Thinking outside the box

Wouldn't any pupil want to escape the tyranny of tests and the official curriculum? One group of sixth-formers is doing just that, reports Hilary Wilce
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The Independent Online

Imagine a lesson where the teacher tells you that you are not to learn anything; or where you're asked to count on your eight fingers; or work out what status you hold in the classroom group by the way people are responding to a label stuck your forehead.

Imagine a lesson where the teacher tells you that you are not to learn anything; or where you're asked to count on your eight fingers; or work out what status you hold in the classroom group by the way people are responding to a label stuck your forehead.

Every Friday afternoon, sixth-formers at Malvern Girls' College take part in sessions which demand that they step off the A-level treadmill and free up their minds. They might be tied up in pairs together and have to work out the best way to get free, or debate on "What is an argument?"

However, these aren't just the kind of bolt-on lessons in thinking skills, or study skills, that many schools are now using to equip their students with techniques for learning. Rather, they are a fundamental attempt to dig down deeply into ideas about the nature of knowledge, and about how we acquire and use it. And in many ways they are a surprising thing to find in a traditional girls' boarding school, whose Victorian red-brick buildings and green playing fields sit tranquilly at the foot of the Malvern Hills and whose fee-paying parents probably don't have radical curriculum innovation at the top of their list when looking for a school.

"In one lesson, the teacher came in and just started picking on a girl, " says 17-year-old Caroline Copeland. "She picked on her over and over again for every little thing. We were all thinking, 'This is totally out of order.' But she was just waiting to see who would challenge her."

The head Philippa Leggate says: "We want to get them thinking outside the box," says. "To think the unthinkable, if you like. We want to give them things that are a little out of their reach and make them stretch for them.'"

The idea for the programme stemmed from her previous involvement with the International Baccalaureate, and its theory of knowledge course. Leggate was also desperate to move away from "the Spartan curriculum diet of individual, singleton A-levels, without any connections made between what you learn in each of them" and to weave a strand through the sixth form which would help students move on into the world as genuinely thinking young people. After all, life, she points out, "isn't just a series of multiple ticky-boxes."

The result is a comprehensive - and compulsory - "learning for life" programme that covers career and personal development, ethics and issues, and the ground-breaking "nature of learning" course, which is now attracting interest from other schools. Under it, girls are asked to grapple with the essence of language, critical thinking, artificial intelligence, and what scientific, mathematical and artistic thinking are all about. The six teachers involved have had to go back to first principles in their subject areas, and work out how to present challenging ideas and concepts to mixed groups of students where some will know the subject well, and others not at all.

It is, they say, "sweaty-palm" stuff, because you never know whether debates will catch fire, or where sessions will end up, but they have sunk themselves into it with enthusiasm. Two threw dignity aside to act out a scene as three-year-olds, so girls could consider the question of whether people stay the same all their lives, while others have swapped classrooms and laboratories to let students see them outside their natural settings. Sessions, they point out, are about breaking down barriers and learning together, and they are clearly excited by what they are doing, and the team work they are using to develop it. "Really, it's the chance for us to do what we've always wanted to do with teaching," says the head of ICT, Martyn Wilson.

However it hasn't all been plain sailing. Getting dutiful girl students to respond to a programme where there are no right answers, and no A grades at the end of it, has been an uphill battle. Many have just not "got it", and this year the school has introduced more whole-year-group sessions at the start of the lower sixth in order to kick them more quickly out of their comfort zone. "But it's a crusade," says Pat Drew, the head of sixth form. "I feel passionately enthusiastic about it."

With many, the penny does finally drop. "It's not something that always hits you right away. It's something where you can look back on ideas that have been suggested, and see where something you're doing, or something you're thinking about, fits with that," says Charlotte Richards, 18, who's in her second year of the programme.

"In drama, when we played the status game, with cards on our foreheads, it made you realise how, by your actions, you're always asking people to treat you in a certain way," says Natasha Behl, 19. She says marshalling her arguments in a university interview was easier as a result of the learning for life programme.

Girls admit that some students still see Friday afternoons as time to bunk off or doze off, but that many increasingly see the point of them. "Everyone's talking on the same level. The teacher comes in and says, 'What do you think of this?'" says Amy Lewis, 16. "I'm an arty, drama-y sort of person and yet the one I enjoyed most was on maths. I started to see why people like it."

To teach about mathematical thinking, Beth Foster introduces students to the idea that having 10 fingers and 10 toes is the basis of how we deal with numbers. She plays a video of her daughter learning to count, and asks students to teach an imaginary primary-school lesson without using the numbers nine or 10. "What I'm hoping to do," she says, "is to give them some of those weird, out-of-the-ordinary experiences that they'll think about long after they've left school - in the way that I'm sure they won't remember my calculus lessons."

But the effects are actually proving more immediate than that. "I missed one session recently," says Charlotte Richards, "and everyone was talking about it afterwards. I felt quite left out."