This week I’m attending Outstanding Schools Europe, a two-day conference in London. Ger Graus gave the opening keynote with the full title: Pause > Reset > Play: Reimagining Education 2023: Views Through a Different Lens
About 150 educators from England and Europe convene in a rectangular conference room in a building across the Thames from Big Ben. It’s time to start, our host introduces Ger Graus (gerGraus.com).
I worry that we’re going to hear that education needs to be reimagined, but that we’re not going to hear too much about how to go about doing that. But I’m pleasantly surprised. Despite the keynote format, there are plenty of How-Tos along the way. Here are a few of them.
Starting from Graus’s conclusions: “Children aspire to what they know exists, and you are in charge of showing them what exists.” Graus backs this up with research data collected through KidZania. KidZania is a location for children ages four to 14, a place to play with a range of adult jobs. Children are encouraged to role play, free of direction by adults. At KidZania, Graus deadpans, “adults are to be seen and not heard.” Children are free to choose what they want to play.
Graus and others recognized a unique chance to collect data on children’s preferences and biases vis-a-vis adult professions, since the operators can keep track of where students play in the KidZania environment. Combining their preferences and demographics yielded several interesting insights, based on a sample of more than half a million children in several countries.
Data indicate that the life experience of children influences the first KidZania activity they choose to pursue. Children (and I’m sure adults) gravitate to what they know. Therefore we, the educators, are in charge of showing children what exists, what is out there. Our job is to stretch them, to open up additional experiences. This is particularly important because the KidZania data show that girls tend to choose activities under their age level, boys at or above their age level. On average, girls play nurse, boys play doctor. Presumably the same phenomenon is happening along other demographic lines as well. And there doesn’t seem to be a difference in the data across the age spectrum, four to 14.
Showing students what exists means presenting students with role models that look like them. Graus references the three sources from which students learn, according to Reggio Emilio: adults, peers, and the environment. Teachers and parents, their friends and classmates, and what is around them. “Our job is to open windows and doors.” We need to show them more doors, we need to expand their environment. They need to see that the doors we show them are indeed there for them because they’ve been opened to other people who look like them. It’s our job to show children what exists.
I think about how much time students spend in a classroom and I cringe. In classrooms that all look terribly similar. More cringing. It’s harder to open doors in those four walls.
Graus has a bit of a response to my unspoken thoughts. He says: “Use ‘for example’ a lot, because that’s like taking someone on a trip, isn’t it?” Yes, if you must stay in a classroom, tell stories that at least take the childrens’ thinking outside the classroom. Better yet, get the students out of the classroom. This is something concrete we can do. If it is only the hallway that is currently possible, use the hallway. If it is the school library, then go there. If it is the school grounds, go there. If it is connecting with the world through technology, great. If it is pretending to be outside the classroom through a simulation, that counts for a lot, too.
On another tack, Graus mentioned how obsessed we are with the mistakes that students make. He mentions a student essay as an example, a well-written, thoughtful piece, on which the teacher has marked mistakes in red. Why mark the mistakes? Why not mention the overwhelming amount of work that is good? Graus: “I think, oh my god, is that really what we do?” Well, yes, that is often what we do. We look for indicators that we can use to sort students across our grading schemes. If we weren’t, we’d give them all the same grade – and if we were going to give them all the same grade, we would just get rid of grades and work with their individual strengths and weaknesses. But to a large extent, we haven’t done that, have we?
And then a related comment. Graus: “Quit serving the system and serve the students instead.” This veers a bit to the type of keynote meant to inspire more than provide a How-To, nothing wrong with that, but I’m surprised again. Our speaker is not out of suggestions.
Graus projects a slide with the words Heroes and Sheroes. “Kids need heroes and sheroes.” They need people they can look up to. People, again, people that look like them. He didn’t spell this out, but I think it was clear to all of us. We need the notion of heroes and sheroes across the gender spectrum, and we need the equivalent across similar spectrums of race, wealth, sexual orientation, and more.
The name of this conference is Outstanding Schools. Graus, as one of the first trained Ofsted inspectors back in 1992, mentions that outstanding, as a rating in schools, can too easily be co-opted to mean very good at compliance. This is not what he is suggesting for our children, nor a goal for our teaching, nor an outcome for this conference. He mentions Greta Thunberg, which makes me chuckle. As teachers, we’d like to imagine we help create the type of student agency that Thunberg embodies, an agency of course that took her and thousands of other children out of school.
I’ll conclude with another slide Graus shared with us, a three-year-old in a dance pose, emulating a painting of the dancer Anna Pavlova. The painting is by Sir John Laverly and hangs in a museum in Glasgow. The young girl is in the same dance pose as the figure in the painting, arms thrown back, toes pointed, all grace and beauty and power. She has found a role model in that moment, someone she could follow and learn from. This, Graus leaves us with, is our role. Show them what exists so they can aspire to it.