From Socrates to Stormzy: introducing the Experientia Scholarship

What is art?

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.

Above: The Media

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. [1]

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. [2]

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. [3] 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. [4]

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:

Above: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

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.

Above: The Experientia Scholarship

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.[5] 

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
Year 3 Has technology made life easier? Can machines replace human beings?
Year 4 Does Hollywood need to change? Who makes the news?
Year 5 What is art? Is art inclusive?
Year 6 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.

Above: Questioning to Promote Higher Order Thinking Skills

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” [6]

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?

Above: The Experientia Scholarship

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.

Above: Summary of The Experientia Workshop

Further Reading

Carpenter, B., A Recovery Curriculum: Loss and Life for our children and schools post pandemic, Evidence For Learning [online], 2020,

Israel, E., “Examining Multiple Perspectives in Literature.”  In Inquiry and the Literary Text: Constructing Discussions in the English Classroom, NCTE, 2002

McConville, A., Bedales: Rethinking Assessment [online], 2020,

Rosen, M., Dear Gavin Williamson, here’s how to avoid more exam catastrophes, The Guardian [online], 2020,

Wells, G., and Claxton, G., Learning for Life in the 21st Century, Sociocultural Perspectives on the Future of Education, Blackwell, London, 2002


[1]Carpenter, B., A Recovery Curriculum: Loss and Life for our children and schools post pandemic, Evidence For Learning [online], 2020,

[2] Wells, G., and Claxton, G., Learning for Life in the 21st Century, Sociocultural Perspectives on the Future of Education, Blackwell, London, 2002,

[3] Rosen, M., Dear Gavin Williamson, here’s how to avoid more exam catastrophes, The Guardian [online], 2020,

[4] McConville, A., Bedales: Rethinking Assessment [online], 2020,

[5] Boyd, C., Experientia Vision Statement, Wimbledon High Junior School, 2020

[6] Israel, E., “Examining Multiple Perspectives in Literature.”  In Inquiry and the Literary Text: Constructing Discussions in the English Classroom, NCTE, 2002

Taxi drivers, not bus drivers

Suzy Pett, Assistant Head Teaching and Learning, looks at individual learning and discusses some of the benefits of this approach to teachers and learners.

As a school, our first strategic objective is for pupils to ‘step in’ and ‘be known’. As such, individualised learning goes to the heart of what we do. I’ve heard teachers described as bus drivers rather than taxi drivers, but I don’t think that reflects our ethos at WHS. We know that every pupil will get to the destination – we have the same high expectations of all our pupils – but we know that the route and journey will be different for each pupil. At WHS, we do not offer a mass transport education system, but we think of our pupils as individuals.

WHS RS Class
Above: WHS RS Class in action

Last year, John Hattie, author of the game-changing book ‘Visible Learning’, added some new categories to his meta-analysis of factors relating to student achievement. Coming in third out of 252 influences is ‘Teacher estimates of achievement’ with a value of 1.29.[1] To put this in context, the average effect size of all the interventions studied is 0.4. So, clearly, this is a big deal. This rating reflects the accuracy of an individual teacher’s knowledge of pupils and how that knowledge determines the kinds of classroom activities and materials as and difficulty of the tasks assigned. So, knowing your pupils is vital. It makes sense.

However, the idea of differentiation is fraught. Rather than being the elixir of learning, differentiation conjures an array of fears. Quite rightly, the negative potential of differentiation comes under fire. In our context of motivated and ambitious pupils, I cringe at lesson plans which explicitly seek to limit outcomes through so-called differentiation. The once popular tripartite formula of lesson plans – ‘all will’, ‘most will’, ‘some will’ – seemed a quick way to show your awareness of the different abilities in your class. Really, what it did was reveal a lack of confidence in all pupils achieving mastery, and your skills as a teacher to facilitate that. It resulted in a lower expectation of what “less able” pupils could achieve.

