Alison Peacock – an inspiration to me

I first encountered Alison Peacock when I was training at the Institute of Education.

She spoke simply and powerfully about her school and her approach to learning.  Quite simply, Alison advocates democratic schooling.  In practice, this means encouraging – and teaching – children to take responsibility for their own learning.  It requires ambition, trust in her teachers and a whole school approach.  For example, mixed ability teaching in which children choose the level of challenge they want to take on.  To begin with, they may aim too high or too low.  But eventually, they push themselves: children who are motivated by their own learning don’t want to tread water.  As Tanya Byron, author of the government review on children’s safety in a digital world, pointed out, no child playing video games wants to stay at Level One.

Her school, the Wroxham School, seems a happy, slightly mad and unorthodox place, with a stationary motorbike on which children read, a double decker bus that serves as a library (she bought it on ebay). But it is also a national teaching school and Alison spoke at the CBI conference and is listened to by the high and mighty.

As I can’t help myself, I asked her two questions. Firstly, how can I get to work for her? And secondly, what happens when the children get to secondary schools, where democracy doesn’t go down well with teachers? She thought for a moment, then said, “We just have to prepare them in the best way we can.”

I met a few of her colleagues at a course last year. The man who was running the course began by quite modestly pointing out that with six Level 6 pupils in his class, he must be doing something right. I’m not a huge fan of Level 6, but liked what he had to say about his language-rich classroom and his uncompromising ambition for his children. I won’t dwell on tne details (many of which escaped my tired attention) but it felt such a good, optimistic and humane approach.

The men on the course were young, articulate and passionate teachers, excited about their literacy. What made them stand out was the depth of intellectual discussion: this felt more like a postgraduate seminar than staffroom chatter.

They blog, they use videos, they lob gothic fiction, Pope and Shelley at their children. They encourage their children to indulge in a literary form of ‘planking’ – “Caught you reading” – in which children have themselves photographed reading in unusual but (depending on the title of their books) appropriate locations. A bed in a furniture showroom, for example. It just sounds like such fun in their world of teaching (I shamelessly used this last year).

It shouldn’t have been a surprise that they teach at The Wroxham School. They invited me to observe their lessons: I was delighted but have, as yet, been too tired and busy to go.  Here’s a taste of their curriculum.

One man (Steve Davy, Year Four Teacher) offered me a parting shot. “Keep the faith, brother,” he called out to me, with a smile and wave to send me out into the world of teaching. I am trying to, brother, I am trying to.

His Dark Materials

I  am giving my children an unexpected Christmas present: a story I listened to ten Christmases ago.  Philip Pullman‘s trilogy, His Dark MaterialsWhy?  Because it:

  1. invites the children to question the meaning of almost everything (and therefore invokes higher-order thinking)
  2. offers a way in to literature that will enhance their own writing, should they choose to steal or learn from it
  3. presents a strong, far from perfect, female hero (Lyra) and a strong, far from perfect male hero (Will).  And an armoured polar bear (go figure).
  4. mixes some very challenging ideas about life, innocence, self-consciousness and ethics with a cracking story
  5. introduces children to a mighty work of literature, Milton’s Paradise Lost, without them knowing it.

I hope that they take advantage of my gift.


[David Harewood in the National Theatre’s production of His Dark Materials.]

A few years ago (2005 to be precise) I sat, with my wife and daughter, through six bottom-numbing hours of Nick Hytner’s production of Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials.  I’d been along to hear the pair of them talking about the books and the play a few days beforehand, and had the pleasure of listening to David Harewood (pictured above), who’d been sitting with fellow cast members in the audience, ask his author and director questions.  David, a majestic and powerful Lord Asriel, autographed my tatty copy of Northern Lights.

Two years earlier, over a Christmas holiday, I had listened to BBC Radio 4’s adaptation of the stories: I was transfixed.  Magical stories of childhood, danger, armoured bears, Heaven and Hell, animals, hot air balloons, gypsies and so much more.

Somewhere in between, I read the trilogy – to myself and then to my nine year-old daughter (on occasions over a speakerphone in a conference room at Norwich Union Life’s York offices).  They were our books; it was our world.

