminder of how fortunate we are to
have access to an education system which is open, free, and encourages debate
and diversity of thought.
Yet at just the moment when the world should be pulling
together in our battle against a global pandemic, it seems we are more
polarised than ever. At a time when we are questioning the notion of binaries
in all sorts of arena, argument itself has become trenchantly binary. This
is an era of no-platforming, of cancel culture and of offence.
Asking questions, not seeking answers
And so at Wimbledon High, we want to ask the following questions, and explore their potential answers together:
How do we balance challenging and calling out hate
speech with protecting freedom of speech?
How do we resist the digitally driven mode of
oppositional, reductive discourse which has begun to dominate, and which leads
to the silencing of so many voices?
How do we access opinions which differ to our
own, avoiding getting stuck in the echo chamber created for us by social media?
How do we reclaim the art of listening, of
reasoning, and of thinking with nuance?
How do we articulate through our emotion,
rather than relying on emotion alone to express us?
How do we learn to be offended and to argue back, both
learning in the process, but also – crucially – teaching the listener why our
viewpoint deserves to be heard, perhaps even changing their mind in the
And how do we explore the very notion of offence, ensuring the term
does not get weaponised by those keen to fight what has become known in the
press as a ‘Culture War’, and acknowledging that prejudice and hatred can cause
genuine hurt and distress, not just ‘offence’?
These are big questions, and not easily answered –
but that’s the point. The important discussions aren’t easy
but that’s exactly why they should happen.
Bridging the generation gap And, crucially, these discussions need to happen in an inter-generational forum. We cannot submit to the lazy and divisive notion that our age and level of experience renders us either too naïve/impassioned/‘woke’ (Gen Z) OR cynical/entrenched/outmoded (Boomers and beyond) to understand and learn from those of a different generation. As the Head of a leading school filled with amazing young women, it is not only my privilege but also my duty to listen to all of the voices around me and take on board a diversity of viewpoints – those of the students, of course, but also of the parents, the alumnae and the staff. It’s such a fine balance between allowing our amazing girls to feel heard and valued and respected, and also understanding that those of us in authority have wisdom and the perspective of experience to bring to bear. As one of our former Head Girls put it in an email to me:
“It really is people like you and the WHS teachers who make the
difference, by acting on the recognition that the wisdom of your
generation can be supported and enhanced by listening to and engaging with the
voice of ours.”
What next? And so, we will be threading Civil Discourse through the curriculum, through academic and pastoral, with sessions for Y7-9 in PSHE with Ms Kennedy, for Y10 in their PPE studies, Y11 in form times and Sixth Form in their Onwards programmes.
And the aim? Well, it’s simple: for our students to be truly
flexible, robust and open in their thinking, and for the world to
re-awaken itself to the notion of real debate and discussion, based on
authentic encounters between enquiring hearts and minds.
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
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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;
Claire Boyd, Head of Junior School, reflects on the process that brought about the inception of Adventum, the new Junior School philosophy-led academic curriculum.
Education, like so many other areas of life, is not immune to the comings and goings of fashions and trends. What is en vogue one decade can be reviled the next. When qualifying to teach back in the early 00s, my evangelical tutors waxed lyrical about ‘The Literacy and Numeracy Hour’, the golden bullet, as they saw it, for guaranteeing educational success in classrooms across the country.
When it was launched in 1998, this highly prescriptive minute-by-minute approach to teaching daily Maths and English lessons, provoked the then-Education Secretary, David Blunkett, to promise to resign in 2002 unless “80% of 11-year olds met the expected level in their end of Key Stage 2 SATs tests”. Alas, by 2010, when I was mentoring new teachers through their training myself, the tide had turned – rather unceremoniously – against the Literacy and Numeracy Hour, and nothing as rigid and straightened as that has earned a trainee teacher their stripes since.
Just a few moments scrolling through the most popular Edu Twitter accounts today will lead you to believe frequent retrieval practice, regular low stake testing and knowledge organisers hold the key to success that Blunkett’s beloved Literacy Hour did, twenty years ago.
