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Beyond the Bake Sale: Introducing A Pedagogy of Possibility

On Saturday 8th October we held another one of our occasional Thinking Saturdays. These are events where we look at some of the issues in education that are bigger than policy or politics and what we can do to help schools address them*.

The focus for this particular event was what we are calling a ‘pedagogy of possibility’. Or, more specifically, how can schools integrate into and across the curriculum the practice of addressing real-life problems by way of service to the local, national and international communities. 

Or, more simply, it’s about time we moved beyond the bake sale.

With representatives at the event from educational charities along with local school leaders and Independent Thinking Associates, we started with what we called six ‘naïve assumptions’ as follows:

  1. The world can be saved
  2. We can play a part
  3. Children are the right place to start
  4. Schools are in a position to help
  5. People care enough
  6. We won’t make things worse trying

What came through was that, despite the immense challenges facing the world today, it was right to hold these six assumptions and vital to have the hope that things can get better and we can do something about it. 

Hope, after all, is better than the alternative.

With inputs from the charities present we looked at what schools can do to raise levels of empathy (not merely sympathy) in young people and staff as a starting point for then working to build into the curriculum (ie not as a one-off, a non-timetable day or an extra curricular activity) addressing genuine and pressing problems and dilemmas facing local or international communities.

What were some of our conclusions going forward? Quite a few actually:

Children are naturally empathetic – let’s tap into that more.

Children are natural problem solvers. Let’s set them tasks and get out of their way while they go about solving them.

Simply raising money for a particular project (eg a new nursery in a school in Nepal) is not thinking big enough. Why not raise the money but also go about fitting out the nursery too though making the fixtures, fittings, decorations and toys and/or sourcing materials and resources. And what about parenting skills or even sex education? There are possibilities across the curriculum in such a venture.

Tutor time can also can be given over to such projects in a way that makes it far more productive than is currently the case in many secondary schools.

Mundane programmes such as ‘Personal Finance’ can be transformed when the rulebook is ripped up and real-world service-based projects are addressed in this way. And that includes with children with learning difficulties.

'Enterprise skills' at school can be enhanced by looking at social enterprise skills instead. Rather than setting up a business and giving any profits to charity, young people could set up a social enterprise – a mission-led, not profit-led, business - and running it not to make a profit but, profitably, to make a difference. Independent Thinking is run in this way.

Even schools who are already engaging well with charities and charitable work could do more when they start thinking in this way.

There is a complexity to helping others that should be an important element of education for an uncertain world. (‘Naïve assumption’ number six was backed up with a quote from a Sri Lankan government official who commented after the 2004 tsunami, ‘I don’t know which was worse, the first wave of water or the second wave of aid’. For more on complexity and aid and how we can make things worse by helping, check out Aid on the Edge of Chaos by Ben Ramalingam.)

Effective service doesn’t simply address one aspect of a challenge (eg we need to build a school for local children) but also seeks to look at the many interconnected implications of educating children (we need to feed them the right food at the right time; we need to educate parents how to keep their children clean; we need to source sewing machines to help local women set up micro-businesses making school uniforms; we need to provide water filters and drinking water education to ensure the children are physically and neurologically capable of doing well at school; we need to build outreach centres in the local communities to help prepare the youngest children for life in school; we need to find 1000s of pairs of shoes to help those living among rubbish heaps who are losing limbs to infection before they even get to school…).

The vastness of some of these challenges can be overcome by thinking and then acting in this connected, practical, possibility-focused way.

Keen new teachers could be supported by their school to spend time (between four weeks to half a term) working with educational charities in a way that highlights teaching as service. This opportunity could also help with recruitment.

Inspired by this TEDx presentation from Hong Kong-based charity leader David Begbie, that being yourself and being willing to serve is enough.

And that if we don’t help young people develop these skills and attitudes in school, then the world will really be in trouble when they are in charge of it.

We are missing not one but a series of massive and important opportunities if we ignore the fact that education can be about helping to address real-life challenges that serve others in a consistent manner and that such activity can act as a way of learning what is needed to pass tests and garner qualifications. Creative, committed schools focused on service learning can make a difference to the people inside their schools walls whilst making a difference to those who need it outside.

The starting point is looking beyond the bake sale to the issues, questions, demands and circumstances that led to the need for a bake sale in the first place. In doing so, you help create a pedagogy that says it is possible to make things better and you, whoever you are, can do something about it. [ITL]

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