Walt's world keeps kids top of the list

30th April 2010 at 01:00

A few years ago, after much scrimping and saving, my wife and I took our children to Disneyland. I am not sure who was more excited. I know I didn't sleep the night before we left, and once we got there my heart beat faster each morning as Cinderella's castle came into view, heralding a new adventure .

You may laugh. I have also been laughed at when I tell people that on taking up my headship in 2001, I asked the staff one question: "How do we turn our school into Disneyland?"

This may seem daft, somewhat trivial, almost naive. But I was serious.

In no way did I seek to devalue or make light of the incredible responsibilities we carry as teachers. The question was a symbolic way of underlining to my new colleagues that our job was to focus on our customers: the children.

As educators, we know that successful learning can only occur in schools filled with happy people: staff, parents, governors, but most importantly children. We know learning is most successful when students are engaged, excited, intrigued. And we know that teachers are at their best when they demonstrate passion and enthusiasm.

When I was given the extraordinary privilege of a headship, I wanted to help create a school where people arrived in the morning with their hearts beating faster. I knew we would be on the way to success when, on a cold February morning in the middle of the winter virus season, our pupils woke with a sore throat and still wanted to come to school, in the same way that if they were waking up in Paris on that same morning, in the same condition, nothing would stop them going to Walt's world.

In the past few years, I have had the good fortune to visit many amazing schools that are filled with awe and wonder - schools you never want to leave, that make you wish you taught there, that you were young enough to study in them. They all have one thing in common: the courage to put children back to the top of their list.

I have recently been speaking at a number of conferences that explore curriculum leadership, during which I have met many heads and other peers who have proven the high quality of teachers in this country. But what has struck me is the lack of confidence in some, the fear of failure, the need for reassurance and approval, and the sheer confusion caused by the enormity of their jobs. The tragedy is, none of this is caused by the pupils or their needs, or even their education.

As a profession, we know more about learning, the brain, emotional development and the links between them than ever before. There is, rightly, still concern around inclusion and achievement, but the solutions do not come in the shape of targets, or in rows of desks and more prescriptive approaches to teaching and learning. The solutions lie in refocusing the agenda. We have to make learning matter to kids. For that to happen, learning must be rich in context and purpose; children must be able to see the links to their own lives and how engaging in education makes things better, and their hearts beat faster.

Although I blame the advertising industry for many things, I am fascinated by its craft. If we could convince our children to buy into school as a brand - in the way they do certain technologies or clothing - we would be on to a winner.

Branding experts ask new clients two questions. The first is: "What do you want to stand for in the eyes of your customer?" The second is: "How are you going to shape your behaviour, as an organisation, to support the answer to the first question?"

Whether we like it or not, our children are sophisticated consumers; they are the first "on demand" generation. The future of education does not lie in how we control them, but how we sell to them.

One of the exercises we developed at my former school to help us climb inside the pupils' heads was to list six key learning objectives that each class was going to be working on the following term and to number them one to six. Then we would list six things the kids were really "into" at the time: favourite film, pop star, fashion item, game, television programme, book - and then number these one to six.

We would roll a dice twice, picking the corresponding numbered objective and item of interest. We then had fun designing a lesson with the objective at the core but using the interest point as the driver. This may also seem trivial, but for us it was a starting point, a way of seeing the construction of learning a little differently, and it led to a massive shift in how the school created learning experiences.

As we gained in confidence, we grew in ambition. We began to ask questions such as: "How do you make grammar matter to a seven-year-old?"; "Are paper-based maths problems the best way to fire a child's interest in the beauty and pattern of number?" Thus, we developed learning opportunities that were rich in context, including a museum, shops, a media centre and a cafe. This ensured that our children could apply newly-acquired core skills in real contexts. Writing became important because pupils had to write scripts for radio programmes, referencing became important to manage the museum; data-handling in order to keep an eye on stock and buying patterns in the shops, and so on.

Education is a serious business. So is the Disney Corporation - it is, after all, one of the world's most successful. At the heart of the Disney ethos are the concepts of education and entertainment and, as a result, it captivates generation after generation. It strikes me that great schools follow exactly the same formula.

Richard Gerver, Former primary headteacher and author of `Creating Tomorrow's Schools Today' (www.continuumbooks.com).

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