When it comes to deciding how to craft a curriculum imbued with the integrity, longevity and depth to withstand the test of time (or least see a good few cohorts reap its benefits), you need something that will not only deliver exceptional educational outcomes but something which will also stand resolute as other trends come and go around it. Between September 2019 and January 2021, this preoccupation loomed large over my team and I, as we sought to overhaul our curriculum and breathe new life into what we teach and how we teach, as well as, most importantly, consider why we teach what we teach.
Launched to our pupils at the start of the Spring Term 2021, Adventum (named in tribute to the spirit of adventure that rests at the heart of the Junior School) is the net result of this process in action. Over the course of four terms, we went from asking ourselves where the value lay in what we had been teaching and which aspects were delivering excellent outcomes to what we wanted for the next generation of our Junior School learners.
Our curriculum building process began at the end, rather than the beginning, by considering what we wanted the legacy of our curriculum to be. What did we want our pupils to take away with them when they finished seven years engaged in our bespoke curriculum and its related lessons? By no means an easy question to answer, we worked through a range of iterations of legacy statements before asserting that we will aim to instill our learners with a love of wisdom, integrity of thought and the social awareness to act with compassion, confidence and agency; leaving our girls filled with a desire to grapple with and overcome the challenges presented by the world in which they are growing up.
With this in place, we then felt a close and immediate connection with the potential a philosophy-led curriculum could provide. Exploring existing research on philosophy driven curricula drove us to agree emphatically with the Lipman that “every subject seems easier to learn when its teaching is infused with the open, critical spirit and logical characteristic of philosophy.” It is only by fostering a curriculum that elevates thinking rather than the transmission of knowledge will we truly equip the young minds in our care, with the skills and abilities to use the knowledge and skills they acquire to meaningfully contribute to shaping the world around them.
When considered alongside both the capabilities and abilities of our eager learners, Adventum began to take shape around a foundation of provocative thinking, intellectual disruption, critical questioning and increasing levels of self-knowledge. Rather than being tied to closely to a means of delivering content over time in an efficient and sufficient manner, we worked hard to look for ways that the discovery of knowledge and skills could be fused together to help strengthen connections and schema building whilst responding naturally to the innate predisposition all children have for asking questions, for challenging and seeking out possibility. We looked for a practical way to take the structure and progression of the National Curriculum – in which we recognise inherent value – and align it closely with a programme which gives space and breadth for the thinking, contemplation and sequence of discoveries that relate directly to reasoning; there is indeed “no point in teaching children logic if one does not at the same time teach them to think logically.”
So, half a term into the implementation of Adventum, what are our girls experiencing? Each sequence of lessons is rooted in a philosophical question that provides a focus to the learning for that term. The questions posed simply yet designed to offer perplexity of thought when engagement levels are high.
Adventum begins by introducing first providing an introduction to meta-physics (understanding ourselves), moving through to develop an understanding of aesthetics (appreciating the natural world) and culminating with the complexities of ethics (wrangling with the moral dilemmas of life). This term sees Reception wonder what makes a good character, Year 3 ask if colour plays a part in our identity, Year 6 consider who decides the status quo around us. With the humanities, science, art and music interwoven into the exploration of these questions, high quality and ambitious texts provide the important context required to interrogate the big questions being asked of our bright minds. Where the aim of philosophy writ large is to cultivate excellence in thinking, Adventum has been crafted to spur our girls on to examine what it is to think historically, musically and scientifically.
Whilst we do not expect Adventum to exist in a pedagogical vacuum, unchallenged and unaffected by the progress in education and child development, it is hard not to feel that the providence found in the quest of thinking that has gone before sets us in good stead. So here is to the adventure of asking big questions of big minds and inspiring big thinking from Early Years onwards.
 p.1 After the Literacy Hour: May the Best Plan Win, Centre for Policy Studies, 2004
Philosophy Goes to School, M. Lipman, Temple, 1988, p.4
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.
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. Again, we have found ourselves drawing on a place – here a home – to focus and enrich our historical thinking.
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. 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
Mr James Porter, Specialist English teacher and Experientia Scholarship lead, reflects on the first half-term of a radical bespoke curriculum project that aims to introduce the Upper Junior School girls to the concept of critical thinking and the art of Socratic discussion.
What does academic achievement look like in 2020?
