This term I was asked to design and teach a short course on Personal, Social and Health Education for our fourth year BEd students. These students have been studying education for three years, they have spent considerable time in school, and my first thought was that they certainly don’t need someone to tell them how to delivery a curriculum such as ‘Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning‘. Give them a curriculum and they are competent at teaching it… but what about giving them a blank slate?
PSHE is an interesting subject area in the UK. Much government policy and school rhetoric depict its importance, yet the status of PSHE as a subject is complex (PSHE Association, 2010). To over simplify a little, it is statutory to teach PSHE, but there is not a statutory curriculum which sets out what should be taught… to my mind this was the perfect opportunity to try something new.
These students did not need instruction in how to practice teaching; what I decided would be valuable to them is an invitation to explore their thinking, to examine the area of PSHE and, upon examination, explore what a curriculum could look like. For the last few years I have been following the work of Ewan McIntosh and his colleagues on ‘Design Thinking’ in eduction, and the structure this gives for creation seemed an ideal vehicle for this exploration.
Ewan’s blog post explains the process in detail; a five stage structure for designing products, experiences, or in our case a curriculum. It is based on a philosophy of human centered design- that is an inductive focus on the end user, and following through a process of alternately divergent and convergent thinking to reach that aim.
I began by explaining this process, the purpose of the course and the fact I was aiming for them to rethink what a curriculum in this subject might look like. We then began to move through the process…
Courses like this often begin by examining what experiences the students have from teaching practice and their own schooling. I was keen to avoid this, not least because we are dealing with a subject area in which many of the students were likely to have life experiences that are vastly different to the challenges many of their pupils will face. Also, in an effort to rethink what happens in school from first principles, I don’t think it is useful to dwell on what is already happening in schools (as I blogged here), although this could be a very important point to return to in the later stages.
Instead we started with a challenge, in the form of the first chapter of Claxton’s ‘What’s the point of school?’. Titled ‘Stress: the children’s epidemic?’, this chapter brings together a wealth of evidence and examples around the mental and physical health of our current generation of youth. Dealing with exam stress, family tensions, self harm, and even the ‘tombstoning epidemic’, this set the stage for a debate exploring the mindsets and challenges young people face. Drawing from their understanding of young people they have worked with, and comparing with their own formative years, some felt Claxton was overly pessimistic and aiming to shock, whilst others confessed they found his writing saddening but not shocking at all…
Throughout the course I fed in readings from different perspectives to challenge the ideas being explored. Claxton’s call for addressing these issues was pitted against Ecclestone & Hayes book on the trend towards ‘therapeutic’ conceptualisations of teacher roles in recent policy and the dangers this may bring, which again contrasted with Taylor Gatto’s call to take heed to the implict lessons of how we teach not just what we teach.
I did this with four groups and all of them took different directions, yet all immersed themselves in the issues. With no purpose other than to discuss, as I had not given them the focus of the course at this point, they immersed themselves in the culture of the young people discussed in the chapter and the ones they knew.
After a long, open ended discussion I asked them to collect their thoughts on all of the points we had discussed in a large brainstorm using post it notes. They collected the challenges young people face, the aptitudes they could develop because of, or in spite of this and the mindsets we had explored. The discussion we had had was not focused on school, and as a result we sidestepped any of the problems of judging what is the place of school and what is not, or of judging whether these issues were exclusively a concern of primary or secondary schools. Instead we divergently explored the issues that young people face and as a result collected many ideas, and put ourselves in the place which they face.
The next stage was to take these ideas and think more convergently in order to take them forward. We took the ideas from the empathise stage, and attempted to sort them into groups that worked. The trouble with this stage when it comes to teachers is that they often group their ideas in a deductive process, that is they start with what they conceptualise as existing curriculum groups and then sort the ideas into these groups. I was keen for them to take an inductive approach; to explore the ideas they had already generated and sort into groups that emerged from these ideas rather than their preconceptions. To encourage this, I framed the sorting around the ‘Gamestorming‘ activity of ‘Affinity mapping’, which is designed for just this purpose.
