Leading independent thinking

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Bewitching days here now – steady heat and even a nightingale singing in one of the trees between 50 Church Road and the Village Hall as Moony and I sit on the terrace / patio / stoep as dusk gathers.

Even in the teeth of public exams, there has been fruitful stuff happening in terms of student voice and engagement.

On Monday evening, Josh, a 6.2 student who is close both to the end of his A Levels and to the end of his time at Bedales, gave a talk to the Pudding Club – the gathering of our 3i group.  Josh had chosen to talk about ‘How we learn and what makes us tick’.  His talk reflected on his decade spent within the Bedales Schools and how well he felt that these environments worked  alongside the innate drivers that help us learn and underpin our behaviours: valorisation – the values and behaviour of teachers which students naturally copy and which creates the self-confidence and “willingness to do what’s good” in the students;  the need to find out about the world and how it works, reflecting the “intelligent thinking” that lies at the heart of our education; and finally the sense of wonder, “innate curiosity” that is so closely linked with creativity.

The power of Josh’s talk was shown in the quality of discussion it evoked – clearly what he said had resonated with many of the students in the meeting.

Wednesday’s Jaw was taken by Richie (6.1) and was about music – its use for propaganda and protest.  Beginning with a remarkable film from 1908 of the Marseillaise being sung and the use by the French government of this rousing song (inspired by the need to defend Strasbourg), he went on to talk about the role of the piano in middle class European life, before crossing the Atlantic and involving us in the role of music in the Vargas 1930-42 Brazilian government.  He then made protest music the thread, with Bob Dylan, Martin Garvey and then the extraordinary story of Fela Kuti’s Kalakuta Republic, set up in Nigeria in the 70s and destroyed by the Nigerian government in February 1977; this was partly in response to the popularity of his protest song Zombie which attacked the mindlessness and power of the Nigerian military.

Student initiatives and talks of this kind are the best kind of inspiration for other students – and all the more powerful coming at a time of year when schools and students tend to be thinking exclusively about exams.

How do you ensure that your school has a strong teaching and learning culture?

Interviewing potential new Maths teachers and thinking about the Teaching and Learning Parent Forum we are running on Saturday, I find myself reflecting on how much has moved forward in the way that independent senior schools in particular view teaching and learning. Put simply, it is now central to everything we do. Go back 25 years and it was very different – many independent sector teachers operated much more in a bunker mentality – there was little observation of teaching and little collaboration. Underscoring all of this was a very British phlegm – “if you are any good as a teacher, you get on with it and do your stuff..and really the character-building stuff happens outside the classroom.”  As a new teacher you were expected to sink or swim – your classroom was very much your own business – your bunker or oubliette. Happily things have changed markedly. Although a major factor behind this has been inspection, which now puts pupil progress very much at the centre, much credit must also go to teachers who have emerged from really strong teacher training over the past 10 years or so brimming with good ideas. They have been much more wised up in the science of how people learn and the importance of understanding how different people learn differently. So, how do you ensure that your school has a strong teaching and learning culture – and ensure that it keeps bubbling? Here are some thoughts – not comprehensive and in no particular order. 1) Welcome opportunities to appoint new teachers – and ensure a fair number have recent maintained sector experience; don’t be afraid of a healthy level of staff turnover – say in the 10% range. 2) Create a reflective culture where teachers and students talk together about teaching and learning – a student Teaching and Learning group and a staff one. The more students understand the process, the more motivated they will be. Teachers need time in department meetings to share ideas – about teaching and learning. 3) Observation and sharing of good practice: create a culture of observation – not just of formal lesson observation and not just within a subject, but encourage teachers to buddy up and watch each classes across subjects – you always learn something new. 4) Celebrate learning as something which flies strongest out of the classroom and is to be cherished for its own sake – ideas often bubble best when taken outside, whether in an academic society, visiting talk or trip. 5) Keep adding to the brew and keep the pot bubbling: our own inquisitiveness and our capacity to develop our minds know no boundaries, so let’s keep pushing out and thinking about how we can do things better – working with outside agencies through INSET or research partnerships, for example. One final thought: sometimes people confuse a fervent interest in teaching and learning with academic hothousing – they are very different things. More on this on Saturday.

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.