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Learning to live with tension

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So we’ve recently concluded our latest Inquiry-based Learning initiative (see Rachel’s previous Facebook Note on this); an inquiry where we focused on the environment for five 4-hour sessions.

If you’ve been following our educational journey on Facebook, via our website, or in person, you’ll know that the experiences, moments, and observations of children is our ‘fuel’. As facilitators of learning, we record everything – through a process we call ‘documentation’ – and use this to provoke, launch, and, relaunch child led-inquiries. Without these audio recordings, photographs, or written notes – alongside the time to review, reflect, and respond to them as a staff team – I can’t imagine how we’d facilitate a child-led culture of learning.

So when, our current group of co-learners fed back that one of their key learning points from the last five weeks was the “ups and downs” of working together as a team, I took note. My facilitative sensors were triggered; because, although the focus of our time together in July/August was ‘the environment’ – a trajectory that originated from a previous child-led observation that: “chemicals like plastics are bad & therefore kill the earth” and “adults aren’t doing enough” (03/06/2019) – this latest gathering of children didn’t collaborate in the same way they had previously. That there were Ups and Downs was a valid learning point to raise.

The very beginning of what would, in time, become known as: ‘The Time Machine’ (May 20 2019).

When asked what the children thought the difference might be this time – verses last time, when the children chosen to ‘go on an adventure’ into history, which involved constructing a time machine (right) – a few children felt that they had brought their own resources from home this time, rather than been provided with resources, last time.


“For the time machine we got given resources; this is the first time sharing resources.”



In July / August’s inquiry, our children decided they wanted to address some of the problems created by plastics by building a litter-picker-upper (above); although, as early as the second session they suspected it might not help, in fact it might make matters worse they thought, since it might make people litter more; “Is this going to make people lazy?” (July 22 2019).

As I reflect on the ‘Ups and Downs’ of our time together, I think the children are correct in recognising how we treat resources we own vs. shared-resources that we have in common.

The Franciscan Community of Casa San Salvador in Brookland, Washington DC

Rachel and I have very fond memories of staying at Casa San Salvador, an intentional community in Washington DC, last year (May). As we traveled around the world, researching education, between April and June 2018, we intentionally chose to stay in lots of different places, where we met and were hosted by lots of incredible people, but I remember worrying about what it would be like living with others, before arriving in DC.

As it turned out, the fact that no one living in the house owned it, and all the resources were in common / pooled, meant that it was a real life tangible example of no one claiming, ‘…that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had’ (Acts 4:32). It was actually one of the most liberating experiences of living with others I’ve ever had. Very different to when I’ve stayed in someone else’s house, or when we’ve hosted people in ours.

The difference in children’s collaboration in May/June 2019 vs. July/August 2019, was not that the children were constructing a time machine vs. a litter-picker-upper; it was that the children had been encouraged / decided to bring their own (reusable) resources from home.


“Some people got jealous with what we brought.”


“I can’t read – I’m still learning (July 29 2019). “He can read!” (August 5 2019).

As I reflected on this, the morning after our latest feedback session, I suppose it was inevitable that I would begin by asking myself whether we had ‘failed’ this time around. Whilst its true that I was both surprised and delighted by how the children had relished the opportunity to stretch other skills – foundational literacy, for example (right) – I still couldn’t stop myself from focusing on how creative problem solving, communication, and collaboration didn’t flow in the same ways that it did before.

Thankfully, I wasn’t down for long; I ‘happened’ to come across an article on Facebook from IDEO – one of the top design firms that I often quote – which began with: ‘Not all tension is bad.’ What? Really! It was both timely and interesting.

In IDEO’s experience – when it comes to cultivating creative collaboration – ‘tension’ around i). ideas, ii). team dynamics, and iii). one to one feedback, is absolutely essential. They agree / argue that tension is ‘a critical element for fueling creative thinking on teams’ (IDEO 2019).

And so, the next time we gather children, I wonder if we ought to provoke an inquiry into teamwork, welcoming tension, or being intentional about sharing resources as a community?

The Life Skills Curriculum

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Developing Foundational Literacies, Competences, and Character Qualities through Inquiry into the Environment.

In its New Vision for Education (2015), the World Economic Forum describes how children – in order to thrive in an innovation driven, rapidly evolving, technology saturated 21st Century – need to develop sixteen skills. During five weeks of a child-led inquiry-based project, focusing on the environment, the children we’ve gathered have learnt, in relation to one another, developed foundational literacies in English, numeracy and science, alongside competencies such as critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration, and character qualities of curiosity, initiative, persistence, and social / cultural awareness.

