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The child’s world and the child’s classroom, part 2

In my previous post of the same title I described the immense differences between the world that today’s children inhabit and the classrooms that they enter every weekday morning. Below I have paired up the statements that I wrote in random order last time, in order to illustrate the striking differences between the two environments that our children move between. I wonder if you agree with what I have written?

Classroom: The adults control what is learned
World: The child can control what is learned

Classroom: There are defined spaces for learning
World: There are no fixed spaces for learning

Classroom: There are fixed hours for learning
World: There are no fixed hours for learning

Classroom: The child develops relationships with a limited number of adults and peers
World: The child can contact and learn from a limitless number of adults and peers around the world at any time, day or night

Classroom: Change is slow
World: Change is fast

Classroom: Learning tasks are assigned to children in sequential order
World: Multi-tasking by children is normal

Classroom: Leisure and learning are separate
World: Leisure and learning are blended together

Classroom: There is a defined body of knowledge to be learned
World: There is a limitless body of knowledge that can be learned

So, what should we do about this?

With very few exceptions, schools do little to bridge the gap between the classroom and the world. That may not be a bad thing! I have come to the conclusion that schools should not try to imitate the child’s world for two reasons, as follows:

1. The child’s world is not a ‘better’ world than the classroom; it is just different.
2. For many reasons – generational, technological, professional – schools will probably not be able to catch up with that world even they wished to.

So rather than imitate the child’s world, schools should aim to complement it by providing joys and challenges that are not found in that world. Above all, they should be aiming to ensure that children become critical, creative and adaptive thinkers with the resilience required to help them be successful and content whatever today and tomorrow may bring.

Thank you.

Next time: a dip into some fascinating research on how children succeed.


The child’s world and the child’s classroom

Classrooms have always been behind the times. There has always been a time-lag between societal change and the findings of educational research on the one hand and actual classroom practice on the other.

There are many reasons for this. One cause is the professional inertia that affects teachers as much as those in most professions – a reluctance to change from tried and trusted methodologies that “have always worked in the past”. Another is the delay that occurs between the development of new methodologies and the ‘tooling-up’ necessary to put these into action in classrooms, not least the continuing professional development of countless teachers. A third, and justifiable, cause is an ongoing skepticism among teachers and school leaders about “the latest educational trends”, some of which have proven their worth over time while others have thankfully been discarded. It’s not always easy to separate the wheat from the chaff.

But in today’s world, change of every kind is increasing in momentum. The classroom is falling behind.

Every weekday morning the majority of the world’s children enter classrooms that no longer resemble the world outside that they inhabit. Whether or not we adults like it, children are being educated in ways that are increasingly irrelevant to them. In my recent series of posts I have been writing about the need to educate children for the future, but the fact is that we need to educate them for today.

What follows is a little game. Below, you will find a series of short statements, some of which apply to the child’s classroom and others which apply to the child’s world beyond the classroom. I have mixed the statements up, so they are listed in random order.

Try sorting the statements under these two headings – The Child’s World and The Child’s Classroom. Here’s a clue to help you: the statements can be paired, thus a statement that falls under the heading The Child’s World will be matched by an opposite statement that falls under The Child’s Classroom.

  • The adults control what is learned
  • There are defined spaces for learning
  • There are fixed hours for learning
  • The child can contact and learn from a limitless number of adults and peers around the world at any time, day or night
  • Change is fast
  • Learning tasks are assigned to children in sequential order
  • There are no fixed spaces for learning
  • The child can control what is learned
  • Leisure and learning are separate
  • Multi-tasking by children is normal
  • Leisure and learning are blended together
  • There are no fixed hours for learning
  • There is a defined body of knowledge to be learned
  • The child develops relationships with a limited number of adults and peers
  • There is a limitless body of knowledge that can be learned
  • Change is slow

To be clear about the source of the statements above, I have compiled the list from my personal observations of schools and classrooms in various parts of the world as well as from my observations of the life-styles of today’s students. The list is not the result of specific research findings.

Have fun sorting out the statements. Next time we’ll see if you agree with my own thinking!

Thank you.

Next time: Implications of the dichotomy between The Child’s World and The Child’s Classroom; and a first dip into some important research.


Helping your child become an adaptive thinker.

