Context Is Everything

Image of Annabel Bates.

We’re at a unique moment in history when we can look at education from a different vantage point with school closures forcing us to re-evaluate what education means and where it is going.

I set about interviewing some of education’s most interesting people in researching my book, Literacy Beyond The Classroom, in order to get deeper insights on how we might rethink education.

Annabel Bates is co-director of Polaris Education, a nonprofit creating innovative models of learning which support future generations to thrive in life. Polaris will be opening a pioneering international school in 2022, with an aim to inspire and enable change across existing mainstream systems. Annabel is an experienced educator and school leader, and has taught and led in schools across the UK.

Annabel Bates, co-director of Polaris Education.

In this brief excerpt of our conversation, Annabel shared some ideas with me on the seismic shift that she feels must occur in the modern learning environment.

What changes would you like to see with the curriculum taught in schools?

One of the great errors we make in education is we think that the problem is around what subjects are taught, what content, to what level, how many hours a week, etc. As a classroom teacher I know that the real subject of what I’m teaching is the learner in front of me. That’s a very hard concept for policy makers, and education commentators, to grasp but it’s true. Learners are not objects, they are subjects. What I mean is that what I teach and how I teach it will land differently with different learners. So many factors come into play – prior learning, attitudes towards a subject or topic, needs (special educational, behavioural, emotional or otherwise), who else is in the room, what kind of day I’m having, what kind of day they are having. This is true for every area of learning. There is no such thing, therefore, as the perfect way to teach every human being. So, I’d love to spend more time talking about pedagogy, about how we learn, about how teachers facilitate and guide learning. The best teachers that I’ve ever had, worked with, learned from are those who teach context not content. The content is the vehicle, not the journey.

When it comes to the subjects taught in schools, it’s a pretty well known fact that when young people hit secondary school both progress and enjoyment suffer when compared to primary schools. There are numerous reasons for this, but from my experience there are a couple worth mentioning. The first is that we divide everything up into separate units – as if History can’t coexist in the same sentence as Art, and Maths can’t coexist with Science… Of course they do, and some schools are able to recognise and celebrate this without diluting the depth of learning which young people experience. The second is that we have an antiquated hierarchy in place when it comes to those subjects. We value some subjects massively over others, and our exam and accountability regimes reinforce this bias. What evidence is there that Maths is more valuable than Physical Education or Art? Maths is important of course, and I’m a fan, but why more important?

My final thought on the curriculum in secondary school is that we need to be bolder, tackle big issues head on. My ultimate goal is that young people leave school with an understanding of who they are and an insatiable desire to keep learning. But this can’t be in a bubble, it needs to be within the context of our wonderful and challenging world. We need to avoid sanitising everything that kids should learn, banning topics that deal with heavy or controversial topics. When we do that we send young people out into a complex world where these things hit them square in the face without them having the tools to deal with them because they’ve never had the opportunity to think about them before. When dealing with scary stuff, isn’t it great to have a skilled adult in the room who can help you deal with it?

I remember talking to students after the Paris attacks, and being taken aback by how glad they were that we’d discussed such a horrific situation in such an open, honest and safe way. We need young people to know that they are surrounded by thoughtful, caring adults – especially when the worst happens. Furthermore, how can we ever hope that they will go on to keep leading the world to a better place when they become adults themselves, if we don’t attempt to model that for them? When schools infantilise everything it’s a massive missed opportunity.

One of the ways Adobe Ed is facilitating student dialogue around important issues is with the infusion of video prompts that provide context for students to grapple with as a way to stimulate thinking about a big topic. Our Education Evangelist for EMEA, Dominic Traynor, has created several short writing prompts that students can respond to using Adobe Spark. The brevity of the tasks in a lower-pressure environment encourages students to think about difficult subjects with few restrictions and greater freedom of expression using not just words but also images and even video.

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