And a little later, while studying my specialist subject of children’s literature as part of my BA in English, I wrote about the book.  Here is a copy of my Pullman Essay if you’re really finding it hard to sleep.  No, really.  Interestingly, the final lines of the essay bring me back to my favourite subject: my daughter.

As an adult, I can distinguish the revolutionary from
the traditional.  For a nine year-old child, it is not so easy.  My daughter loves Lyra and her world and through its myths she has learnt more of our own world.  But when it comes to living like Lyra, she may well say, “That’s alright for her, but it’s not my place.  It’s not my destiny.”

This led me into a considerable amount of research – into Philip Pullman himself, his reasons for writing the books, the ideas that run through the stories and his continuing debate with, well, anyone who’ll listen.  One of his sparring partners was the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Here is a transcript of their discussion. Apparently they agreed on about 80% of their issues they debated.  Goodness me: you can even listen to it!

I want to draw your attention to one aspect: the loss of innocence that our children must experience if they are to become adults.  I look on my own daughter’s growing-up with a sense of bereavement – especially at this time of year, when I remember the little girl who waited breathlessly for Father Christmas but never managed to stay up to see him.

Pullman, drawing on an essay by Heinrich Kleist, argues that we cannot return to this mental Garden of Eden through the front gate: we move from a state of unconsciousness to a state of what I might call mindfulness.  We learn to live with a greater knowledge of ourselves – however unattractive that may be – and become comfortable with that knowledge.  It can take a lifetime, if we achieve it at all.

I am beginning to introduce my class to the concept of mindfulness.  Until I’d read the wiki page on it, I hadn’t realised that it drew on Buddhist thinking (handy, when our RE topic for this term is the aforesaid religion).

I came across it explicitly (it is a name for something towards which I’ve been striving for four decades) when I was talking to the seventeen year-old daughter of a friend of mine.  She is anorexic.  She looks good on it, having reached rock bottom and decided that she’d rather like to live.  But she lives with the knowledge that she may never be entirely well again.  She said she’s glad she’s had mindfulness-based psychotherapy because it has helped her deal not only with her anorexia but with growing up.  She thinks that many other teenagers face mental growing pains without that help.

So whether it’s something as serious as she’s experienced, or simply the occasional pain of growing up, a little mindfulness may help any Year 6 child.

On The Marionette Theatre

I am reproducing this in its entirety because I think that it is important and I don’t want to rely on a potentially breakable link to another website.  It is an essay by Heinrich Kleist (1777 – 1811) that, for me, is extremely pertinent to children who are leaving Primary School and beginning their education at Secondary School.

As children move from the relative safety of their one or two form primary school into the large, and for some, scary new world of ‘big school’, they may experience a painful self-consciousness.  And they may also become increasingly exposed to more ‘adult’ issues.  You can’t undo it: there’s no turning back.  If you are interested, read this article with that thought in mind.  And if you’re more interested, read what I have to say about Philip Pullman’s seminal trilogy, His Dark Materials.

Once again, as a former child, a parent and a teacher, this speaks a lot of truth to me.

One evening in the winter of 1801 I met an old friend in a public park. He had recently been appointed principal dancer at the local theatre and was enjoying immense popularity with the audiences. I told him I had been surprised to see him more than once at the marionette theatre which had been put up in the market-place to entertain the public with dramatic burlesques interspersed with song and dance. He assured me that the mute gestures of these puppets gave him much satisfaction and told me bluntly that any dancer who wished to perfect his art could learn a lot from them.

From the way he said this I could see it wasn’t something which had just come into his mind, so I sat down to question him more closely about his reasons for this remarkable assertion.

He asked me if I hadn’t in fact found some of the dance movements of the puppets (and particularly of the smaller ones) very graceful. This I couldn’t deny. A group of four peasants dancing the rondo in quick time couldn’t have been painted more delicately by Teniers.

I inquired about the mechanism of these figures. I wanted to know how it is possible, without having a maze of strings attached to one’s fingers, to move the separate limbs and extremities in the rhythm of the dance. His answer was that I must not imagine each limb as being individually positioned and moved by the operator in the various phases of the dance. Each movement, he told me, has its centre of gravity; it is enough to control this within the puppet. The limbs, which are only pendulums, then follow mechanically of their own accord, without further help. He added that this movement is very simple. When the centre of gravity is moved in a straight line, the limbs describe curves. Often shaken in a purely haphazard way, the puppet falls into a kind of rhythmic movement which resembles dance.