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

The author L.P. Hartley opens his most well-known novel* with this haunting sentence. He is reflecting upon the changes in society that had occurred between the early 1900s, in which his story is set, and the 1950s, the decade in which he was writing the novel.

These changes are accelerating. Fifty years from today society will be almost unrecognizable, in ways that are impossible to predict.

This poses a problem for today’s parents and teachers. Since the advent of mass education during the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century, the world’s children (those fortunate enough to attend school, anyway) have been educated for the society and workplaces of the day. Children have been taught the cognitive and vocational skills sufficient to survive, and hopefully to thrive, in the world in which they were growing up.

But we are now falling behind. The accelerating pace of change has made traditional education wholly inadequate for tomorrow’s world. Not only will society change but, at a more profound level, the ways in which we are required to think will change too. Not only that, but our children and our children’s children will not be the only thinking species on our planet. The other species is what we now tentatively refer to as Artificial Intelligence, and we so far have no idea what form these machines, or implants, or self-reproducing organisms will evolve into. We are indeed waving our children off into a Brave New World**.

Learning facts and formulae, which is what happens in the majority of the world’s schools, will not prepare our children for the future. Our children will need to be ‘adaptive thinkers’ because they will be required to adapt to a changing situation that is beyond our current comprehension. Teachers and parents can help children to become adaptive in their thinking by re-focusing the way in which we teach and nurture children in the classroom and the home.

Here are just a few examples of ways in which we adults can help our children prepare for their future lives; I have written about some of these in previous posts:

  • Teach children to think about things at a conceptual level. The national curriculum of your home country may not require this, but this does not prevent teachers and parents from taking children of all ages from going beyond the basic curricular requirements. For example, instead of teaching “the life cycle of the frog” ask children to investigate the similarities and differences between the life cycles of various life forms. All children a capable of doing this.
  • Teach children to think at different levels of challenge. Refer them to Bloom’s taxonomy and require them to move between the different levels of thinking by posing different levels of questions and instructions. All children are capable of doing this. Ask them to develop their own questions at the different levels. All children can do this too.
  • Ask your children open-ended questions. The teacher and the parent do not have all the ‘correct’ answers, so please let us not pretend that we do. The extraordinary physicist Richard Feynman*** credited his father’s skills as a questioner for his own early intellectual growth. During walks in the woods, for example, his father would not ask the young Richard to ‘name that bird’ but instead he would ask him ‘to observe that bird’s habits’. Naming the bird would have restricted Richard’s thinking. All children are capable of thinking more deeply than reciting basic facts.
  • Give your children problem-solving activities. These engage and excite children to stretch their thinking and imagination. Any number of books and online resources exist to help you. I’ll leave you to find them. All children are capable of solving seemingly intractable problems, but they need to practice logic and divergent thinking skills. When they have solved the problem, ask them to solve it in a different way. All children are capable of doing this, even if we are not!
  • Use metaphor and analogy when speaking with your children and ask them to do the same. Require them to make connections between seemingly unconnected phenomena. Make it fun: ‘In what ways is your best friend like an ice-cream sundae?’ It helps children think at a deeply conceptual level. All children thrive on metaphor.
  • Ask ‘what-if’ questions. Here are three examples: ‘In what ways would America be a different country if President Kennedy had not been assassinated?’; ‘What would happen if the moon were to leave the earth’s orbit?’; ‘How could we cook tonight’s dinner if we had no electricity, gas, or fire?’ Children are capable of hugely imaginative thinking if we allow them to attempt questions such as these.
  • Ask them to interpret today’s main news story from the point of view of a person from another country or culture. Children have high levels of emotional intelligence and empathy, but we need to challenge them in these ways of thinking too.

The list of ways to extend your child’s thinking goes on – in the home or in the classroom. You don’t have to know the answers when you give your child a challenge. If you only ask questions to which you have a ready answer, then you are limiting your child’s thinking to the knowledge that you yourself have acquired through your own education and life experiences. That will not be enough.

It is our role as parents and teachers to extend our children’s horizons beyond anything we have known and experienced ourselves, because their lives and experiences will be very different from our own. Please help them develop the ‘big picture’ thinking skills that they will need in order to adapt. After all, it’s their future – not ours.

Thank you

Next time: The child’s world and the child’s classroom

*The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley, 1953.

**Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, 1932. One man’s glimpse into the future. Aldous Huxley and L.P. Hartley were friends.

***Start by reading, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman? by Richard Feynman, 1985. Feynman writes with the lightest of touches about the limitless possibilities of the human mind. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1965 – and was also an expert safe-cracker and player of bongo drums!

The importance of teaching your child resilience.

“Who is your blog for?” is a question I’ve been asked: “Parents or teachers?” It’s a good question and the answer is that it is intended for both parents and teachers! The reason is very simple. It’s the same child who moves between home and the school, and the closer the understanding between parents and teachers the better educated the child will be. A vital aspect of the relationship between parents and teachers is that they have a common understanding about how children thrive and also that they share a common ‘language’ that enables them to speak together about the child’s learning.

The current series of posts describes those desirable educational impacts that enable children to be successful whatever life may bring. The subject of today’s blog is resilience, which means the ability to start again following a set-back. Resilience is a key impact that teachers and parents can work together to nurture in their children.

In order to foster resilience, it’s important to help children develop a positive attitude on life – and to have one ourselves! Carol Dweck describes how to develop a positive outlook in her excellent book Mindset*, which I have mentioned in a previous post.  She uses the term ‘growth mindset’ to describe the determination that some people have to take control over their own lives. By contrast, people with a ‘fixed mindset’ are those who blame their failures on outside causes over which they have no control, such as unreasonable demands being placed upon them or even simple bad luck. When people choose to blame external causes for their own misfortunes, they lose the power to re-construct their personal futures.

Is it possible to teach children how to develop a growth mindset? It most certainly is, and here are two ways to achieve it:

First, parents and teachers must allow children to make mistakes. In the traditional classroom children were often frightened to make a mistake because they feared being punished or ridiculed for their foolishness. This is no longer acceptable. Children should be encouraged to accept challenges in life, in which case they will certainly make some mistakes. The adult’s role is gently to acknowledge those mistakes and to support the child as she learns from them. Mistakes are not problems; they are opportunities to learn more. Conversely, teachers and parents should not be embarrassed when they make a mistake in front of their children; this situation is an opportunity for the adult to model how to accept one’s own mistakes and move forward from them. The teacher or parent who refuses to acknowledge his own mistakes will reduce the capacity of the child to learn and grow.

Secondly, teachers and parents should praise children for their efforts and not for their intelligence or talents. If we wish our children to succeed they need to understand that success in any aspect of life – intellectual, career, social, sporting – depends upon hard work. If the child works hard then praise her for it. On the other hand, if you praise your child with words such as “you’re so smart” or “you’re the best in the class” she will understand from this that her success is based upon on her own natural ‘ability’. She will therefore come to believe that success comes easily and that she doesn’t have to work for it. When she is eventually faced with situations in which others achieve more highly than her she will believe this is because she doesn’t have sufficient intelligence or natural talent to succeed at the highest level. In this case the adult has actually impeded the child’s learning by giving the wrong kind of praise. Remember – when you praise a child for her effort rather than for her ability you allow her room for further growth.

To summarize, we should help children develop resilience by helping them see that mistakes are an opportunity for learning and that hard work eventually brings success. These are two of the most useful lessons for life that we can give our children.

I suppose that in a ‘serious’ blog such as this I shouldn’t conclude by quoting from a Hollywood film**! However, I can’t resist passing on a verse from the song “Pick Yourself Up” that Ginger Rogers sings to Fred Astaire after he has tumbled to the floor during a dancing lesson in the film “Swing Time”. These words are my favorite reminder of the power of resilience:

Will you remember the famous men,

Who had to fall to rise again?

So take a deep breath,

Dust yourself off,

Start all over again.

 I recommend learning the words and the tune of this bouncy little song and singing them with your child!

 Thank you.

Next time: Helping your child become an adaptive thinker.

*Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D.

**Swing Time. Directed by George Stevens (1936). Song lyrics by Dorothy Fields.

How can we teach our children to think creatively?

At the foot of this article you will find the answers to the quiz I set in my last post.

When highly creative people are asked for the secrets of their success their responses can often be summarized with these words: learn from others and work hard.

This response may seem counterintuitive, because we tend to ascribe the achievement of creative thinkers and doers in all disciplines to their superior intellect, flashes of genius or innate talent. Certainly, superior intellect and great talent are a blessing, but alone they are not enough. Nobody, however intelligent or highly skilled, ever achieved creative greatness by accident.

