Being not doing

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I remember the cover of the 2000 National Curriculum very clearly: a series of perfectly arranged coloured boxes in a sort of staircase layout. Each representing a subject, the colours corresponded to sets folders that collected dust on the shelves. Literacy: yellow, Maths: blue, Geography: brown. Each of those coloured boxes morphed into boxes on the timetable. The whole colour coded system was a clear visual representation of how the government at the time believed schools should teach in distinct blocks of knowledge: every subject in isolation. This approach didn't come from nowhere however, it was simply a continuation of history preceding it.

Even to this day, teaching is still largely configured according to the 1902 “Balfour” Education Act. This was written by people, probably in their 30s and 40s, almost certainly all men, that had gained their education in the 1870s and 80s. Aside from minimal rebranding, like the change from “housewifery” to “food technology”, the subjects laid down all those years ago have not really changed at all. Even when something new comes along, like computing, we habitually draw lines around it, box it, give it a label and slot it in alongside all the other boxes. We are teaching to a format that is 120 years old.

You can see how this approach sends teaching down a certain path. From 2000 onwards, we had the QCA schemes of work, suggested projects for various subjects, one of which was making a slipper within Design & Technology. A single slipper... for some mysterious reason. So, across the country in Year 6, Term 2, everyone made a slipper and this constituted “doing design and technology”. It was only ever meant to be a suggestion, but it was an easy way to fill that box on the timetable and it stuck. Even though the scheme was officially abandoned years ago, I still go into schools and find children making hats, slippers or shoes and it’s all predicated on those QCA units. People feel that at least they've put something in that box; they've done some D&T. That’s the approach that those subject boxes encourage, but if you go out into the real world you’ll never find someone sitting in an office, arbitrarily doing Design Technology. You’ll see people being engineers and employing a wide range of skills as part of a complex, contextualised project. Making a slipper doesn’t even carry the context of what makes a usable pair of shoes.

Making the shift from “being” instead of “doing” is a subtle, yet incredibly powerful, shift in language that opens up a much richer conversation with learners about the skills and attributes required to exist in real life. Before I moved into education, I trained as a design engineer and there were times that I had to be an artist to visualise my concepts, a mathematician to check that my designs were viable or an author to communicate my ideas to others. All of these formed part of being an engineer, but would never be included in a lesson where you “did some engineering”. Once you start to look at things from the perspective of “states of being”, rather than subject names, you begin to unpack those coloured boxes and instil a spirit of enquiry and curiosity that filters down into everything.  

Thinking in terms of states of being encourages, gives permission and freedom to teachers to think about learning, not teaching. As a teacher, planning for children to become scientists instead of doing science, immediately pushes the emphasis away from me, away from the question, “What knowledge do I have to impart to them?” onto the question, “How can they show me that they are scientists?”. You’re asking children to demonstrate a scientific mindset, to investigate and understand material, not just absorb it. Enquiry questions enact curiosity, so if you’re studying the digestive system, you’ll have children asking, “what is poo?” and “why do we poo?” Those are the sort of dirty questions that children love, the sort of thing that you can use to inspire them to think as scientists. That curious, creative energy generates an inspiring atmosphere in which to both teach and learn. It’s a huge departure in thinking for a lot of schools, but the benefits not just in terms of engagement or mentality, but in the attainment of real, usable skills, are simply infinite.

Of course, you can’t just abandon subjects and skip around calling yourselves engineers, or scientists or historians, because that just won’t work. It’s important to intelligently construct and blend subject knowledge with interdisciplinary skills as a purposeful, cognitive, intelligent act, or you end up losing the subject rigour. You need to consider what the subject content is, what the relevant skills are and think about how you’re going to immerse a class in both of those and use a big question or a project to demonstrate a balance between them. Rather than “being not doing” it really becomes “being through doing” - using practical application to teach a set of skills across disciplines and subjects. Children can be scientists in their art, authors in their history, engineers in their music. It’s liberating, challenging and by no means a small thing. Moving away from that subject-based approach requires whole school change, strength, confidence, staff training, a growth mindset and very careful, but also risk-taking constructs. It’s a massive challenge, but it makes learning realistic and relevant to the modern world and finally lifts it out of the confines of those blinkered, narrow, 120 year-old coloured boxes.