“SCREW YOUR courage to the sticking place – and we’ll not fail!”
Lady Macbeth was no fool. She knew how important it was to have high expectations of a husband.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for what many adults expect of their children in schools. Over the last five years I have visited more than 300 schools all over the UK and abroad (especially in Japan) giving lectures in connecting knowledge together using timelines, everyday objects and natural curiosity.
Private schools, state schools, small rural primaries, giant inner-city secondary’s, faith schools, academies, home education groups – I have been in them all. And for all the fuss that’s made by politicians and school inspectors about the issues of literacy, numeracy or classroom discipline there’s one issue that never gets mentioned. And it’s the one that matters most.
Unlike Lady Macbeth, most adults with young children in their care, have depressingly low expectations of them. The problem is partly an unintended consequence of the national curriculum, which sets the expectations of adults by saying what is and isn’t required of students across the spectrum of subjects and throughout the year groups between the ages of 7 and 16.
Gifted and talented initiatives are no solution in schools regimented by timetables and staffed by teachers judged by standards that are centrally set. Attempts to unblock this curricular constipation, by giving more autonomy to school head teachers over the curriculums they use through the Academies programme, may, in time, prove helpful. But the results will be a patchwork at best or overturned by more political shenanigans at worst.
Added to the misery is that modern parents are depressingly far removed from their natural responsibility of helping educate their children. That’s the schools job – the state’s job – or, in the private sector, that’s why parents pay such enormous schools! With both adults working full time in a battle to pay off the mortgage, it is hardly surprising they often feel unable to make much of a difference.
This is not true in the Far East. Last month I was able to give my What on Earth? history of the world lecture at Ritsumeikan High School, Kyoto, in English because, by the age of 15, all the students had a sufficient command of our language to be able to understand everything I said without the need for an interpreter.
During the same trip I gave a symposium to parents and children of 13.7 billion years – a family educational TV Show that has been broadcast each week for the last 18 months, telling the story of the history of the world based on the Japanese edition of my book What on Earth Happened? Over 2,000 parents applied for just 400 tickets and the TV studio, where I gave my lecture, was sizzling with parents and children eager to learn about the history of the world together. It was an exhilarating experience.
But the archetypical Tiger Mums of the Far East are not a British species. It’s simply not in our culture to push too much. It feels wrong. For many British parents (and even some teachers), child prodigies are odd-balls – embarrassing bodies of a mental, not physical, kind. Some are autistic and are ‘statemented’ as having ‘special needs’ – not because they clever but because they find it hard to fit in. It’s low expectations that hold our young people back.
How ironic, then, that that the natural curiosity of the human brain – the most powerful learning apparatus of all – peaks in most young people at about the age of 9. That’s what I have discovered from my time spent in schools across Britain.
I have no scientific evidence to back this up, of course. But my hunch is well-honed. If I ask a room full of 9-years olds what is the age of the Earth, I promise you that a good number of them – regardless of postcode – can tell me the answer is about 4.6 billion years. But if I ask the same question to a group of Year 10s, on average less than half as many will know. Adolescence, peer pressure, giant schools, self consciousness, junk food – mobile phones – who knows which factors are most responsible for the demise of natural curiosity and rise of disengagement (aka boredom) amongst teenagers during those fragile ‘transition’ years.
If curiosity peaks at such a young age then it stands to reason that we should have the highest possible expectations of such naturally sponge-like, curious brains. What’s so rewarding is that if I really challenge a room of 9-year olds – as I frequently make it my business to do – I am seldom, if ever, disappointed.
In my experience, the best way to engage young minds in what adults or curriculum experts traditionally consider difficult, complex or inaccessible topics is to focus on narrative and visualisation. Stories and pictures, having been ingrained into our evolutionary psyche over tens of thousands of years. These represent the most natural, hard-wired paradigms for learning.
Alongside these is the power of exploring the world through our hands -unsurprising, I guess, when one considers that modern human brains evolved through the tool-making antics of our stone age ancestors over more then 3 million years.
So my latest experiment, in partnership with Wallbook illustrator Andy Forshaw, is to create a series of timeline activity stickerbooks designed to tell giant, complex stories such as the history of the world, the story of life on earth and the complete plays of William Shakespeare to children between the ages of four and nine.
How can you possibly introduce a child of four to the complete plays of William Shakespeare?
First, unfold the 2 metre-long timeline from the back of the book, revealing a contextual framework in the guise of the Globe Theatre, where most of Shakespeare’s plays were performed.
You will see that the timeline is punctured with 100 white spaces, each in the shape of one of many of the most famous characters and props from Shakespeare’s 38 plays. The shapes mask a cornucopia of ghosts, fairies, witches, sword fights, shipwrecks and swooning lovers.
The sticker pages, at the front of the book, are themed. One contains characters from the history plays, another features the tragedies and finally a double page spread of stickers come from Shakespeare’s comedies.
Now just watch. The young child, ever so carefully, peels off the bizarre sticker of a human with the head of a donkey. Then, using nothing more than her hands, eyes and the extraordinary power of natural curiosity, she discovers for herself which of Shakespeare’s plays this character, called Bottom, comes from, as she rubs down the colourful comic image that she has just placed on the timeline.
The British disease of low expectations is, I believe, best cured by adults – particularly parents and grandparents – spending as much time as they can playing and learning together with these amazing young minds.
Of course, that’s far easier said than done with all the pressures of the modern world. But anyone who takes the trouble will also experience first hand the miraculous power of the young brain at is peak – fuelled by a wonderfully pure, unadulterated, preadolescent, cocaine-like curiosity.
The series of FIVE What on Earth? Stickerbooks is being launched today.
The individual titles, each costing just £6.99, include:
- Big History – a history of the world from the Big Bang to today
- Nature – the 4 billion-year story of life on Earth
- Science & Engineering – inventions from the stone ages to today
- Sport – from the ancient Olympics to London 2012
- Shakespeare – the complete plays