Through the child-led inquiry on the environment – which relates to ‘Life Skills’ for Grades R to 3 within South Africa’s Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement – the children have:

  • created a collaborative environment collage
  • shared what they knew about the environment
  • thought about the impacts of pollution on our planet
  • developed an understanding of the words ‘reduce’ and ‘recycle’
  • discussed and considered a question provoked by the children themselves: “How can we help the environment?”
  • designed machines to collect litter (in response to the discussion the children had about what they could do to help the environment)
  • attempted to collaboratively make prototypes of their machines, out of material collected from the home
  • developed deeper thinking, as they started to question whether the machines they were designing / making would actually help the situation, hypothesizing, for example, how they might, “just make people lazy”
  • questioned who and why plastic was ever invented (due to its impact on our environment)
  • collated and began to analyse data on plastic items that they found in their homes
  • were surprised by the amount of plastic in three homes represented by the group
  • began to consider how to ‘reduce’ their own plastic consumption, rather than just ‘reuse’ or ‘recycle’
  • reflected on the choices they have, and the consequences of these choices
  • made a commitment to make a positive difference to our planet

The whole inquiry was closely linked to the development of literacy skills through the sharing and reading of a big book: The Great Kapok Tree. The story, set in the Amazon Rain forest, describes a man, who – exhausted from his attempts to chop down a Great Kapok Tree – puts down his ax to rest for a while. As he falls asleep, the animals who live in and around the tree draw near and begin to plead with him to reconsider destroying their world. Initially, our children, were invited to look through the book using only the pictures (having covered up the words), describing what they could see, and what they thought was happening.

At this stage many of the children were eager to read the book showing great curiosity.

“Okay, can we begin now?”

Each child predicted how they thought the story would end, making their thinking visible through a choice of creative mediums, e.g. paint, pastels, papier Mache, construction, and so on. Before reading the story together on Week 3, the facilitator introduced what they imagined would be some of the trickier words; the children labelled the animals as a group. As the book was read together – a process called ‘shared reading’ – the children shared their understanding of the reasons the animals were giving for not chopping down the tree. Through working together, each child developed strategies in scanning the text to identify key information. One child, who had resigned himself to the fact he couldn’t read “I’m still learning” on Week 2, delighted the group on Week 4, when they released: “He can read!”

The child-led inquiry, and the reading of the story -which formed a major part of this – enabled the children to develop their understanding of question words, how to form questions, and the use of question marks. As they worked together in a process known as ‘shared writing’ (on Week 4), the group creatively decided what the Iguana – which although it features on the book cover, doesn’t speak inside the book – might have said to the man to try and stop him chopping down the Kapok tree. This included the use of questions alongside explanations. The children, then went on to work independently to create their own piece of writing.

Throughout the inquiry, the children had many creative opportunities to express their thinking. Children chose to work individually or collaboratively as they felt appropriate. Through this, facilitators were able to observe children being curious, showing initiative, being persistent, communicating their ideas, developing skills in problem solving, etc.As a result of the extensive research that we have carried out, as we have visited schools in different parts of the world, and, as we have practiced our philosophy in South Africa since, we are confident that the development of foundational skills in English, mathematics (above), and science can be naturally woven in to child-led, inquiry-based projects as and when opportunities present themselves, in relation to the growing interests of the children.

As facilitators continue to practice the art of documentation, that is the intentional recording of comments, experiences, and moments that go on within the learning environment, and, with the dialogue, reflection, and insight that this provides during and afterwards, the adult facilitator-teachers can be listening for the unknown, expecting surprises, and be led by the children, whilst still ensuring that the requirements of the curriculum are also fulfilled.

The wonder within the curriculum

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I wonder what you think of when you hear the phrase ‘life skills’?

My understanding of life skills, as a subject that forms part of the South African school curriculum, has been based on explanations people have shared of it helping children to form their identity, sense of worth, or to understand their emotions, and of it supporting students to make good choices. Living and working in KwaZulu-Natal, a region with the highest HIV rate in the country – where over a quarter of the population is living with the disease – it is perhaps understandable that most of the faith-based non profit organisations we’ve worked with over the last 12 years include sex education (for older children) within life skills.

Since living and working in South Africa I have linked these descriptions (above) to my own experience and knowledge of working as a teacher in England; so I have considered Life Skills to be similar to PSHE (Personal, Social, Health Education), or SEAL (Social, Emotional Aspects of Literacy) – both of which have been part of the curriculum in England.

But in exploring the South African Life Skills curriculum for Grade R to Grade 3 learners (5 to 9 year-olds), as part of the preparation for launching our quality, diverse and accessible school in KwaZulu-Natal, I have been surprised by the content. Surprised…in a good way!

