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A Corridor of Curiosities

Last week, a short video of our Corridor of Curiosity caused a minor ripple on twitter with lots of people posting comments and asking questions.  As a result, I was encouraged to give a bit more detail about the why, what and how of this latest addition to our school.

I’ve been interested in developing the idea of a curiosity space ever since coming across the incredible Dr Matthew Mcfall.  His brilliant book: ‘The Little Book of Awe and Wonder: A Cabinet of Curiosities’ is packed full of exactly the kind of weird and wonderful stuff that belongs to an age where the answer to not knowing something was to think (and wonder) about it rather than reaching for Google.  

If you’ve ever had the opportunity to listen to him speak, his childlike enthusiasm for all things curious (in other words for all things) belies a monumental amount of knowledge and research into the development of wonder and its effect on the brain. He’s also got very deep pockets which seem to house no end of unusual and puzzling objects (which makes it time consuming for him to get through airport security as you'll find to your cost if you ever travel with him).

Listening to Matthew reminded me that some of the wonders he describes used to be a feature of many primary schools. For example, when I was at school most classrooms had a nature table. Sometimes they were a bit rubbish – a handful of leaves and the odd conker (now forbidden fruit in many schools) - but sometimes they were amazing. I can remember one classroom had a skull. Nobody really knew what creature the skull was from and the teacher was deliberately evasive about it when questioned, which definitely added to the mystery.

I suppose the point was we were taking about it. We had questions. We were naturally curious. 

Having taught for twenty years, I’ve experienced first hand the prescriptive nature of the National Curriculum. There’s no doubt that as a result of this, the time and space for curiosity and wondering has been squeezed out. If anything, the current iteration has made this worse. If we’re so intent on delivering all the things the children should be taught, then it’s possible we’re missing all the incredible things that they might learn along the way.

Now, I’m not advocating a return to the so-called ‘good old days’ where you could do a two-week topic on squirrels just because you happened to see one on the way to school. But I am interested in redressing the balance. After all, just because something doesn’t get a mention in a curriculum document, doesn’t mean it’s not of value.

Which brings me back to wonder and the plans my school – an inner-city multicultural primary school – were hatching to reintroduce it for all our children.

But, where to start?

The first and easiest option was to go down the nature table route and introduce a small collection of curiosities in each classroom. The second, was to aim for something bigger, perhaps using a shared space in school.  There’s no right or wrong to it, but ultimately, we decided to go for the latter and create a space in school that all the children could visit.

We didn’t have any rooms going spare, so the space we finally settled on was a wide corridor in the centre of the school. With the location sorted, this then gave us the opportunity to think carefully about exactly what we wanted it to look like. Taking Matthew’s advice on the importance of a strong aesthetic, we settled on a Victorian study theme with dark ‘wood panelling’ (wallpaper), some wingback chairs (IKEA), dark wood shelving (IKEA again) and then some careful thought about lighting. The look was completed with a set of cheap velvet curtains at the entrance (eBay!) along with what be enticing signage. This way to the ‘The Corridor of Curiosities’.

Already, without having anything in it, the corridor was receiving lots of attention and, yes, wonder. The children got the sense that something exciting was happening. They didn’t know what exactly and their curiosity was well and truly piqued.

In terms of populating the corridor with curios, it wasn’t our intention to completely fill it in one go. We wanted enough in there so the children could get to handle the items without having to do too much waiting for their turn, but with the expectation (or hope) that an increasing number of interesting objects would appear over time and that they could be part of that process too.

To get started, I had a brilliant morning on eBay. It’s amazing what you can find and it seems that no matter how bizarre the thing was that I searched for, there was someone out there happy to sell it to me. In next to no time, I had a virtual basket containing, among other things, three birds’ nests (abandoned), a ram’s skull (abandoned), an ostrich egg, peacock feathers, crystal geodes, pyrite, mahogany fruit, a model of a human heart, a life-size replica of a human skull, a kaleidoscope and some magic fortune telling fish that curl up in your hand as if by magic. These classic curios were complemented by some brilliant puzzles and games recommended by Matthew including The Tower of Hanoi, a dovetail puzzle cube, a Soma cube, Pentominoes, a two-piece pyramid puzzle, a Mancala game, trick padlocks and a brilliant little card game called Dobble.