Above: WHS Classics class in action

A second concern about differentiation is that it can oversimplify learning. With the benign intention of making learning accessible for some pupils, excessively scaffolded tasks in fact remove the challenge and the opportunity to find things hard. A frequent mantra we hear in the teaching community is: “A teacher’s job is not to make work easy. It is to make it difficult”. Deep learning comes with struggle, something that educationalist Lev Vygosky also suggests: our pupils should operate within their ‘Zones of Proximal Development’. This involves facing challenges just beyond their current capabilities, with the right level of scaffolding to point the way.[2] Although disproportionate struggle has a detrimental effect, the danger with differentiation is that, keen to support those who will find it hardest, we remove the struggle altogether. The completion of the ‘dumbed down’ task at a lower level is the learner’s modest prize.[3]

A third concern is around teacher workload. The teacher is frazzled with creating multiple routes through the lesson, concocting various worksheets for the same task and putting on ‘clinics’ outside of lessons to cater for all needs. There is no time to reflect on what is working in the classroom, accurately assessing pupils and responding by planning creative and engaging lessons. Pupils are equally frazzled, spending lunchtimes yo-yoing between ‘clinics’.

So what does excellent individualised learning look like in a class setting? For me, assessment is the compass for differentiation. To really know our pupils, we need a sharp sense of what they struggled with and where they misunderstood ideas. It’s not got enough to find this out in a ‘clinic’ and to put it right then. Assessment and the resulting differentiation needs to happen in class. So rigorous Q&A is vital, as is effective and regular low-stakes testing. During class discussion, we need to focus as much on error as on what pupils got right so we know where the gaps are. We need to find out where the sticking point is for some members of the class, and then put in place plans to address it within lesson time.  Knowing your pupils is vital and responding to that knowledge in small, sometimes incremental ways, is what differentiation is all about. Tom Sherrington, author of The Learning Rainforest, summarises this brilliantly in a blog post: “You may feel that John is coasting a bit; he needs a push this lesson.  It may be that Albert has looked a bit bored of late. He might be finding things a bit easy; let’s really crank it up this lesson.  The last time Rory handed his book in it was a bit of a shocker; I need to sit with him this lesson and get a few things sorted out.  Daniel is always just below the top level. Why is that? Maybe he needs to do some re-drafting and I need to absolutely insist that he does it again and again until it’s hitting the top level.”[4] It’s not all about the separate worksheet, or the extra clinic. It’s about the sustained and regular interactions we have with pupils on a daily basis. That’s individualised learning.






A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Daniel Addis, Teacher of Classics here at WHS, offers an insight into the need for breadth in students and teachers’ education and how they can acquire it.

They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. If we consider the Dunning-Kruger effect (demonstrated on the diagram to the right) we might agree. The principle is that ‘knowledge without sufficient experience can lead to an overestimation of ability’. It is no surprise that Donald Trump has been nicknamed the ‘Dunning-Kruger President’ in articles by the New York Times, Bloomberg, and the Independent. I recall an interview where he tries to explain uranium to his audience:

“You know what uranium is, right? This thing called nuclear weapons like lots of things are done with uranium including some bad things.”

The ignorance is palpable. One cannot help but feel that he has learnt a lot of this information in the very recent past. He has absorbed so little of it that he has become overly confident with his knowledge of the subject. I hope I am not alone in feeling thoroughly worried by this man and his proximity to the proverbial big red button. A little knowledge is truly a dangerous thing.

In the face of this, we should surely adopt a Socratic approach; “the only thing I know is that I know nothing.” By acknowledging our own ignorance, we do not risk the negatives of living beyond our intellectual means; the embarrassing demonstration of knowledge half-baked, the pub quiz question we definitely know the answer to being wrong, or a lack of understanding in the political climate leading to nuclear war. ‘Ignorance is bliss’, or is it?

As teachers, we have progressed to the far end of the Dunning-Kruger graph. We have the experience to move beyond the initial confidence level, through the trough of timidity to the position of expert in our subject. We are authorities on the syllabus and all is known to us. Hurrah!