Most of us do not aspire to the prominence of the people quoted in my quiz. Nevertheless, they set an example to us all. They should inspire every teacher and every parent to help their children succeed at school and in life.

The passion that has driven great teachers over the centuries is the belief that all children can and will succeed. These teachers never place limits – in any subject or skill – on what their students may achieve. They believe, like Mozart and Pele, that practice makes perfect, that we can always learn from others, and that hard work pays off. In recent years this belief has increasingly been vindicated by research into the capacity of the human brain to grow throughout and beyond childhood, and by evidence of specific ways in which children and adults best learn. As our children and grandchildren grow up in a world where they will need to complement, and probably compete with, the growth of artificial intelligence and other as yet unknown circumstances, they will need to be equipped with the highest levels of thinking skills. (They will also need a high degree of emotional intelligence, and I will write on this in a future post). Here are a few simple suggestions for the parents and teachers of today’s children:

  • Have high expectations for your child, but express these in a gentle, optimistic way. Your child is likely to accept these expectations for herself and grow into them.
  •  Give your child room to experiment and express her curiosity, in whatever bizarre way these endeavors may manifest themselves!
  • Show interest in what your child likes to do. Ask about the book she is reading, attend the basketball games she plays in, suggest she invites her friends round to your home.
  • Encourage your child to ask questions, then more questions, and keep on asking questions! A child’s questions are far more important than her answers. Albert Einstein’s mother famously knew this when every day she would ask her son, “What good questions did you ask in school today?” He grew up to ask some very important questions indeed.
  • Ask your child questions that lead her thinking up through the levels of Bloom’s taxonomy (refer to my post of May 28th). Don’t focus on questions that require a single, ‘correct’ answer. Rather, ask open-ended questions that cause your child to ponder about the nature the physical world and human experience. Questions such as “For what reasons do you think…?”, or “How would you assess the importance of…?”, or, “How could you solve this problem…?”, or “What if…?” Don’t worry – there are lots of possible answers to these questions and you don’t have to be an expert!
  • Encourage your child to make connections. Lead their thinking onwards from concrete topics and facts towards broad underlying concepts. For example, after watching a film together ask her what other films or books it reminds her of. You may be surprised where the conversation will take you both. (Refer to my post of May 14th).
  •  Remember that creative thinking is not an unreachable goal. It is simply the next level up from critical thinking. It means evaluating existing knowledge in an area of personal passion and taking it to a new level that is interesting and useful for yourself and others. It could be making a new computer app, writing a new workplace policy, or devising a new way of hitting a free kick in soccer. Or it could be finding a new way of bringing your local community together for a common purpose.

In ways like this we can help give our children a good start in life, a start that will enable them to achieve what Abraham Maslow called ‘self-actualization’. They will not all grow up to create a new mathematical theorem or the next great fashion in shoes, but they will find a deep sense of fulfilment.

Thank you

Next time: The importance of teaching your child resilience.

Answers to the quiz:

1.     f           W. A. Mozart              Classical composer

2.     d          Vera Wang                  Fashion designer

3.     h          Pablo Picasso              Artist

4.     a          Maya Angelou            Writer and civil rights activist

5.     e          Pele                                  Footballer

6.     g          Bill Gates                     Technologist and philanthropist

7.     c          Thomas Edison           Inventor and businessman

8.     b          Isaac Newton              Mathematician and physicist

What is creative thinking?

The premise underlying my current series of articles is that if we are to prepare our children for a very uncertain future then we must equip them with some important attributes. I have already written about two of these attributes or “educational impacts”, namely the ability to think at a conceptual level, and the ability to think critically.

This week I am introducing another attribute that will help all children thrive in the years ahead: the ability to think creatively.

Somehow, many of us view creative thinking as separate from other kinds of thinking and we regard it as a special gift that is given only to a talented few. We often make deprecating comments about ourselves, such as “I’m not very creative” or even about others including our own children when we say, “I don’t think my son is a very creative person.”