Fionnuala Kennedy, Head, began this academic term with an address to staff in which she spoke of a ‘new epoch’ in education. In this time of truly unprecedented crisis the core business of schools has very much been thrust into the public spotlight, and, with circumstances necessitating a ‘back to basics’ approach, there is now a very prescient need to look closely at the fundamentals of teaching and learning and to ask – how can we do the basics better?
Nationally and globally, the lives of children have been turned upside down and the education community has been rocked by profound and severe crises, the implications of which many observers hold will be felt for years, if not indefinitely. Take this summer’s public exam fiasco and the ongoing uncertainty around this type of assessment as just one example of the domino-like impact that the COVID crisis will continue to have on the core components of the British education system. Naturally, this is leading to a renewed impetus in the search for change.
The need to explicitly address the social implications of the crisis in school planning is widely acknowledged. It is this principle that Barry Carpenter makes central in his proposal for a ‘recovery curriculum’ model for the Autumn term, which addresses the holistic development of pupils in response to a deficit that is perceived as having emerged during the period of school closure. 
However, there are those who propose that times of profound uncertainty be met with more divergent thinking that is far broader and deeper in scope:
In more turbulent times, a radical vision of education may emerge from cultural trauma, as it did in Reggio Emilia in northern Italy at the conclusion of the Second World War. A whole society pulled together in revulsion at the ease with which they had embraced, or tolerated, fascism, and vowed to raise young people who would not make the same mistakes. 
Further, a growing discourse in British education reflecting a broad spectrum of society has seen this crisis as the catalyst for their calls to end what they perceive to be an inherently problematic public assessment regime, the most eloquent of these coming from Michael Rosen in a letter to Gavin Williamson published in The Guardian.  Their calls to replace GCSEs with alternative models cite the established practices at Bedales School who introduced “richer, more expansive courses” that “encourage creativity, autonomy, and enjoyment of learning for its own sake” as a ground-breaking example of a successful alternative. 
While some have drawn equivalents, I am not comparing the gravity of our present situation with the fall of Fascism at the end of the Second World War (this weekend’s election result not withstanding). However, at no time since the Second World War has it been more important that we support the holistic development and emotional intelligence of our pupils through considerate planning that addresses emerging needs while focusing on the development of skills and maintaining disciplined academic rigour.
What is the Experientia Scholarship?
Inspired by dramatic developments in education and tasked with developing a radical new curriculum programme in the Upper Junior School, I wanted to address the challenges of 2020 and beyond by creating a programme focused on rigorous academic pursuit and the development of higher-order thinking. The programme also needed to be responsive to the needs of pupils through engaging, thoughtful, and sensitive planning that makes the habits of effective discussion and learning explicit, building on the psychological development model proposed by Abraham Maslow in 1943:
Since September, the girls in the Upper Junior School have been immersed in a bespoke curriculum programme which considers the contentious issues that affect our daily lives and introduces pupils to the concept of critical thinking and the art of Socratic discussion.
The Experientia Scholarship, which forms part of the weekly timetable for all girls in Years 3-6, exposes pupils to a range of learning experiences which challenge their view of the world. Comprising of a range of short courses, pupils explore elements of both classical ‘enlightenment’ and progressive ‘modernist’ units of study devised to grow cultural capital, cultivate divergent thinking and enhance preparation for success in a globalised and digital world.
Underpinning this are three pillars which guide the ongoing development of the programme:
Academia: A community concerned with the pursuit of knowledge, always seeking to find truth and assessing all available evidence to make logical conclusions that are not based on opinions or emotions;
Fraternity: A feeling of friendship and support within our community, being kind and supportive, understanding that we never discount the person; we challenge their conclusions based on our understanding of the evidence;
Culture: We learn about, respect and show tolerance towards all no matter their background, geography or beliefs. Understanding that high culture is not limited to high art, we embrace eclectic tastes across a broad range of disciplines, from Schubert to Stormzy.
Through weekly Socratic discussions based on a thought-provoking reading, pupils engage with a cycle of themes that introduce them to a range of critical topics.
Experientia Scholarship – Autumn Term
Has technology made life easier? Can machines replace human beings?
Does Hollywood need to change? Who makes the news?
What is art? Is art inclusive?
How much influence does the media have?
The pupils reflect on their position throughout the discussion cycle and are encouraged to conduct their own research into the topics of discussion and to set their own questions for future discussions.
