Embracing risk in the classroom

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Fearing that learning today has become too 'safe', teachers at King Edward VI Grammar School developed a strategy to bring more risk, excitement and challenge into their classrooms.

At first glance, skateboarding and teaching don’t have much in common.

But the head of a grammar school in Essex reckons that teachers could learn a lot from the determination, persistence and mutual support shown by skateboarders. 

“If you are in a traditional school with traditional approaches to learning, skateboarding would be deadly,” explained Tom Sherrington, who has been headteacher at King Edward VI Grammar School in Chelmsford since 2008.

“The teacher would take control of the lesson by saying ‘okay guys, line up. Here’s the safety briefing, get your helmets and pads on, do this, do that’. The teacher would control everything and try to move everybody forward, without doing anything too dangerous or risky. But how would these students perform compared to the kids at the skate park next door who were allowed to do what they liked, feed off each other and construct the experience entirely for themselves?

“At the skate park it is normal that every trick requires 50 ‘fails’ before it is perfected. Falling off and getting back on is just part of the process. The intrinsic reward of succeeding, having the freedom to choose what to do next, and having a peer feedback system is much more powerful than anything the traditional student-teacher relationship can deliver.”

In Mr Sherrington’s view, today’s learning is often “too safe” and “too controlled”, rather than “exciting, fun and challenging”. But if his skateboarding analogy was applied to schools, then teachers would take more risks and give students far greater autonomy and ownership of the learning process.  

He hit on the idea of comparing teaching and learning to skateboarding after learning about psychologist Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow” concept, which emphasises the importance of matching skills to challenge. 

“If you don’t have the right skills level and the challenge is too hard, it’s very demoralising, while if your skills outweigh the challenge, it’s very dull,” explained Mr Sherrington. “The goal is to match the challenge so that it’s just ahead of a child’s skills – and skateboarding is a classic example of that. If you can get kids to enjoy their learning because they are directing it themselves and getting a real buzz about it, then it’s very exciting.”

With this in mind, teachers at King Edward VI are keen to encourage co-construction, which along with collaboration, creativity and culture, is one of the four challenges to be discussed at December’s SSAT National Conference – which SecEd has previewed this week in a special supplement.

At the 900-pupil school (which achieved its best ever GCSE and A level results this year), students plan their own learning in many curriculum areas. In RE, for instance, teachers tell year 7s they are going to study Islam, then ask the youngsters what they want to learn.

English literature students in the 6th form get a high level of responsibility for their own independent research and reading, while for the last four years the ICT department has run the annual Project 9 initiative for year 9 pupils. 

King Edward VI teachers don’t teach ICT to the school’s year 9 cohort. Instead, students in year 10 and above map out their own ICT course and deliver it to their younger counterparts. “It’s amazing,” said Mr Sherrington. “The students know things about ICT that teachers have no idea about. At the end of the year they do a big showcase of what they have learned and it’s a great example of deep learning, leadership and ownership of learning.”

Another strategy the teachers are keen to highlight is the school’s own version of Assessment for Learning – Zest for Learning. 

“We wanted to capture the spirit of learning at the school and the way in which we bring formative assessment alive,” said Mr Sherrington. “We’re keen for kids to have a sense of learning being a great buzz, and a member of staff came up with the idea of Zest for Learning. Basically it includes themes like understanding how to learn and how to improve, shared planning and collaborative learning, and rigour and scholarship.”

The King Edward VI team is also keen to discuss what makes a teacher great. Mr Sherrington reckons that the very best teachers tend to be “drivers”. “They are standard-setters, never happy with mediocre work or sloppy thinking, always pushing every child to go further, to aim higher,” he said. “This manifests itself through classroom dialogue, inherent challenge in lessons, routinely giving challenging, engaging homework and so on.”

Other characteristics are the ways in which great teachers “nurture student-teacher relationships based on genuine mutual respect”, use deep subject expertise to go beyond the syllabus, explain complex ideas in ways that make sense, give good feedback, and are “principled about people and learning”.

But Mr Sherrington, pictured above, is adamant, too, that there should be more discussion and emphasis on pedagogy and teaching and learning. “Politicians tend to focus on how to organise schools and exams,” he said. “But actually, the main thing that makes a difference is what happens everyday in the classroom. That’s what we should be talking about.”

• This article features in the SecEd Supplement Innovating Learning, published this week. The supplement previews the 20th SSAT National Conference which takes place on December 4 and 5 in Liverpool. King Edward VI Grammar School will be showcasing its work at the event. Download the supplement by clicking here. Read Mr Sherrington’s teaching blog at www.headguruteacher.com.



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