Guest blog from Learning Futures’ Mark Moorhouse: Free-range teaching in Manchester

April 6, 2011 at 11:40 am 5 comments

[Teacher Mark Moorhouse (@MarkMoorhouseMM) is Learning Futures coordinator at Matthew Moss High School. This post, originally posted on the Learning Futures blog, describes what happened when he applied his insights on learning with young people to learning with adults. We’re posting it here because Mark thinks about learning in ways that are radically different from the status quo, and because he doesn’t shy away from the challenges of so doing]

Last December we had a Learning Futures residential in Manchester during which, to make the point that ownership of learning by the learner from the outset is a vital prerequisite of any authentic learning, us Matthew Mossites lead a trip out of the hotel to either the John Ryland library or the Manchester Art Gallery. The idea was that colleagues should return with a focus (any focus, their focus) from which they build a learning project for themselves. Back in the hotel, Andy and I attempted to scrutinise the emergent individual learning designs through questioning and challenging. The inspiration was the “School as Basecamp” theme from the last Learning Futures pamphlet; Peter Hunter, the business consultant and his reminder that no-one washes a hire car (if you don’t own your learning, you won’t look after it); and Ruth Deakin-Crick’s 8 step process, within which an enquiry begins from close observation of an object or place of intense personal significance before following a path to connect with existing funds of knowledge and the world of others.

Another nudge was all round good egg Helen Winn (ex Deputy Headteacher, now working for Inspired Spaces) and her recounting of a day she had led a group of learners from the Hebburn school she was working at, out of the front door and away for a day’s walking, partly pre-planned, part opportunistic, from which her and the group created a term’s intense and high-quality learning. And we did it at the hotel and it worked fine. It was okay. It kind of made the point.

And then Alec Patton, exhibiting the risk-analysis capability of a lemming, suggested we try the format again at the Learning Futures breakout of the Whole Education event at Manchester. But time was short, so we wouldn’t have time to visit anywhere but the space outside the front door of the venue. And we were the last break out of the day scheduled for a 4.00pm start. Lead anyone out of the door at that time and you could forgive them for making a run for a cab.

But we went for it and amended it a little from its previous incarnation by including a scrutineering tip sheet to challenge the emergent learning designs with prompt questions such as “How far out of your comfort zone will you be able to get?” and “What social value will your learning have?” and “How different might you be at the end of your enquiry to when you started?” The intention, therefore, was to get to a real, stimulus-rich environment (beyond the ersatz world of “school”); establish ownership through choice; then put pressure on the evolving learning plan to ensure rigour. And the desire to learn, once it is authentically real and authentically a matter of choice, is so strong that it is not quashed by the pressures of scrutineering.

Anyway, so at 4.05pm on a late February afternoon in Manchester, the colleagues who have chosen to attend the breakout are asked to navigate the corridors and escalator to go outside the front door to see what they could see that grabbed them. We were equipped only with Ian Gilbert’s 8 Way Thinking diagram just in case we got stuck. And there we stood, odd, conspicuous, gazing fixedly around, some conversing, some in and out of their reverie, for about three or four minutes until we started to usher people back in. And I couldn’t believe how alive with stimulation that piece of Manchester Street proved to be, no more or less special than any other ten yards of space in another city centre. I was worried that this would be small beer compared with the tourist – grade sexiness of the John Rylands library or the Manchester Art Gallery. But it was better. It was seething with stuff: billboard wordings, Victoria Station, The Ducie Bridge public house, the MEN Arena, a 1960’s concrete water feature, a fantastic ashlar-stone building, HMP Strangeways in the distance and all under the white-gray light of a February afternoon.

It was remarkable how much was going on out there. It was like the kind of sensory overload that artists learn to achieve; or, indeed, train themselves not to lose. And it was so potent that two of the delegates had been drawn a little down the street, further in and closer to it. And I wondered whether the intensity was borne of the freshness of it (this was an unfamiliar street corner to most) and the fact that our mission was not to dash through it but to stand and look at it.

Now I am pretty sure that I had felt excited by the vista and that it wasn’t a wishful subliminal response to the fear that it was actually all a bit daft. And was pretty sure that others had been gripped by something of note.

I was less sure when I got back to the populated but silent breakout room. And this was when pairs of delegates should have been sharing their learning designs and scrutineering each other. Alec must have been enduring this for some minutes as he came straight up to me and said “I think they need some clarification on the task”. So I repeated the instruction: “Think about what interested and what you would do if you had six or seven days to learn about it. That’s you, as a learner”. And there was a pause, a hiatus which hung in the air for two or three seconds and then “bang”; it all kicked in and off they went, with animated and energetic streams of conversation between pairs.

My thought was that I really had to reflect on that bit and get the instruction clearer, because that’s the second time that’s happened. It happened at exactly the same point at the Midland hotel residential. “I think that is just a case of ‘Is it really that simple?’” said Alec. And that stayed with me, because this learning thing just might be that simple.

Because the other thought I went home with as I exited the front door and for a few seconds paced over the paving where we had had our three minutes of wonderment was, “Isn’t the world interesting?”

So on the one hand you have the playground of the material world in all its variety and complexity and on the other, our minds, absolutely hard-wiring to interact and learn from it. Real learning might actually be as easy and as common place as breathing in and out. The problem comes with schools trying to replace real world stimulation with simulated “What ifs…?”. Why bother when we can go ten yards from the front door and be in the real thing. Hence the proven power of community problem-solving in learning, such as that promoted in the practice of High Tech High and Studio Schools.

Perhaps the best planning we can do is how to get out more.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. John Craig  |  April 6, 2011 at 12:57 pm

    Thanks, Mark. Great post and I certainly recognise the facilitator’s ‘subliminal wishful thinking’ anxiety.
    I bet in practice you will struggle to improve on how you introduce this task – that the surprise participants experience when you say, ‘yes, it is that simple’ is essential to the process. In other words, that you could make things clearer for them at the outset, but only by robbing people of the surprise they could have felt, and some of what they learn from it…

    Reply
  • 2. Mark Moorhouse  |  April 6, 2011 at 7:16 pm

    Appreciated! Very much. And thanks for sharing your perception. I’ll hang on to that.

    Reply
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