At the start of this century, social media as we know it was still in its embryonic stages. If someone had said back then that politicians would communicate via tweets, most of us would have dismissed the idea as science fiction. But here we are 16 years on and Twitter is the preferred modus operandi of many in positions of power. The rate at which the landscape has changed has left many of us reeling.
So what’s up next? As the world evolves at lightning speed, there is a growing awareness among parents that traditional school curriculums are often too rigid to prepare their children for what can predictably be called an unpredictable future.
In search of a stimulating alternative, some turn to the Montessori and Waldorf-Steiner systems, which place a strong emphasis not only on practical learning, but also on creativity – a buzzword in education circles this century.
As education guru, Sir Ken Robinson says, “We have no idea what’s going to happen in terms of the future. No one has a clue what the world will look like in five years time. And yet we’re meant to be educating them [our children] for it. My contention is that creativity is as important now in education as literacy.”
But the Montessori and the Waldorf systems, particularly popular during Infant and Primary, do not have a monopoly on creativity. Nor are they only systems that place importance on a holistic, concrete approach to learning.
The British education system is also based on a curriculum that affords teachers a substantial degree of flexibility, not only during Infant and Primary years, but also going forward into Secondary. In fact, there is plenty of scope within the curriculum to concentrate on the all-important life skills, such as thinking outside the box, which will help students face an uncertain future.
At the turn of this century, the importance of creativity was recognised by the UK’s education policy makers and ‘creative development’ was singled out as an Early Learning Goal in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) as well as in key areas of the Primary curriculum.
The focus of the curriculum shifted from the chalk-and-talk approach, whereby teachers stood at the front of the class and imparted knowledge, to children thinking creatively for themselves, making connections and solving problems – and not just mathematical equations either!
In 2012, the UK Government also emphasised the importance not only of ‘exploring and playing’ and ‘active learning’ for young students but also ‘creating and thinking critically’.
“The EYFS is not a traditional classroom and our day is not just based on teacher-centred lessons. We provide a balance of child-led and child-initiated activities and adult focused activities,” says Kerry Mortlock who will be heading up King’s College Madrid’s new department for the very young, starting at 16 weeks old.
There are scores of similarities between the Montessori method and EYFS, according to Kerry. In both systems, the child’s self-esteem is considered to arise from internal pride in his or her achievements. Both systems consider teachers to be guides and facilitators, allowing the child to learn at his or her own pace, take risks and make mistakes to instil a can-do attitude and build a positive identity.
But while the Montessori emphasises the importance of the child at the centre of his or her own learning, EFYS believes in a balance with adults stepping in where students need an injection of new knowledge, ideas and stimulation as well as reinforcing what has already been learned.
At King’s College, an innovative and creative approach to the British curriculum has been evident as far back as the 1970s, through EYFS and Primary and also most remarkably during Secondary when abstract concepts become more difficult to contextualise.
Though the acquisition of English is an obvious bonus at King’s – recent research suggests that a second language boosts concentration and the ability to distil information – it is considered a by-product of an education that has its roots in critical analysis, individual thought and innovation.
Through each stage of their education, King’s students are exposed to original approaches to learning, which in turn influences their problem solving and creativity skills, helping them to open their minds and be prepared to stray in to the realms of originality to experiment.
Literacy, for example, is given a creative twist as infants learning the alphabet will be encouraged to write the letters in foam or use Plasticine to form the shapes, so that writing no longer feels like a chore but a game that miraculously leads to communication without having to talk!
When it comes to Science, younger students are empowered by the experience of watching seeds they themselves have counted out and sown in the vegetable garden become something they can actually eat. “I love the topic of growth,” says EYFS teacher Joanne Weale, who also gets the students doing experiments, such as ‘watching’ plants drink by adding food colouring to the water, affecting their hue. “It’s magical and the children are always fascinated.”
Older students have state of the art science laboratories where they are constantly involved in experiments they carry out themselves with guidance from the staff.
This active participation in science subjects was established at King’s back in the 1970s when science teachers, such as Dr. Gerry Percy and Mr Olek had a lot of fun, inspiring a love of what can be dry and abstract areas of learning in the wrong hands. When three new science labs were inaugurated in 1977, Dr. Percy highlighted what he referred to as “the considerably greater emphasis on practical work than in normal Spanish schools.”
Meanwhile, like an eccentric scientist from Back to the Future, Mr Olek taught a handful of his more intrepid students out of school hours how to “bend glass and create chemical concoctions and he let us burn magnesium which glowed like a firework against the night sky,” says King’s alumni Anthony Saez, who now works for the Canadian Government.
A holistic education does, of course, work on encouraging adaptability and emotional intelligence, both of which are needed to cope with uncertainty.
Theatre, music and dance are all tools that can be used to cultivate these qualities and at King’s, are an intrinsic part of each child’s learning experience.
“We use drama and role play as a way of developing children’s empathy skills,” explains Adele Stanford, Headteacher at King’s College, Latvia. “One of our favourite techniques is ‘conscience alley’ where children form a walk way and a character walks along it as the children give them advise or act as their conscience and express their thoughts. In Drama, an introvert gets to become a different person when in role and an extrovert gets to be even larger than life,” she adds.
King’s College founder Sir Roger Fry describes a British education metaphorically as one where students are taught how to use a telephone book as opposed to memorising the names and numbers in it.
It is this empowering approach to knowledge that is the solid foundation on which King’s teachers build. Subsequent layers have striking parallels to the alternative education systems; decentralising with group work, using role play to bring the humanities to life and contextualising even the most abstract of subjects, such as maths, whenever possible.
Sir Roger had a vision for King’s College when it was still a fledgling institution which he set out in 1977: “Quite often the curriculum [in the best UK schools] includes even such things as helping with school maintenance,” he said. “For example, repairing fuses and the annual repaint are part of the students’ routine. These world famous schools do not only have an excellent academic record. A school is not just a classroom, textbooks, notebooks, blackboards and chalk. A real school provides a full preparation for life in all its many aspects which clearly includes both theory and practice.”