As I expected, the Life Skills curriculum does include aspects of social and emotional development, i.e. self-awareness, self-confidence, expressing and managing feelings and behaviour, and physical development; health and self-care, but it goes so much further…

The Life Skills curriculum is actually incredibly rich with themes that provoke children – alongside their teachers – to explore people and communities (the home, family, school, community, jobs, etc.), and the world (seasons, food, animals, plants, the weather, the environment etc.). In addition, all of the ‘content’ can be explored through the creative arts, where children have opportunities to use a variety of mediums, media, and materials to create in 2 and 3 Dimensions, and use their imagination as they express their ideas and thoughts via music and dance; all whilst developing foundational literacies.

Since the Life Skills curriculum outlines the themes – but doesn’t go in to great detail with a lot of specifics – it means, as a school, we can link children’s interests to areas in the Life Skills curriculum, using these as provocations to go deeper in to areas which the children are naturally curious and intrigued by. We can encourage children to explore and express ideas, thoughts, learning creatively and imaginatively, through one or more of their 100 languages.

In utilising themes from the South African Life Skills curriculum to provoke learning, carefully selecting areas which relate to children’s interests, and documenting children’s learning along the way, rather than assessing against predefined outcomes, we believe the tension of making room for ‘meaning making’ within / alongside a curriculum can be balanced. Dahlberg et al. explain pedagogical documentation is:

‘…about trying to see and understand what is going on in the pedagogical work and what the child is capable of without any predetermined framework of expectations and norms’.

Dahlberg, Moss and Pence (2007: 146)

Documentation – notes of the children’s actions, comments, and conversations during their work, alongside photographs which capture these ‘…ordinary moments and everyday experiences in the classroom’ (Kashin 2014) – enables teachers to enter into dialogue with children and fellow staff members, to consider different perspectives, critically reflect, and relaunch learning. Working in this way, teachers will be listening for the unknown, expectant for surprises – meaning making will be paramount.


Dahlberg, G., Moss, P. and Pence, A. (2007) Beyond Quality in Early Childhood Education and Care, Oxon: Routledge.

Department of Basic Education (2011) Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement Grade R to 3 Life Skills, South Africa: Government Printing Works.

Human Sciences Research Council (2017) South African National HIV Prevalence, Incidence and Behaviour Survey.

Kashin, D. (2014) Progettazione: Reggio-inspired Teaching in Dialogue with the Learning Processes of Children [online]. Accessed June 2019.

Making Learning Visible

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Documentation is a key feature of the Reggio Emilia Approach to teaching and learning; a pedagogy we had the opportunity to experience first hand last year, in Italy and beyond.Documentation is a way of making children’s learning visible; it often includes notes of the children’s actions, conversations, and comments – usually made by adults, as children go about their work – along with photographs that illustrate these experiences and moments.

Documentation enables the progression / stages of thinking and learning to be made visible.

Making learning visible during an inquiry on ‘identity’

During the March school holidays, a series of creative workshops were facilitated by a team of adult facilitators for a group of fifteen children, aged 5 to 9 years. The inquiry began by focusing on ‘identity’ – which included an exploration of colour through a provocation that introduced children to the shades, tints and tones of red, using a number of objects.

In seeing a metronome for the first time – one of the objects chosen by the lead facilitator – it was noticeable how intrigued the children were; by the sound it made, and how by re-positioning the adjustable weight on the pendulum the speed of that sound could be changed. As the team of facilitators shared and reflected on their documentation and observations of children’s “moments” and “experiences” at the end of the day (Kashin 2014), a consensus was reached that it would be appropriate to respond to, and attempt to build upon, the children’s curiosity with sound. This involved the children:

  • being invited to become more aware of sounds in their ‘learning space’ through silent listening
  • exploring sounds in the built and natural environment around them, by going on a listening hunt
  • verbally sharing the sounds that they had heard – as a whole group
  • describing and classifying the sounds
  • exploring the sounds that they could reproduce and produce through a variety of materials – individually and together
  • sharing the sounds they had created – in small groups
  • verbally describing their sounds
  • discussing what they would like to ‘do’ with the sounds
  • working through their suggestions in small groups, either to (i) develop rhythms, (ii) create a sound story, or (iii) form a band
  • sharing their collaborative creations with the whole
  • and finally creating something to show what they had discovered about themselves

The aforementioned steps emerged – they were in no way predetermined – the ‘project’ evolved out of children’s initial / growing interests, and their affordance with their contexts. Children’s thinking was voiced, and became visible, through sensitive facilitation; the inquiry developed and progressed as a result of adults and children co-learning alongside each other. Written and photographic documentation of children’s comments, experiences, interactions, moments, thoughts, and so on, was intentional and essential to the learning journey; initially this was carried out by the adult facilitators as they worked with and observed children.

Within a short space of time, children began to mirror adults, and document their own learning (see the bottom row in the photographs above), to the degree where adults stopped documenting some aspects of the journey, trusting children to document it themselves.