This observation seemed to me to throw some light at last on the enjoyment he said he got from the marionette theatre, but I was far from guessing the inferences he would draw from it later.

I asked him if he thought the operator who controls these puppets should himself be a dancer or at least have some idea of beauty in the dance. He replied that if a job is technically easy it doesn’t follow that it can be done entirely without sensitivity. The line the centre of gravity has to follow is indeed very simple, and in most cases, he believed, straight. When it is curved, the law of its curvature seems to be at the least of the first and at the most of the second order. Even in the latter case the line is only elliptical, a form of movement natural to the human body because of the joints, so this hardly demands any great skill from the operator. But, seen from another point of view, this line could be something very mysterious. It is nothing other than the path taken by the soul of the dancer. He doubted if this could be found unless the operator can transpose himself into the centre of gravity of the marionette. In other words, the operator dances.

I said the operator’s part in the business had been represented to me as something which can be done entirely without feeling – rather like turning the handle of a barrel-organ.

“Not at all”, he said. “In fact, there’s a subtle relationship between the movements of his fingers and the movements of the puppets attached to them, something like the relationship between numbers and their logarithms or between asymptote and hyperbola.” Yet he did believe this last trace of human volition could be removed from the marionettes and their dance transferred entirely to the realm of mechanical forces, even produced, as I had suggested, by turning a handle.

I told him I was astonished at the attention he was paying to this vulgar species of an art form. It wasn’t just that he thought it capable of loftier development; he seemed to be working to this end himself.

He smiled. He said he was confident that, if he could get a craftsman to construct a marionette to the specifications he had in mind, he could perform a dance with it which neither he nor any other skilled dancer of his time, not even Madame Vestris herself, could equal.

“Have you heard”, he asked, as I looked down in silence, “of those artificial legs made by English craftsmen for people who have been unfortunate enough to lose their own limbs?”

I said I hadn’t. I had never seen anything of this kind.

“I’m sorry to hear that”, he said, “because when I tell you these people dance with them, I’m almost afraid you won’t believe me. What am I saying… dance? The range of their movements is in fact limited, but those they can perform they execute with a certainty and ease and grace which must astound the thoughtful observer.”

I said with a laugh that of course he had now found his man. The craftsman who could make such remarkable limbs could surely build a complete marionette for him, to his specifications.

“And what”, I asked, as he was looking down in some perplexity, “are the requirements you think of presenting to the ingenuity of this man?”

“Nothing that isn’t to be found in these puppets we see here,” he replied: “proportion, flexibility, lightness …. but all to a higher degree. And especially a more natural arrangement of the centres of gravity.”

“And what is the advantage your puppets would have over living dancers?”

“The advantage? First of all a negative one, my friend: it would never be guilty of affectation. For affectation is seen, as you know, when the soul, or moving force, appears at some point other than the centre of gravity of the movement. Because the operator controls with his wire or thread only this centre, the attached limbs are just what they should be.… lifeless, pure pendulums, governed only by the law of gravity. This is an excellent quality. You’ll look for it in vain in most of our dancers.”

“Just look at that girl who dances Daphne”, he went on. “Pursued by Apollo, she turns to look at him. At this moment her soul appears to be in the small of her back. As she bends, she look as if she’s going to break, like a naiad after the school of Bernini. Or take that young fellow who dances Paris when he’s standing among the three goddesses and offering the apple to Venus. His soul is in fact located (and it’s a frightful thing to see) in his elbow.”

” Misconceptions like this are unavoidable,” he said, ” now that we’ve eaten of the tree of knowledge. But Paradise is locked and bolted, and the cherubim stands behind us. We have to go on and make the journey round the world to see if it is perhaps open somewhere at the back.”

This made me laugh. Certainly, I thought, the human spirit can’t be in error when it is non-existent. I could see that he had more to say, so I begged him to go on.