But is there a danger that we could be elsewhere in the Dunning-Kruger graph? If we consider the graph to concern the sum of human knowledge rather than just the knowledge of our own subject, surely the specialisation in our own area of expertise, to the detriment of other knowledge, means that the level of overall experience is low. We do not have the breadth of knowledge required to move beyond the initial peak of overconfidence. And we have seen the danger of that…

It is important in our role as teachers that we continue to broaden our horizons, to learn more about the wider world beyond our subject and our specialty. By advocating our individual areas, we can damage the overall learning of the student. Naturally, we want to promote our subject, the bastion of our intellectual development. There is a reason we have attached ourselves to these monikers of learning, such as an inspiring teacher or a book that had us gripped from cover to cover. Particularly for the 6th Form or for options lower down the school, we want to sell our subject, to show students how our subject can pique their interest. We have to be incredibly passionate, otherwise our subject may be disregarded and all that knowledge remains unutilised and undiscovered.

We are particularly fervent in the Classics department for this very reason. I can guarantee every Classics teacher has memorised the ‘why learning Classics is still relevant and important’ speech due to how often we have to spout it. This breeds an element of competition in teachers, who feel they must defend their subject against the onslaught of other options. We are in a fight to keep our relevance and our numbers high. This has engendered an ‘Ivory Towers’ model of teaching, where each subject is in opposition to the others rather than collaborating to gain the best results for students.

Whilst the British system of subjects is fantastic for producing a depth of knowledge in those students who study them, we as teachers need to be advocating a far broader array of knowledge. What is an education that only focuses on one area? How can we truly learn Shakespeare without understanding Greek Theatre? How can we truly learn physical Geography without an understanding of the scientific elements that fabricate our world? How can we truly learn French without knowledge of the history of the Europe?

It is our responsibility as teachers to keep learning, expanding our horizons, and putting our subject in context with others. The ‘Ivory Towers’ model is not only defunct, it is damaging and we must try to move beyond it. Students will be learning the same skills in a variety of classes. Understanding of major concepts such as justice and morality can happen in History just as much as R.S. Analysis of literature is not just the preserve of English, but of MFL and Classics as well. Logical processing and methodology occurs in Maths, Sciences, Geography, Languages, History, and more. The similarities are much more prominent than the differences.

I will stop at suggesting a thorough re-examination of our entire curriculum. I think our subject-based system allows students to study what they are interested in with a depth and insight that other models of teaching do not allow them. However, they need to be exposed to a wider array of material in order to develop the cultural capital needed to be high functioning members of our society. Unfortunately, it does not happen naturally. The percentage of students who decide for themselves to delve beyond the syllabus is disappointingly low. We, as teachers, need to be the examples for them to follow. The syllabus is a base point but we must indicate what else is out there for them to discover.

I appreciate this sounds an awful lot like hard work. Not only learning your specification but what others are teaching as well?! The job of a maniac! However, there is an easy solution… Explore and Rosewell lectures. Sit and listen about the wider world. From brain surgery to rainforests; classical myths to Chinese politics; just sit and listen. Enhancing our own learning can only help our students and demonstrate to them the benefits of the holistic education. By developing the breadth of our own learning, we build the level of scholarship throughout the school. We tear down those ‘Ivory Towers’. We create a love of learning beyond the minimum required. Moreover, we can show that it is worth the time. Unfortunately, we are time poor as a profession. However, demonstrating that it is worth that hour to listen to a lecture will increase its value for everyone; students, staff, friends, parents etc. The more people we can have attending these lectures, the more our collective intellectualism will grow and flourish. If we consider the methodology of our recent visitor Guy Claxton, we should be facilitating and encouraging learning by the students and allowing them to do the majority of the research and discovery. What better way to embody this ideology than to show support for extra-curricular and cross-curricular learning by an expert in the field.

There is a famous expression ‘Jack of all trades and Master of none.’ What a negative ideology, I have been tarred many times with this linguistic brush. “Why would you want to try many things when you could be really good at one thing?” “Why would you do something if you are not the best at it?” It creates a culture of fearing the unknown, of deriding those who are not experts but are enthused. No one wants to be a Jack, but people rarely finish the expression. In full:

‘Jack of all trades, Master of none, but better than a Master of one.’ 

Let’s stop being Masters and be Jacks. Let’s broaden our knowledge of the entirety of what the world has to offer. Let’s Explore. You never know what you might learn.

Twitter: @AcademicSch_WHS