In the lessons, the teacher prepares discussion-based activities that ask a series of open-ended questions specifically targeting the different ways of thinking about a topic. Arguments are dismantled into their constituent parts which can then be evaluated, and the implications considered.
The benefits of the Socratic approach to learning have long been espoused by those who have studied it:
“[…]Within the context of the discussion, students listen closely to the comments of others, thinking critically for themselves, and articulate their own thoughts and their responses to the thoughts of others. They learn to work cooperatively and to question intelligently and civilly” 
The scholarship culminates in a formally assessed public speaking activity in which pupils explain and justify their thinking around the topic of their choice before being awarded commended, highly commended or distinction, aiming to reward metacognition and the process of learning rather than just linear attainment.
What have the lessons been like?
I will share one example of the impact that I have observed of the Socratic approach with a Year 4 group.
The first discussion in the Year 4 unit on ‘who makes the news?’ is an introduction to the concept of fake news and an examination of the people who could gain from spreading misinformation. In a follow-up discussion, pupils look at the idea of censorship and consider the occasions when they believe it is justified before reading a text about president Xi Jinping who, it is reported, censored Winnie the Pooh in China after memes emerging online mocking supposed similarities between them offended him.
The girls had decided that there are circumstances in which censorship is warranted. They gave the examples of internet blocking on their devices at school and people sending offensive messages as times when it would be right to censor. I was fascinated when the implications of their reasoning were applied to the example of Xi Jinping. While there was broad agreement that offensive communication should be censored, a vocal group of girls emerged who came to the conclusion that presidents, being in a unique position of influence and power, were to be treated differently than the general population, and in this case the rights for the people to criticise the president should be defended.
The ability of the girls to form critical connections when introduced to reasoning in this way was powerfully illustrated to me recently with the same group while watching Newsround coverage of Trump contesting the presidential election count. Pupils were immediately able to identify this as misinformation, and crucially were able to articulate the motivation for Trump to do so, as well as identifying the dangerous implications.
Teachers from across the Junior School have also commented on the impact they have noticed the Scholarship having in other areas of the curriculum. In an English lesson, Year 5 girls were able to articulate their thoughts around intrinsic gender bias and the etymology of words, citing the example of ‘female’ being the negative form of ‘male’, and explaining that this issue had been thrown up in discussion with Mrs Walles-Brown about whether art is inclusive.
I asked the girls to share their thoughts describing what their Experientia lessons have been like. This word cloud formed from their responses neatly summarises the general consensus felt after the first half term of the Experientia Scholarship in the Upper Junior School.
Dr James Lloyd, Classicist in Residence at WHS, looks at the relevance of Classics in a modern world.
Education, both at school and at university, is about inspiring inquisitive minds, preparing the next generation to challenge the last, and equipping students with the skills to question the world they live in and to ask how they can make it better. But how do you distill such qualities into something that can be graded and assessed, condensed into a factor measured for league tables? What I mean to say by this, is that the case for Classics can be a difficult one to make. That being said, there are four key areas that make Classics a particularly important subject in today’s modern world.
For me, Classics is a subject where the core elements of modern education can be championed. It is a subject whose topics range from discussions of love and religion, to critiques of imperialism and the myriad emotions of Greek tragedy. You need to be inquisitive to understand the context of the Odyssey, because, despite the similarities, the world of 700 BCE is very different to our own.
What Classics offers us is the time and space in which to reflect, an environment where ideas can be challenged. The questions posed by writers such as Homer, Sappho, Ovid, and Cicero are just as relevant now as they were the 2,000 years and more ago when they were first composed. This is not to place such writers on a plinth, like all too many museums do with looted statues, but to question the legacy of such writers, and what their purpose is in a largely more just and socially kinder world. As Dan Addis, also of Wimbledon, has recently argued, empathy is a key component of education, and here, Classics ranks highly.
Classics is not an island
Or if it is, it is an island among an archipelago. Classics is not just the learning of Latin and ancient Greek. It can range from ancient economics and classical archaeology, to heritage and museum studies. In my case, it involves the study of iconography, material objects, inscriptions, and even ancient musical instruments. I have curated my own exhibition, and collaborated on the materials analysis of ancient religious offerings using pXRF and Pb isotope analysis.