I think these comments are based upon two common misunderstandings about the nature of creative thinking. First, it is often assumed that creative thinking is only about the arts: we think of creative people as painters and musicians, actors and singers. This is not true. Great advances in all areas of human endeavor – the sciences, technology, sports, business, mathematics, product design and so forth – are predicated upon the creative thinking of people working in those fields. Creative thinking is to be found in every walk of life, not just the arts.

The second misunderstanding is that creative thinking is the same as imaginative thinking, the product of a sudden flash of inspiration that most of us will never experience. I certainly do not agree with that definition! To understand why, please refer back to my post dated May 28th. In that article I describe Bloom’s taxonomy of thinking skills, which shows “creating” as the highest level of thinking. Notice that although “creating” is at the top of the ladder of thinking skills, it is nevertheless on the same ladder as those other thinking skills. It is not set apart, out of reach of most of us. Like the other skills, it is achievable by everyone through their own efforts and, equally important, it can be taught in schools and supported by parents. It is surely no coincidence that the most creative people are also extremely hard-working and willing to learn from others!

In support of my thesis that creative thinking can be achieved through hard work and learning from others, I now call upon some very famous, and very creative, witnesses. They all have something to say about the nature of creative thinking, and they should know! Just for fun, see if you can match each quotation to the faces below…

1.     “It is a mistake to think that the practice of my art has become easy to me. I assure you, dear friend, no one has given so much care to the study of composition as I. There is scarcely a famous master in music whose works I have not frequently and diligently studied.”

2.     “Don’t be afraid to take time to learn. It’s good to work for other people. I worked for others for 20 years.”

3.     “Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success.”

4.     “Nothing will work unless you do.”

5.     “Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.”

6.     “I have never met the guy who doesn’t know how to multiply who created software.”

7.     “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

8.     “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”


a                 b              c  

d                  e            f      

g            h    

None of these people relied on flashes of inspiration in order to reach their creative heights. Rather, they achieved success through working exceptionally hard at what they loved to do. So … who said what? Answers on June 28th!

Finally, for today, here is a working definition of creative thinking: it is the ability to take existing knowledge and develop it further to make products or ideas that are new and which have value or usefulness*.

If that is what we mean by creative thinking, how can we ensure that our children can achieve it? That will be the topic of my next post.

Thank you.

Next time: How can we teach our children to think creatively?

*This definition is derived from the work of two writers and speakers on the topic of creativity: Sir Ken Robinson and Kim Kyung Hee.


What is meant by critical thinking and how can all children achieve it?

Sometimes we use terms such as critical thinking and creative thinking rather loosely. But if children are to be taught to think at higher levels like these, they deserve to know precisely what is meant by them. Today we will start with critical thinking.

We can go as far back as the late 1940s and 1950s to find a definition that has stood the test of time. In the United States at that time there was particular concern about the need to stretch students’ thinking and about how to measure their academic growth beyond the simple remembering of facts. Benjamin Bloom led a team of researchers that developed a ‘Taxonomy of Educational Objectives’.   Actually they developed three taxonomies but in this post I will refer only to the most commonly used, namely the one that describes different levels of thinking skills (the technical term for this is the ‘cognitive domain’).

What follows is a diagram illustrating Bloom’s taxonomy of thinking skills.

The diagram shows a revised version of the taxonomy, by L.W. Anderson and D.R. Krathwohl (editors) (2001)

Teachers and parents can use the taxonomy to stretch their children’s thinking upwards through the levels. What follows is a brief description of what each of the levels means:

  • Remembering: Recalling facts or information.
  • Understanding: Explaining or classifying ideas or concepts.
  • buy viagra for less Applying: Using information, ideas and concepts in new situations.
  • Analyzing: Making connections between ideas or concepts; comparing and contrasting these with each other.
  • Evaluating: Making value judgments; critiquing ideas and concepts.
  • Creating: Generating new ideas or products that have value and/or usefulness.

Before going any further, I should point out two basic misunderstandings of Bloom’s taxonomy:

1.     Higher level thinking skills are not ‘better’ than lower order thinking skills. All types of thinking skills are needed. For example, Mozart studied and understood the composition skills of the great composers who came before him, before creating his own glorious music.

2.     We don’t need to take ourselves or our children up and down the taxonomy like steps on a ladder. Often, we use different types of thinking at the same time or on the same topic. The levels can also be used in different orders; there does not have to be a strict sequence.