Along with the artefacts listed above, we also ordered some amazing books to sit alongside the curios and puzzles: The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane, Animalium by Jenny Broom, Botanicum by Kathy Willis, Dragonology: The Complete Book of Dragons by Dugald Steer and a 1900’s illustrated copy of Blackie’s standard dictionary.  

With the corridor ready for opening (and children’s curiosity practically at bursting point), we decided that a measured approach would be best rather than risking a stampede of wonder.

First of all, we spoke to the adults in school and decided upon a couple of simple rules that would help the children to enjoy the experience safely. Rule one was that everything was there to be picked up, touched and held. The corridor is a curated space, but it’s not a museum full of ‘Look but don’t touch’ signs and hard stares. We wanted the children to feel how incredibly light the birds’ nests were or to notice how sharp the barb on the horseshoe crab was. Obviously, they’d need to be careful so that they didn’t hurt themselves or damage the things they were looking at, but it had to be hands on. Rule two was related to the first – leave things looking exactly as you found them. This might sound a bit strict, but we wanted the children to understand that this was a special place – somewhere that deserved particular care and attention. 

Beyond that and it was really just organisational stuff.  The corridor space itself wasn’t quite big enough for a whole class but, with the use of a small group room just at the side of the corridor, we could split the children to make it manageable. Sketching materials were stored in the corridor side by side with sets of magnifying glasses so that, along with attempting the puzzles and handling the objects, the children could grab a clipboard, choose some art supplies and do some observational drawing. There’s even another plan in the pipeline to include a set of six VR headsets so the children can explore virtual worlds created from the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

The corridor is still in its infancy but the early signs are that it will have a huge impact on our children.  Some of the first visitors to the space were our complex needs children. One young man in particular with high-level ASD finds accessing the curriculum extremely difficult and his needs are met by working on an individual bespoke curriculum with a highly personalised timetable that includes time spent away from his mainstream class.  His reaction to spending time in the corridor has been incredible and has allowed him to follow some very specific individual interests – many of which are represented among the artefacts displayed. This has led to the corridor being built into his provision along with that of other children with a wide range of differing needs. 

What’s interesting too for our SEN children is the way in which the corridor gives them a place to shine. Because they access the space frequently, they have built up expertise that the other children don’t necessarily have. This is unusual for lots of SEN children because they frequently spend their lives believing that they know less or can do less than others. It has been wonderful to see the way in which their self-esteem has grown through this process.

With regard to achievement and, yes, SATs results, what has been the effect of the corridor. Well, to be honest, we don’t care. Yes, we have seen improvements in vocabulary and the more words you have, the better able you are to express yourself. This is especially important for our children, many of whom come from impoverished backgrounds. We include Latin names for many of the objects too, not to teach Latin but to get children curious about why the Linnaean name for an ostrich includes a reference to a camel.

But we’re not doing it as some fiendish trick to improve grades, we’re doing it for the same reason we use Philosophy for Children, because it’s the right thing to do.

Which bring us back to the question of the curriculum. The recent Ofsted framework consultation document, it talks about how ‘curriculum shapes and determines what learners of all ages will get out of their educational experience’. If curriculum is only ever viewed as a set of subjects to be covered, then that experience will be limited. The Corridor of Curiosity represents our belief in a much broader interpretation of curriculum, one that takes children into, to use a phrase from one of the first children to visit the corridor, ‘another world’.

For us, this is exactly what curriculum – and corridors - should be about.  

If you’d like to visit our school to see the Corridor of Curiosity for yourself (along with having the chance to explore the school and find out about the other interesting stuff we’re up to) please take a look at our open days on Eventbrite

To find out more about our approach to curriculum, then look no further than my new book!  ‘The Monkey-Proof Box: Curriculum design for building knowledge, developing creative thinking and promoting independence.’  is out on March the 29th and comes highly recommended (mainly by me). 

Make a booking, ask a question or just say hello.

Give us a call on +44 (0)1267 211432, drop us a line at learn@independentthinking.co.uk or hit the button.

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