Of the four groups I conducted this with, all were different. From some emerged hierarchical groups, from some some defined curriculum areas, and from one an elaborate Venn diagram (envisioned with yarn I borrowed from the DT room) to allow for the overlapping nature of the groups. Having defined the groups, only then did we name them, and hopefully this holding back on assigning names helped the groups to be the result of an inductive rather than a deductive process.
The next stage was to take these groups full of ideas, and translate these into objectives, aims or problem statements which we could tackle in school. This took some time, the size of the area and the complexity of many of the challenges took some hard thinking; how can you turn the shocking figures on eating disorders into an actionable, positive action..? I expected the ‘Empathize’ stage to take some time; this took equally long, but resulted in some really productive and challenging discussions.
Having defined the curriculum areas and the objectives to be addressed we then moved back to divergent thinking and I encouraged the students to think as widely as possible about how they could address these. We used IDEO’s ‘Brainstorm Rules‘, particularly to ‘defer judgement’ and try to think outside the box for ways of meeting the needs we had identified.
After some initial ideation I found there was a lull, and many of the ideas emerging were very close to standard ‘best practice’, when what we were aiming for was ‘next practice’. At this point, in another idea borrowed from Ewan McIntosh, I flipped the situation by encouraging the students to think not of the ‘best ideas‘ but of the ‘worst ideas‘ possible for how they might address the area they were looking at. This resulted in much hilarity as they felt came up with truly silly ways of addressing really sensitive ideas. This diffused some tension, and removed some of the judgement they were bringing to ‘out there’ ideas. It also gave them some points to pivot from; many of the ‘bad’ ideas when viewed in reverse turned into some quite novel ‘good’ ideas…
Once again we were over-run with ideas, and we needed to sort them down into the ones to pursue. Often in stages like this ideas get discounted based on a single aspect, so to push the students’ thinking (and with another modified ‘gamestorming’ technique) I asked them to employ three tests to each of their ideas, and give them a score for each:
- Engaging – How much would it engage learners?
- Useful – How much potential for learning is there?
- Feasible – How achievable would this idea be in school?
Some of the ideas with a low score for feasibility rated really high for engagement and usefulness… Often the first aspect would cause them to be discounted, but considering all three equally got some ideas through which might be hard to achieve, but were worth putting that effort in.
In this stage the students created a prototype of one of the ideas that had emerged from the previous stage. In many cases I expected this to be some kind of plan for a lesson, activity, trip or experience. I must confess this was probably the weakest of the stages by my evaluation. We fell victim to one of the pernicious issues in teacher education; the empathy gap. At every decision point the ugly reality reared it’s head.. as it was justa ‘hypothetical class’ we were designing for then every question or challenge could be answered with the unhelpful ‘it depends…’.
Particularly in this area, it really does depend on the community, the class and the context, and I felt I failed in addressing this to the point where the prototypes they made could be genuinely useful. The challenge remains; so much of the thinking great teachers employ when planning is context specific that asking students to plan when they don’t have a specific class of learners just doesn’t cut it. I’m going to have to keep thinking on this one, although I am not sure there is an answer short of more closely aligning what we explore in a University setting with what they do on teaching practice.
Ideally this would have been a test with a ‘real’ class of children, in this context it had to be formative feedback from peers. This generally worked much better in small groups where they could really unpick the ideas and we had a higher level of contribution and engagement than when framed as a whole class discussion.
The final stage will continue, as the object of this course was less to produce finished plans and more to encourage thinking. It has also encouraged mine, as although this process faced some hurdles in this context it certainly encouraged some deep and challenging ideas about how we approach this sensitive area in schools. Importantly, it was remarkably effective on shifting the focus from what happens now ‘in the field‘ to ‘what might be’, without disappearing too far along the alleyway of theory removed from practice.