One criticism of Bloom’s taxonomy is that it does not encompass all aspects of the way we humans think. My response to this is … of course it doesn’t! Nothing could ever do this! But it is a useful tool to help teachers and parents consider how they can enhance their children’s learning by asking different levels of questions and giving different levels of tasks.

Here is an example of some questions and tasks. They are intended for middle school or younger secondary school children who are studying water conservation:

  • Remembering: What are the three states of water?
  • Understanding: Explain the processes of evaporation, condensation, precipitation and percolation.
  • Applying: In what ways will you use your knowledge of the above processes to use in your project on water conservation?
  • Analyzing: Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of three methods of water conservation we have studied.
  • Evaluating: Which of the methods of water conservation we have studied – or which possible combination of methods – is most likely to be effective in one arid region of the world?
  • Creating:  Design an effective water recycling system for a poor rural community in a region that has low rainfall and limited access to electricity.

Questions and instructions at different levels like those above can be asked in every subject area or across different subject areas. It is true for children of all ages; please do not think that the ‘higher’ levels can only be used by older children and adults!

Please note that many of the questions above are open-ended. Apart from the first ‘remembering’ question, they do not point the child towards one ‘correct’ answer.

Now, try thinking of some questions in a subject area and age level for your own child. Perhaps you should try it on yourself first!

I started this post by introducing the topic of ‘critical thinking’. What is it? The most straightforward response I can give is it that critical thinking represents the ‘analyzing’ and ‘evaluating’ levels of thinking in Bloom’s taxonomy. Some might include the ‘applying’ level too. Using the taxonomy, we cannot only understand what critical thinking means but also understand how it relates to other types of thinking.

The thinking skills required of a courtroom judge provide a useful illustration of what I mean. The judge must remember and understand all the evidence presented to her in court. She must then apply her knowledge in making an important decision. She therefore analyzes the evidence very carefully before she evaluates it and announces her verdict. (But the judge does not create new laws – that is for others to do).

In their future world our children will need higher level thinking skills for the kinds of jobs that will be available to them. They will also have to understand and use relevant data. Without all these skills their job options will be limited. Talk with your child’s teacher about the implications of all this, and please do try taking your child and yourself through the various levels of thinking. Remember that children of all ages from a few years onwards can think at all the different levels. It is their right to be taught how to do this.

There is a huge amount available on the Internet about thinking levels – just search for ‘Bloom’s taxonomy’ and enjoy finding out more.

Thank you.

Next time: What is creative thinking and how can we teach our children to think creatively?


Why is it important for children to learn at a conceptual level, and not just remember facts?

In my last post I explained that in order to prepare our children for an uncertain future, it is necessary for schools to help children develop the key attributes and skills that will enable them to be successful whatever life may bring. Schools should move from a narrow focus on teaching facts and formulae for tests and examinations towards providing children with the intellectual capacity to thrive in the rapidly changing economic and social environment of the future.

To start with, every child deserves to be taught the skills of conceptual thinking. This the ability to understand the ‘big picture’ not just the simple facts (another term for ‘simple facts’ is ‘information’) or isolated topics. Many schools are already doing this, but others are lagging behind. Here are a couple of examples of the difference between topics and concepts:

Examples of topics from geography:

  1. Many large cities have coastal locations.
  2. Canadian cities are mostly found near the American border.
  3. Central Australia has a low population density.

An example of a concept that subsumes (contains) the above topics or facts:

Population distribution is directly related to identifiable physical and economic factors.

Here are some more examples of isolated topics or facts, this time from science:

  1. Human babies develop in their mother’s womb.
  2. Chickens hatch from eggs.
  3. Farmers plant seeds to grow crops.

An example of a concept that subsumes the above topics or facts:

There are similarities in the development of living things

These are examples of the kinds of concepts (also called ‘big ideas’ or ‘enduring understandings’) that can be taught in all subjects and also across different subjects at all age levels from elementary school upwards.