“In addition”, he said, “these puppets have the advantage of being for all practical purposes weightless. They are not afflicted with the inertia of matter, the property most resistant to dance. The force which raises them into the air is greater than the one which draws them to the ground. What would our good Miss G. give to be sixty pounds lighter or to have a weight of this size as a counterbalance when she is performing her entrechats and pirouettes? Puppets need the ground only to glance against lightly, like elves, and through this momentary check to renew the swing of their limbs. We humans must have it to rest on, to recover from the effort of the dance. This moment of rest is clearly no part of the dance. The best we can do is make it as inconspicuous as possible…”

My reply was that, no matter how cleverly he might present his paradoxes, he would never make me believe a mechanical puppet can be more graceful than a living human body. He countered this by saying that, where grace is concerned, it is impossible for man to come anywhere near a puppet. Only a god can equal inanimate matter in this respect. This is the point where the two ends of the circular world meet.

I was absolutely astonished. I didn’t know what to say to such extraordinary assertions.

It seemed, he said, as he took a pinch of snuff, that I hadn’t read the third chapter of the book of Genesis with sufficient attention. If a man wasn’t familiar with that initial period of all human development, it would be difficult to have a fruitful discussion with him about later developments and even more difficult to talk about the ultimate situation.

I told him I was well aware how consciousness can disturb natural grace. A young acquaintance of mine had as it were lost his innocence before my very eyes, and all because of a chance remark. He had never found his way back to that Paradise of innocence, in spite of all conceivable efforts. “But what inferences”, I added, “can you draw from that?”

He asked me what incident I had in mind.

“About three years ago”, I said, “I was at the baths with a young man who was then remarkably graceful. He was about fifteen, and only faintly could one see the first traces of vanity, a product of the favours shown him by women. It happened that we had recently seen in Paris the figure of the boy pulling a thorn out of his foot. The cast of the statue is well known; you see it in most German collections. My friend looked into a tall mirror just as he was lifting his foot to a stool to dry it, and he was reminded of the statue. He smiled and told me of his discovery. As a matter of fact, I’d noticed it too, at the same moment, but… I don’t know if it was to test the quality of his apparent grace or to provide a salutary counter to his vanity… I laughed and said he must be imagining things. He blushed. He lifted his foot a second time, to show me, but the effort was a failure, as anybody could have foreseen. He tried it again a third time, a fourth time, he must have lifted his foot ten times, but it was in vain. He was quite unable to reproduce the same movement. What am I saying? The movements he made were so comical that I was hard put to it not to laugh.

From that day, from that very moment, an extraordinary change came over this boy. He began to spend whole days before the mirror. His attractions slipped away from him, one after the other. An invisible and incomprehensible power seemed to settle like a steel net over the free play of his gestures. A year later nothing remained of the lovely grace which had given pleasure to all who looked at him. I can tell you of a man, still alive, who was a witness to this strange and unfortunate event. He can confirm it, word for word, just as I’ve described it.”

“In this connection”, said my friend warmly, “I must tell you another story. You’ll easily see how it fits in here. When I was on my way to Russia, I spent some time on the estate of a Baltic nobleman whose sons had a passion for fencing. The elder, in particular, who had just come down from the university, thought he was a bit of an expert. One morning, when I was in his room, he offered me a rapier. I accepted his challenge but, as it turned out, I had the better of him. It made him angry, and this increased his confusion. Nearly every thrust I made found its mark. At last his rapier flew into the corner of the room. As he picked it up he said, half in anger and half in jest, that he had met his master but that there is a master for everyone and everything – and now he proposed to lead me to mine. The brothers laughed loudly at this and shouted: “Come on, down to the shed!” They took me by the hand and led me outside to make the acquaintance of a bear which their father was rearing on the farm.

“I was astounded to see the bear standing upright on his hind legs, his back against the post to which he was chained, his right paw raised ready for battle. He looked me straight in the eye. This was his fighting posture. I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming, seeing such an opponent. They urged me to attack. “See if you can hit him!” they shouted. As I had now recovered somewhat from my astonishment I fell on him with my rapier. The bear made a slight movement with his paw and parried my thrust. I feinted, to deceive him. The bear did not move. I attacked again, this time with all the skill I could muster. I know I would certainly have thrust my way through to a human breast, but the bear made a slight movement with his paw and parried my thrust. By now I was almost in the same state as the elder brother had been: the bear’s utter seriousness robbed me of my composure. Thrusts and feints followed thick and fast, the sweat poured off me, but in vain. It wasn’t merely that he parried my thrusts like the finest fencer in the world; when I feinted to deceive him he made no move at all. No human fencer could equal his perception in this respect. He stood upright, his paw raised ready for battle, his eye fixed on mine as if he could read my soul there, and when my thrusts were not meant seriously he did not move. Do you believe this story?”