The case for Classics is not an exclusionary one. It is a subject that works in conversation with many others. For example, a recent study published in the journal Reading and Writing has shown how learning Latin can help with English language acquisition. The benefits of Classics can be found in other subjects too. History, Anthropology, Literature, Modern Languages, Architecture, and Law are just some of the areas in deep conversation with Classics. For example, studying the Aeneid helps us to be critical of the influences between politics and the arts today, and exploring the emotions of Sappho and the context of Ovid’s Art of Love help us to better understand contemporary issues of gender and sexuality.
Like any subject with a centuries’ long heritage, Classics was built on foundations that need to be rebuilt. This is the third point in my case for Classics.
In a recent open article on gender bias in one of the leading academic Classics journals, the Journal of Roman Studies, the editorial board found no evidence of gender bias in the acceptance of articles, but admitted that there was still much to be done in addressing the reasons as to why fewer women submitted work to the journal than their male colleagues.
George Eliot would have doubtless responded to such a report with mixed feelings, given Latin and Greek were known to her Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch as “those provinces of masculine knowledge… a standing-ground from which all truth could be seen more truly”.
That being said, the last two decades have seen a wave of feminist retellings of Classical stories, from Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad to Madeline Miller’s Circe. The success of these books lies not just in the skill of their authors, but also in the urgency of their messages, a challenge to traditionally male-dominated narratives. While Classics has been taught in Britain for centuries, the way that we teach authors such as Homer and Sappho to students at Wimbledon is certainly very different to the way such texts were taught even 50 years ago.
Indeed, one of the most refreshing aspects of teaching at Wimbledon High School so far has been the breadth of learning and creativity shown by the girls, whether that is in discussing the role of Medusa in Myth and Monsters Club, and how it subverts ideas of beauty and power, or in exploring what ancient views of divinity reveal about universal human concerns, to use just two examples.
Classics outside the Classroom
To use just two examples. One of the problems with making the case for Classics is that there are very few empirical studies on the benefits of studying it. One of the likely reasons for this is that it is a relatively specialised subject. In 2019, provisional data recorded 3,575 GCSE entries for Classical subjects; for A-Level entries, the provisional figure is 4,995. This can make the case for Classics difficult.
In an ideal world, students should study Classics because they will enjoy it, but this is not an ideal world, it is a difficult world. Employers will want to know what transferable skills you can demonstrate; being able to quote Homer normally isn’t one of them. In a society asking for an increasingly digitally literate workforce, when a decision must be made between, for example, learning to code and learning past participles, it seems difficult to justify choosing the participles.
But Classics does not just teach students the patience and perseverance to learn complex grammars and vocabularies, it is a subject that encourages a healthy dose of skepticism. Not just of the traditional narratives that it asks us to engage with, but of how arguments and ideas are constructed more broadly. Not only that, but it teaches us an understanding of different cultures. These are the exact kind of soft skills that Google were surprised to find were most vital for its employees, when it conducted research into its employment processes.
To return to the title of this piece, what is the case for Classics? For me, Classics has taught me a way of viewing the world with a healthy dose of skepticism and kindness. And in a world where things are more uncertain than they have been for some time, it is something of a comfort that Classics can help us to make some sense of it all.
Amy C. Crosson, Margaret G. McKeown, Debra W. Moore, Feifei Ye. Extending the bounds of morphology instruction: teaching Latin roots facilitates academic word learning for English Learner adolescents. Reading and Writing, 2018; DOI: 10.1007/s11145-018-9885-y
Kelly, C., Thonemann, P., Borg, B., Hillner, J., Lavan, M., Morley, N., … Whitton, C. (2019). Gender Bias and the Journal of Roman Studies: JRS EDITORIAL BOARD. Journal of Roman Studies, 109, 441–448. http://doi.org/10.1017/S0075435819000935
Mr Daniel Addis, Head of Academic Scholarship and Teacher of Classics at WHS, looks at the purpose of education, and asks whether empathy could be the key skill students should develop in an academic environment.