Teaching at a conceptual level is important for many reasons, including the following:

  • Teaching at a conceptual level enables teachers to personalize their teaching for the learning needs and interests of different children and according to the resources that are available. For example, it’s possible to teach the concept of ‘human progress has unintended consequences’ using different examples of topics such as the Second World War, the North Atlantic Slave Trade, the invention of the steam engine and countless others. Teachers cannot meaningfully personalize learning for their students when they only teach isolated topics such as ‘the D-Day landings’ or ‘the Triangular Trade’ or ‘the development of railways in the nineteenth century’.
  •  Teaching at a conceptual level raises academic expectations for all children. The underlying principle is that all children are capable of understanding concepts (‘big ideas’). How the teacher helps the child come to this conceptual understanding may vary from child to child and class to class, but it means that the teacher does not place limitations on how deeply a child may think. If you are a parent of a schoolchild, it is vital that you know this.
  • Teaching at a conceptual level enables the child to make connections between what they are learning in one subject and what they are learning in other subjects or what they have learned in the past. Children who are taught at a conceptual level frequently have a ‘light bulb’ or ‘aha!’ moments when they make these connections! For the teacher and the parent these are magical moments.
  • Teaching at a conceptual level enables children to think creatively. Children who are limited to learning topics and facts are not likely to develop the intellectual capacity to think at a creative level. As I will explain in a future post, creative thinking is possible in all subject areas and at all age levels. It is also the right of every child to learn to think at this level.
  • Teaching at a conceptual level enables children to apply their knowledge in new and different ways. Young children whose teachers help them develop ‘number sense’ rather than just the simple mechanics of addition and division are more likely to be able to apply their mathematical knowledge in real life problem solving.
  • Teaching at a conceptual level enables children to develop their aesthetic sense. Children who can identify the big pictures and patterns that underlie what they are learning in school are more likely to appreciate, for example, the miracle of evolving life forms or the beauty of mathematics.

None of the ideas in this post are new, but many schools around the world are limiting the potential of their students by not applying them in the classroom.

What are the implications for the parent? Here are some suggestions:

1.     Ask your child’s teacher how she enables her students to think at a conceptual level. Hopefully she will explain how she does this. However, if the response is negative (for example by saying “Your child is too young” or “Not all children are capable of thinking in this way” or “It doesn’t fit with our curriculum”) then there may a problem and I suggest you persist with your questions about this…

2.     When talking with your child about schoolwork, help her to think conceptually by asking challenging*, open-ended questions such as the following:

  • Can you think of ways in which this connects with other subjects you are learning?
  • In what ways could you use this knowledge to solve a problem in (x)?
  • What are some other things this reminds you of?
  • In what ways might this apply in other subjects/ countries/historical times?
  • That sounds really interesting; how could you teach this to your father/younger sister/friend?

The more you can do to take your child’s thinking from the specific fact to the broader understanding, the greater you will help her to be ready for the uncertainties and wonders of her later years.

Thank you.

*Children who learn conceptually are typically excited by being challenged. They see challenge as the opposite of boredom!

Next time: What is meant by critical thinking and how can all children achieve it?

In what ways is the moral purpose of education closely linked to your child’s future?

For centuries educators and philosophers have attempted to define the moral purpose of education. Arguably the most successful are those who have led us not merely to debate the higher meaning of education (we could do this forever without coming to any conclusions!) but rather to assess whether or not education is achieving its higher purpose through the effect – positive or negative – that it has on our children’s lives.

As far back as the sixteen century, the French essayist Michel de Montaigne wrote that the purpose of education was not to teach children to learn and recite facts but to help them develop sound judgment and wisdom to use throughout life*.

Four and a half centuries later most schools and school systems around the world have still not appreciated or acted upon Montaigne’s advice.  Sadly, in most school systems and curricula, the focus is still placed on learning and reciting facts and formulae for tests and examinations. This has some merit, of course, but is not good enough for the times in which we live.

Examination results are useful for universities and employers to use in their selection processes, but they are not sufficient to prepare our children for jobs that do not yet exist or or to help them live with the profound implications of scientific developments and especially Artificial Intelligence (AI), which will change all our lives sooner than we think.


What is the difference between educational ‘impacts’ and educational ‘outputs’?

The good news is that some schools are just beginning to understand that a fundamental purpose of education is to move from a focus on what are called educational outputs (examination results) to what are called educational impacts (the positive effects that school has on children that will serve them throughout life). Remember, this is exactly what Montaigne wrote about 450 years ago!