“Absolutely”, I said with joyful approval. “I’d believe it from a stranger, it’s so probable. Why shouldn’t I believe it from you?”

“Now, my excellent friend,” said my companion, “you are in possession of all you need to follow my argument. We see that in the organic world, as thought grows dimmer and weaker, grace emerges more brilliantly and decisively. But just as a section drawn through two lines suddenly reappears on the other side after passing through infinity, or as the image in a concave mirror turns up again right in front of us after dwindling into the distance, so grace itself returns when knowledge has as it were gone through an infinity. Grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness. That is, in the puppet or in the god.”

“Does that mean”, I said in some bewilderment, “that we must eat again of the tree of knowledge in order to return to the state of innocence?”

“Of course”, he said, “but that’s the final chapter in the history of the world.”

[taken from]

Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811) followed family tradition and became an army officer, but left in 1799 to study philosophy and maths. He seems to have been inwardly overwhelmed on discovering Kant’s dictum of the ultimate unknowability of truth. Kleist’s work was dominated by the tension between his inner certainty of the validity of the human soul life and the apparent impossibility of discovering meaning in outer existence. He wrote several plays – mainly tragedies – and numerous short stories, including “The Dark Tale of Michael Kohlhaas”.

Idris Parry began his introductory essay to the “Marionette Theatre” (from his collection “Hand to Mouth”) as follows:

“Heinrich von Kleist wrote his essay ‘On the Marionette Theatre’ in 1810. The calm statement of this work suggests a man firmly in control. A year later Kleist shot himself. He was thirty-four. On the centenary of his death, the critics agreed he was a hundred years ahead of his time. In 1977 they said he’d come into the world (on 18 October 1777) two hundred years too early….

I think therefore I am. The theme of Kleist’s essay could be a continuation of that famous sentence, a continuation which might go  like this: I think, therefore I am aware of myself, and if I am aware of myself I must know that I am a separate entity, aware of and therefore apart from my surroundings; but true knowledge must be complete, connected, indivisible; so separation into subject and object, self and surroundings means distance from knowledge, consequently uncertainty  and doubt.

Kleist’s essay pivots around a reference to the third chapter of the book of Genesis, the story of the Fall of Man, the discovery of that self-consciousness which establishes and perpetuates human isolation.  But ‘discover’ implies a historical event. Kleist shares with Kafka (who once claimed he understood the Fall of Man better than anyone else) the insight that it is only our concept of time which makes us think of the Fall of Man as a historical event in the distant past. It is happening all the time. The biblical story is a mythical representation of constant human awareness of self and therefore of separation…

According to Kleist there is no way back. Humans are now thinking animals, and the material of thought is knowledge. But knowledge, although the source of uncertainty when fragmentary.. is also the vital substance of harmony when complete. So Kleist asserts that our only  hope is to go forward to total knowledge.”

“I want you to be happy”

When I cradled her in my arms in the delivery room at Watford General, I silently wished her happiness.

And now, as my daughter approaches the end of her schooling and contemplates university, I was struck by this item in the Guardian online.

I got it very right, and very wrong. Most of us do. But so long as you keep this in mind and we, the teachers of your children, keep this in mind, perhaps we won’t do such a bad job together.

My Role Model

To teach children well, a teacher needs to be deeply educated, so that she or he can take the children wherever they want or need in the course of learning, straying away from the shallow scope and narrow confines of a prescribed curriculum. I paraphrase Steve Nelson, who speaks for himself more effectively here.

Steve is head teacher at The Calhoun School in New York. Or, as he described himself at the educational conference at which I met him, the “head lover of children”.

But I digress. Steve’s column in the Huffington Post is worth following. He is a quietly spoken, elderly wise man. One of more relevance to today’s children than Caspar, Melchior or Balthasar.

Rethinking Childhood – Tim Gill

One evening in a cold school hall, a group of parents and teachers gathered to hear Tim Gill talking about his work and ideas.

