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To say that 1968 was an eventful year is one of the greater understatements one might make. The Vietnam war was moving into some of the most telling periods of violence while in Europe a series of riots broke out sustained by a tide of popular student protest. ’68 is also memorable for another reason. A group of educators got together and founded what would go on to be the International Baccalaureate (IB) Organisation. They were influenced by the educational philosophy of Kurt Hahn.

In post war Europe, Hahn had set out a philosophy of education to make the world a better place. His belief was that by having children of different nationalities educated with each other, conflict could be avoided. History would suggest that he was wrong, but only in part. Last week, the IB held their global conference in Vienna and used the occasion to develop a series of discussions on the theme of ‘learning’. Not a bad idea for an organisation founded to promote education for understanding.

Reading the papers from the conference, one luminary returned to familiar ground and pointed out that we are no longer in a Victorian world of education with children as passive participants in a process that sees them commit facts to memory. But what is the difference between knowing, learning and memory? All knowledge is held in memory and to develop ideas or to substantiate an opinion you have to have some knowledge base. This base is acquired by learning, one aspect of which is an act of memory. Repeated exposure to facts, returning to present and represent them facilitates memory and as part of the process of learning we have become increasingly adept at this. We ran workshops for parents last year and will do so again to facilitate the better understanding of this process. But once material is committed to memory has learning started or stopped?

I would suggest it is at this point that learning begins the most productive phase. Knowledge is defined in a variety of ways, the Platonic notion of “justified true belief” is probably the most popular iteration of the concept. I would suggest that we know something when we become aware of the connectedness of facts. Situating an individual in a context where we can explain their actions allows us to say we know them. Richard Feynman made much of this. He suggested that in knowing the names of things we cannot really claim any more knowledge than that of knowing what the label says. As part of our Digital Learning Strategies, this week we rolled out iPads to the children and what an impact they are having already as we go more deeply into developing understanding. One colleague stopped me during lunch break to say he was being contacted by students on Sparkjar with completed homework tasks and requests for more! Long may it last, but it is a wonderful example of how students are beginning to dig deeper and to develop their understanding.

Learning, for us at school, is about more than the superficiality of knowing the names of things, we must dig deeper and begin to understand the connectedness of things. Over the past Half Term, we have begun a process that will see this develop as a key feature of the school. Our Year 2 children have begun philosophising. (At this point you should click here to book tickets for our evening with Simon Blackburn on 12th November. Simon is a Fellow at the University of Cambridge and former editor of the journal Mind and contributor to BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze.) 

The children are not reviewing the nature of Kant’s metaphysics nor are they developing any competence in recalling the history of the philosophic canon of literature, they are philosophising. They are thinking deeply and developing reasoned arguments in response to a stimulus. The impact on their cognition and processing skills will be evidenced over the weeks and years as they grow. You will experience it at the dinner table and from the back seat when “Are we nearly there yet?” is replaced by “Why are we here at all?” In one example, the children developed a series of questions and voted on the one they wanted to investigate as a community of inquiry. They settled on “Is challenge a bad thing?” Their thinking unpicked what “challenge” means, the benefits of challenge against the outcomes and the cost on the individual of this challenge.

In an environment where to be challenged was accepted as a motivator of learning, the children argued cogently that this is not universalisable, there are conditions and limiting factors. Some stunningly sophisticated arguments emerged which do not surprise me in the slightest, I expect nothing less from them. Wittgenstein and Kant would be proud of them; I know I am. As our children become increasingly sophisticated in their understanding, as they use technology with us to develop their knowledge, I wonder what Hahn would have to say? More importantly, would Year 2 think this a worthwhile challenge?

Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Embley (@HeadmasterHCS


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