The reason why it is essential for schools change emphasis from outputs to impacts is that if we do not know what the future holds for our children, then it cannot be adequate – or moral – to teach them only the knowledge and skills that we understand and use today. Instead, it is necessary for schools to help children develop the key attributes and skills that will enable them to be successful whatever life my bring. These key attributes and skills include the following:

·      Conceptual thinking: the ability to understand the ‘big picture’ not just to learn facts;

·      Critical thinking: the ability to analyze, evaluate, and make decisions upon the available information (this is what Montaigne calls “wisdom”);

·      Creative thinking: the ability to take existing knowledge and develop it further to make products or ideas that are new and useful;

·      Adaptive thinking: the ability to change and develop our ways of thinking throughout life as circumstances change (including changes in science and technology);

·      Resilience: the ability to overcome life’s difficulties.

These are called ‘key attributes’ because they will always be needed. It is the responsibility of schools and parents to ensure that children acquire them. We cannot wait another four centuries.

Based on the above, here are two vital questions specifically for parents:

1.     How do I know if my child’s school is moving from educational outputs to impacts?

2.     How can I understand the attributes listed above and help my child develop them?

I will try to answer these questions over the next series of posts, commencing May 14th.

Thank you.

Next time: Why is it important for children to learn at a conceptual level, and not just remember facts?

*Michel de Montaigne lived in France from 1533 to 1592. He was the first person to write “essays”. His essay “Of the Education of Children” was very forward-looking, and we still have much to learn from it. You can find it online.

What kind of education will prepare your child for an uncertain future – and what is the role of the parent?

The way in which children are taught in schools has not changed much since the introduction of mass education that accompanied the spread of industrialization in the nineteenth century. At that time many countries started to provide elementary education for all children in order to produce a sufficiently literate and numerate workforce for the growing number of factories and offices in the great industrial cities.

This ‘factory’ model of education was characterized by the passage of ‘batches’ of children of the same age through the school system until they graduated into a world of work that offered the same kind of jobs from one generation to the next.

There have been some modifications to that basic model, notably the provision of secondary education to all children in many countries, but the basic pattern of schooling has remained much the same for the past 150 years: children go to school in same-age batches, take school-leaving examinations to test how much they have learned, and then go to work either directly or via a few more years’ education at university.

Unfortunately, that pattern of education is fast becoming irrelevant to the kind of future that faces all our children. Let’s consider what that future might look like:

  • At some time in their lives, most of our children will have jobs that do not yet exist;
  • It will become unusual for anybody to stay in one job throughout their working life;
  • The distinction between a person’s working life, personal life, and retirement will disappear;
  • With the spread of electronically-generated knowledge and communications, the need for schools and universities as they currently exist will probably disappear;
  • Traditional examinations that test the amount of knowledge acquired by students will become irrelevant;
  • Starting (very soon!) with manufacturing and transportation, robots will replace humans in the workforce;
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) devices will become such efficient ‘thought processors’ that they will increasingly replace humans in ‘thinking’ and ‘decision-making’ jobs such as doctors, engineers and managers.
  • Our children’s interaction with technology will become far deeper than simply responding to screens and audio as they do at the moment. Over time, the thought processing of humans and technology are likely to merge;
  • The natural and human landscapes that we inhabit will change beyond recognition, either for good or bad;
  • The structure of family units will evolve in different directions, but because of the increasing complexity of society the need for parents and other responsible adults to provide skilled and informed guidance for children will increase.

You may not agree with all of the above, and you will probably be able to think of other ways in which our future world will be very different from today.  However, one thing is certain: today’s schools are not adequately preparing our children for their uncertain future. There is an increasing gap between the lives that our children live inside and outside the classroom. Parents know this better than governments and education policy makers, but they may not know how best to create the supportive environment that their children need.

In the next few posts I will explain ways in which education can help prepare today’s children for tomorrow’s world. I will also suggest specific ways in which parents may support their child’s learning. The topics will include the following:

1.     Why must teachers and parents consider the moral purpose of education?

2.     What is the difference between educational ‘impacts’ and educational ‘outputs’?

3.     Why is it important for children to learn at a conceptual level, and not just remember facts?

4.     How do children become critical and creative thinkers, and why is this so important for their futures?

5.     What is the role of technology in education?

I hope parents and teachers will find the next few posts useful, and I would welcome your comments and ideas.

Thank you.

Next time: In what ways is the moral purpose of education closely linked to your child’s future?