A recent report condemning British schools for damaging learning reminded me of a great educational project I took part in last year.
The report blamed the narrow curriculum and an emphasis on memorising facts rather than debate and discussion of ideas.
I teach biology at Oxford university, where we receive some of the most academically able school-leavers in the country.
But far too many new students do not understand how to fit all the facts they’ve been taught together in a way that helps them make sense of the natural world.
It’s not surprising that many children view science at school as boring and irrelevant.
Recently though I learned that it can be both educational and exciting.
I took part in a project in which students and teachers at a Bradford comprehensive teamed up with the Northern Ballet Theatre, other artists and scientists like myself.
We tried to see if scientific concepts such as the Big Bang, the expanding universe, and the life cycle of a star could be better understood and appreciated by being “acted out” as a series of dance moves.
The project started with the use of dance to introduce basic concepts such as speed, mass and gravity. By the end students had created movements that wouldn’t look out of place in the repertoire of a professional dance troupe to explore such abstract topics as the fusion of atoms and the finite speed of light.
The final performance to a packed auditorium was a highlight, but for me the most exciting aspect of the project was the students’ creative input into the learning experience.
It was particularly interesting that some of the students who were most enthusiastic in developing the project had previously been written off in the normal school environment as uninterested in learning.
One view of learning is that young people are empty vessels that need to be filled with facts and figures in the same way as a bucket is filled with water. This treats the student as entirely passive in the learning process.
A more progressive view pioneered by the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky sees the teacher’s role as providing a scaffold within which the student can actively build a framework of new ideas and concepts.
For this to work it is vital that the teacher draws on the student’s own interests and experiences to make the learning process relevant.
For me the Bradford project was an excellent example of such an approach. Some people might argue that physics is about hard facts and mathematical formulas, not airy-fairy dance routines and talk about creativity.
I would answer them by pointing out that our modern understanding of the universe stems from Albert Einstein, who was a great believer in the use of imaginative “thought experiments” to explore the true nature of space and time.
The project was organised by the government-funded organisation Creative Partnerships, whose stated aim is to “introduce creativity into the classroom”. It is ironic that the government funds this while at the same time being responsible for the league tables, narrow curriculum and constant testing that stifle such creativity.
My experience with Creative Partnerships was entirely positive, but I believe its influence will be limited as long as these sort of projects only occur in a few selected schools around the country.
What is really needed is a rethink of education policy and a rejection of narrow fact-based learning in favour of an approach that recognises that education should be relevant to everyday experience. But most of all it should be exciting and fun.