He wants our children to be allowed to take risks; his research powerfully points to the importance of children learning how to negotiate their environment. I couldn’t agree more.

I will nail my colours to the community mast: I opposed the play area on the Common, and will continue to do so. Here is the body of my letter to the council, which I use, thinly disguised as ‘James Trumpton, grumpy resident’ in my lessons on balanced reporting.

We do not live in the centre of a town. This is the edge of the Greater London area and we need to keep the countryside just as it is – as countryside. The Common is an important area for wildlife and its natural beauty should be conserved. It is enough that a golf course has been placed at the centre of the Common: we should not allow further development.

Children have played in woodland for far longer than there have been playgrounds. Trees offer wonderful play equipment, in their branches, around their roots or behind their trunks. You can see the dens that children have built in the woodland on the Common. Let children use their imaginations and make their own play environment instead of constantly babying them with modern equipment. Many primary schools now have ‘forest schools’ – wooded areas in which children can encounter nature, take risks and – heaven forbid – get dirty. If schools recognise the value of woodland for our children, why shouldn’t we?

In short, Chorleywood Common isn’t a town park. We don’t need more swings, slides or climbing frames, and there are enough cafes in the village without the need for more buildings. Just let children play as they have done for hundreds of years.

Back to the draughty hall. Tim began by asking us to close our eyes and picture where we were happiest playing when we were children. For me, it was the derelict land around the Dallow Road industrial estate in Luton, and the veldt beyond the garden fence in Southern Africa. There I learnt to deal with severe nettle stings, not to touch strange canisters, never to walk in still water where bilharzia lurked, and how to use my imagination, both on my own and with my friends.

Judging by the precautions we take with our children today, it’s amazing I’m still alive. I would only add that we are both the greatest constraint on our children, and the greatest threat. We drive our children everywhere because – and Tim Gill stressed this – drivers kill more children in this country than any other perceived threat.

Tanya Byron

I am prone to moments of hubris. Take the educational conference at my spiritual home, King Alfred School, where, during a coffee break, I bearded the parent who’d organised the event.

“I’m a Year Six teacher. Can you give me a bit of advice? Oh, and by the way, here’s a book you might enjoy.” I suggested that she should read Maverick, by Ricardo Semler. It’s the only management book I read in the twenty years of my career as a management consultant (my view was that all other books were little more than snake oil).

That day, she spoke to my condition; only later, as I lay in bed listening to Desert Island Discs did I realise quite how insightful Professor Tanya Byron is. And how famous. And clever. I felt a cold sweat creep across me as I recalled my impertinence.

I won’t even attempt to paraphrase her: find out what she has to say about your children. Oh, and about education policy in Britain.

ps I found this on YouTube – a link to a TEDx talk she gave in Cheltenham. Good advice, but I am sad to say that she tells the same jokes wherever she goes…

The reader in the writer – and the adult

I’ve just been listening to Radio 4’s Saturday Live, which is a must for any parent. Children’s authors and issues slip quietly and easily into my ears and attention each week.

Today we were hearing about books and boys (amongst many other things). The self-fulfilling prophecy that boys like fact-y books more than fiction. You can hear more about this on Woman’s Hour here and here for as long as the links last.

Firstly, tell that to my avid male readers of fabulous fiction. A broad statistic need not be a truth universally acknowledged.

But more than that, fiction is important for all children. Fiction fires our imagination: it frees us from the here and now and gives us friends, worlds, lives that we couldn’t otherwise hope to experience. Whether it’s curling up with characters at bedtime or snatching five minutes with a book before a lesson begins, fiction should be a way of life.

Because without imagination, we cannot fully experience empathy. If we cannot put ourselves into the shoes, the heads, the lives of others, we may miss the best of being human. There are too many adults – often highly successful in their chosen careers – who nevertheless cannot empathise with their clients, employees, patients, public – or pupils. And it shows.

If you still need convincing of the value of fiction, read Barrs and Cork, ‘The Reader in the Writer’. They argue that children must read well if they are to write well. Or, to paraphrase TS Eliot, writers first imitate, then steal; deface what they take, then make it into something better. As teachers, first we see Alex Ryder plagiarised; ultimately we find Horowitz taken in exciting, new directions. That’s what makes a Level 6.