Recently I heard an interview with Eugenia Cheng, the mathematician and pianist, who said that her greatest learning moments were heralded by a feeling of her brain expanding.  In our school we try to inspire our children to think widely and deeply so we do not learn through separate subjects but through topics where science, humanities and art merge into each other. Children think more freely than adults. They tend to make free associations in their minds, linking experience to knowledge through memory as they come across the “new” in life. This is particularly true for pre-school children and explains why these early years are full of the wonder of discovery.

Good primary schools can prolong this golden age of learning but often when the child arrives at secondary school the river of learning is split into many disconnected channels. For example, the student goes from a physics class to history to French and each subject has no relation to the other. The child might have been inspired by something in the physics class, but they must drop it to move onto something unrelated where the teacher is too busy with their own lesson plan to worry about what has been learnt elsewhere.

This compartmentalised learning creates divisions in knowledge for the convenience of teaching and exams. They prevent us from making the connections that allow us to see the big picture. Students want to learn in a way that engages them by making connections between the theoretical and the practical, between one subject and another. They want to feel that learning is useful, fun, enchanting, inspiring and relevant. Life is not separated into subjects.

In our school we choose a topic, which is discussed and decided by the democratic meeting involving all the children and the staff. Then the teachers get together to plan out a scheme of work. The teachers try to strike a balance between making the topic interesting to the students, relevant to their needs, creative, interconnecting the subjects, with plenty of opportunity for experiential learning.

They also try to include GCSE content in the topic where possible as this helps our children to decide which ones (if any) they would like to do. They cover the content in an interconnected way with no exam pressure, no compulsory homework and have the space to discover their own motivations and manage their own learning, helping them to become analytical, reflective, and creative thinkers.

One term we studied the topics of sugar and slavery together, with three teachers: one each for science, humanities and art. From the science of sugar students could appreciate its importance in our diet and the dangers of consuming too much. Studying this alongside slavery allowed them to see how the growing demand for sugar in Europe and America increased production and the consequent astronomical growth of the slave trade. They were able to see how slavery was the oil in the machine of these transatlantic economies and how individuals made large profits.

The reaction of students to this way of learning was eye-opening. In art, one student created a 3D map which showed the slave triangle from Europe to Africa to the America where all the countries were made of different coloured sugar. Another student said she would give up eating sugar as not only was it bad for her health but even today workers are paid very low wages in sugar plantations around the world and she wanted to boycott the industry. Another student found out that one of his ancestors was involved in helping slave to escape from plantations in the Deep-South, something he was proud to tell everyone else about.

This term the topic is Democracy and we are studying how decisions are made in society and how people have struggled to get the vote over the centuries. In science the students are learning about how decision-making takes place in animal societies. How bees, buffaloes and ants make decisions and organise themselves. In art we are looking at how the struggle for rights and democracy is represented artistically in posters and protest art. This will lead us back to humanities where next half-term they will decide on something they want to campaign for.

See you next week.

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