Whenever one considers what education is for, there are several arguments that immediately sprout up. There is a ‘Scholar Academic’ (SA) perspective that suggests there is a key set of knowledge that students need to know in order to be upstanding members of society. The ‘Social Efficiency’ (SE) model argues that it is skills that are imperative to learning in order to prepare students for life in the workplace, whereas the ‘Learner Centred’ (LC) model suggests that content is immaterial; students should have the opportunity to study whatever they desire to benefit themselves. Finally the ‘Social Reconstruction’ (SR) model suggests that education’s main imperative is to facilitate the creation of a more just society, based on the balance between different groups, whether that is racial, class-based, or other forms of segregation.
The true answer presumably lies in a combination of these different models, but I would argue that empathy is the link upon which all of them rely. Empathy is the key knowledge, the important skill, the centre for the learner, and the methodology through which we can create a more-just society.
Nussbaum, in her excellent work Not for profit: Why democracy needs the humanities, discusses how empathy requires three things.
A child who knows how to do things for themselves
Recognition that total control is neither possible nor good, that the world is a place in which we all have weaknesses and we need to find ways to support one another
An awareness of solidarity and the idea that we are not alone
Each of the 4 models of curriculum I mentioned have part of these three aspects in them. In the SA it is a solidarity gained by the shared experience of learning the same key material along with understanding of the past that demonstrates the lack of total control in the world; in the SE it is developing children’s ability to do things for themselves; in the LC it is also the development of the students’ ability to do things, along with supporting them individually; and in the SR it is the concept of solidarity amongst peers, and support of others. The fact that part of if not all of these key facets of developing empathy are in each curriculum model demonstrates how important it is to students’ education.
Though all the models have different aims, aspirations, history, ideology, and conceptual understanding, Empathy runs through them all. This is eminently understandable. In E.D Hirsch’s book Cultural Literacy: what every American needs to know, he lists facts, figures and great works of literature that he considers a key part of any western education. The list has a strong historical bias, requiring students to learn the history of culture and society. This develops a cultural empathy, understanding of where we have come from, as well as helping us understand and relate to other cultures our students might come across in future.
According to Nussbaum “seeing how another group of intelligent human beings has cut up the world differently… gives a young person an essential lesson in cultural humility.” Coming across something different which requires greater study and further analysis helps students to understand their experiences as it is comparatively more different to their own. The fact the traditions and models are more unfamiliar allows students to develop analytical tools they can use in other spheres. Their analytical ability is honed further as it is used by the student dissecting more peculiar practices. When considering the greater intellectual difference, the similarities become more poignant, and the nature of combined human experience can imbue students with an awareness of solidarity between peoples, something required for empathy.
From a pastoral perspective, empathy is something that is an obvious focus to develop in young people, but a blending of the academic and pastoral is important in this setting. It is only by intellectually engaging with alternative information and different perspectives through academic learning that empathy is fully developed. It is enhanced through questioning, analytical rigour and searching for deeper meaning rather than, as can be the case in PSHE, something that is assumed. We all consider ourselves to be empathetic but by questioning information from other sources comes a stronger empathy, not a facile, ethereal thing, which can lead to more substantial change.
If we look more closely at some of the material covered in class, we can question the inherent benefit. What is the purpose of learning about life in Chaucer’s England? Would it make much difference in someone’s life to know about life in a Roman household? Perhaps the facts themselves are not important. But by comparing their own experience with others, students can gain a more concrete understanding of the beneficial aspects of their own life. This, in turn, can help them understand other cultures around the world, other people, new information which will prove a vital skill for their later life. With the rate the world is changing, being able to intellectually adapt and understand the needs of others is one of the core skills our students need to possess.
Whilst I do believe that some knowledge is inherently beneficial (I would hardly be a Classicist if I didn’t!), it is important to remember the overall purpose of what we do at school. By putting empathy at the front and centre of the learning experience, we not only develop analytical ability, but we also develop better people who can utilise a different perspective, challenge assumptions and develop their understanding of others. In this way, we give them the tools to change the world, building on our shared past, in order to develop our best future.
 The four terms I use for curriculum ideologies are found in Schiro, M. S. (2013) Curriculum Theory:Conflicting Visions and Enduring Concerns 2.e.; Sage Publishers. p. 4. There are other terms used by other authors but these four are the clearest.
 Nussbaum (2010) Not for profit: Why democracyneeds the humanities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. p. 97
 Hirsch, E.D. (1988) Cultural Literacy: what every American needs to know; Incidentally this was the key text upon which the 2015 UK governmental education policy was based.