To infinity and beyond

Posted on: 25 Oct 2016
Posted by: Mark Ronan

Mark Ronan, Head at Pocklington School, discusses innovative and inspiring teaching through the adventures of Major William Wilberforce, the teddy bear who was launched into space.

I recently read an article detailing the world’s most innovative schools, and came away quite amazed by some of the learning experiences on offer to help prepare today’s children for life.

This included a school where pupils spend every term in a different country, learning about the local culture and natural science, and another where students sit in individual cubicles with headphones and a computer, following a personalised digital curriculum.

I would much prefer the roving school, but I imagine that’s not a viable option for most parents in today’s economic climate.

How, then, can we best ensure that pupils are sufficiently engaged and stimulated to advance their knowledge in a supportive and sociable classroom environment?

One of our teachers achieved that recently when he masterminded a Prep School project to send a teddy bear into space. I must admit I was among the initial sceptics: How much would it cost? How many man-hours would it involve? And would the pupils be interested anyway, beyond the excitement of lift-off itself?

But he persevered to get us all onboard – a move which with hindsight I can see was key to his success. Within weeks, the whole Prep School teaching staff had bought in to the mission – and that was when the real magic began.

Lessons took on a momentum of their own as pupils researched why the bear should be named after former pupil William Wilberforce, mapped out his space journey, posed scientific questions for him to answer during the flight and dressed their own “space bears” to wave him off, among other cross-curricular projects.

When the bear made it into the stratosphere – and then returned minus his leg after a bumpy landing and a tussle with a combine harvester, the pupils helped craft him a prosthetic blade. Encouraged by watching our Paralympians in action, they planned a whole new list of adventures for the bear to show that his disability is no barrier.

“Mission controller” Patrick Allen, the Prep School’s Head of IT, describes the space adventure as “like making popcorn”. He said: “In its raw state popcorn is a handful of small, hard, fairly uniform and rather unprepossessing balls of corn. Yet give them the correct stimulus and a magical transformation is wrought. Vast energy explodes out of each kernel, moulding each into a fantastic creation, unrecognisable from its former state. That is how I think of what happened to the pupils when I got our school to launch a small bear into space.”

Like much innovative teaching, the educational value of lessons might not be immediately obvious, particularly to the pupils themselves. But if they set corns of inspiration popping, then the enthusiasm and creativity unleashed are the best learning tool of all.

In theory, it shouldn’t be hard to promote active learning: youngsters start school bubbling with curiosity, energy and a great capacity for imagination. They’re also less judgemental, so have the natural ability to experiment and take risks without fear of being seen as a failure.

But schools today are preoccupied with league tables and exam results – and who can blame them when that’s the criteria by which they are judged? The end result, though, is that young people’s natural inquisitiveness, lateral thinking skills and resilience can be stifled by the constraints of a prescriptive national curriculum.

They are then thrown into a workplace which increasingly, is crying out for employees who possess exactly the independent and creative thinking skills they have lost.

Tempting as it is to stick my neck out and further agitate the current education maelstrom by calling for a radical overhaul, for now, I’m sticking with cooking up pans of popcorn.

Teachers should, as far as possible, be given the time and space to encourage creative thought in their classrooms. Pupils should have every opportunity to use their ideas and imagination, to think laterally and find their own approach to a subject. This involves careful lesson planning, to accommodate different learning styles, as well as creative and varied teaching methods to engage every pupil’s interest.

Cross-classroom, cross-school and cross-curricular projects like our space bear are a great way to achieve this. Pupils learn through collaboration, and if they are also given the space and support to use their initiative, develop the lateral and independent thinking skills much prized in the workplace today.

Innovative teaching isn’t rocket science: it’s about recognizing that pupils learn most effectively when they are allowed to take the controls. It undoubtedly takes extra planning and effort by teachers, but once those pans of popcorn start popping, the reward is worthwhile.

See SPACEBEAR The Movie.

16_03 Mark Ronan Pocklington Head

About Mark Ronan

Mark Ronan is Headmaster at Pocklington School, a co-educational school in the picturesque rural setting of Yorkshire.