What is truly innovative learning? - by Prof Stephen Dobson

What is truly innovative learning? What makes a school or even an institution in the tertiary sector cutting edge in this respect? Is every new twist and turn in practice innovative?

Rousseau is counted as one of history’s great educational innovators. He often took the taken for granted and looked at it differently. In Emile the reader meets a form of child’s education which begins without the teacher, a natural form of education learning from experience not the teacher. If a child throws a stone through the bedroom window and as a consequence has to sleep in a cold, freezing room, they learn. In one of Rousseau’s other books he says that he felt before he thought, and from this he learnt that the rational was not the only or primary gateway to knowledge and learning.

The problem-based movement is hailed as a new innovative wave in education. We find it in engineering, in medicine and subjects where a product or service requiring a holistic or inter-disciplinary approach is required. This movement teaches that asking good questions and seeking to solve them is what drives and makes highly motivated students. Educationalists working in schools or in teacher education have always had versions of this in their teaching repertoire, so on this count it is nothing really new.

Earlier in the year I visited a new school in the England, the Plymouth School of Creative Arts. It is full of innovations and is cutting edge. How so? It is not that the school runs a kindergarten, primary school and is moving to grow its secondary capacity as it teaches the regular national curriculum in all subjects. It is not that it is owned and run by the Plymouth College of Art, which is known for its under-graduate degree programs in subjects such as ceramics, media, art and so on. It is more the case, echoing Rousseau, that you feel something as you walk around the school and hear about the way it is run, the way space is used. You see pupils and teachers who are all motivated and engaged in what they do.

I am jumping the narrative. Finding the school is an effort. I had the address on the GPS but drove in circles – I could not find the name of the school on any buildings. Eventually, I parked and went in to a red building asking for directions. It was the School. The principal informed me that it is called the Red House and all the local population know where it is, and that is enough for their needs. It is a community space where different groups can use it in the evenings, but also in the day time during school hours - the City’s Race Relations unit have an office space in the middle of the school. The deputy head is not a teacher – he had worked for many years as a therapist and brings to the school his own professional ’look and feel’.

Classroom size is important and intuitively we think the fewer the number of pupils to each teacher the greater the learning opportunities of the children. At the Plymouth School of Creative Arts, they operated with a classroom size of 60 pupils for the older pupils, even stretching up to 120. How could this work? The principal explained that for every 30 pupils there was one teacher and one assistant, so in a 60 pupil classroom there were 4 adults working with the students and in the 120 pupil classroom 8 adults planned together and taught and had the opportunity to follow-up on the children who needed extra help. Of course he added they also had break-out spaces where a teacher or assistant might take a smaller group for a specific activity.

The school principal, like all good principals, knew the name of every child. The philosophy framing the school was about ’making’ as he put it; making confident identities, making learning experiences, making a contribution to the community. What was distinctive was the feeling in the school, from the moment you entered. It was about innovative learning and teaching. It was not in bold print, it was just there in the relationships between the pupils and the relationship between the adults and pupils, it what would otherwise have been a cold concrete structure with a red, outer facade.

Stephen Dobson






Professor Stephen Dobson
Dean and Head of the School of Education

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