The power of documentation

The facilitators’ documentation – alongside some of the children’s – offered a way identifying and evaluating what and how the children were learning; it encouraged and enabled facilitators to reflect together before, during, and after working alongside the children.

Ways forward – the next steps – emerged as a consequence of collectively discussing the documentation, which led to further provocations coming to mind, and being ‘set up’ in response; these provocations relaunched ideas and allowed children to go further.

As adults – and children – we opened, ‘ourselves up to new and courageous landscapes’


An inquiry into identity, through sound

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The context

For one week of the Easter break, a series of creative workshops were facilitated for a group of fifteen children, aged 5 to 9 years. The planning team’s initial thoughts had been to provoke some sort of inquiry into identity, with the understanding that, should any kind of ‘project’ evolve, it should be allowed to emerge out of the children’s initial, and growing interests (see our February Facebook Note for what we mean when we refer to something as a ‘project’).

By ‘project’ we mean a child-led, inquiry-based, and open-ended learning trajectory that encourages children to explore, experiment and express an idea, interest, and / or experience with others, through multiple mediums, lenses, and directions.

The week proved to be incredibly rich in learning for both the children and adults involved.

The children…

… developed skills in collaboration. Over a five day period the children developed a deep respect for each other, as they learnt how to collaborate in response to authentic and emerging challenges. In providing a ‘space’ where children were encouraged to explore, experiment and express their thinking – individually, in pairs, small groups, and as a whole – the children were able to experience listening to others and being listened to; which led to a deeper appreciation for others’ perspectives. The children grew together quickly; they began to learn in relation to others and understand how they need others to ‘go further’.

… developed skills in reflection. In spite of the fact that the concept of self-reflection seemed new to the majority of the children, the team’s decision to persist – but to adjust their approach – led to a remarkable shift in each of the children’s ability and depth of self-reflection by the end of the week. In creating space for the children to think first before inviting a response, by giving every child the option to share their thoughts in turn, and by having flexible open-ended focused times of listening – alone in silence, and to one another – the children developed skills to self-reflect, beyond expectations, in a short space of time.

… expressed creativity through prototyping. By exploring a variety of art, anti-waste, and natural materials, most of the children chose to think and work in 3 dimensions. Model making seemed to unlock levels of creativity in this particularly group of children in ways that 2 dimensional ink, painting, and pastels didn’t. The opportunity to rapidly prototype their ideas supported the expression of emerging thoughts in a process that one facilitator described as “layering” – “Playful prototyping meant each child was able to build their next thought on top of their previous way of thinking; ideas just seem to flow in a manner that these children weren’t able to achieve with something like watercolour.” As children’s ideas developed, they were able to return, remodel, and / or recreate their creations quickly.

… developed in self-confidence. It was noticeable how much the children grew in confidence, in an environment where adults offered a space which welcomed their thoughts and ideas; a space where the children could explore, experiment, and express themselves. Adults intentionally chose a posture of facilitation; provoking learning, listening, observing / documenting, and valuing every child’s unique contribution, without feeling they needed to judge, correct, or ‘make’ children conform. The environment offered a space where children could be themselves together; it made room for each and every child to make sense of their world in their way. Children were free to explore multi intelligences, and express their thinking through any one of the 100 languages they possess – by ‘languages’ we mean all the ways we express ourselves that go beyond spoken or written words – all of which allowed them to unearth unique insights about their true self, others, and the world around them.

Spontaneous movement, provoked by background music.

Adult facilitators developed an understanding of …

… the importance of scaffolding learning. By utilizing a variety of ‘instructional techniques used to move students progressively toward stronger understanding and, ultimately, greater independence in the learning process’ (The Glossary of Educational Reform 2015) – also known as ‘scaffolding’ – the group of children were able to develop skills in self-reflection and collaboration (as mentioned above). In spending time reflecting as a team of facilitators – before, during, and after every workshop – potential opportunities to ‘go further’ would emerge whilst reviewing the documentation of the day; the facilitators role became one of provoking children to oscillate between the known and the unknown.

This movement between the Known and Unknown is a journey. Both expertise and exploration are necessary components, and the journey is an oscillation between the two.

Rill B. R., and Hamalainen M. M., 2018. The Art of Co-Creation: A Guidebook for Practitioners. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 30.

… the power of rapid prototyping. Playful prototyping – in this instance exploring sound – encouraged and enabled the expression of ideas, thinking and innovation.

Heath’s Real Clap Stretcher (™) really did make clapping in time so much easier. Imagine different sizes and coloured elastic bands for different tempos; you and your neighbours would never miss a beat again!

… the importance of foundational literacies. As the workshops progressed the importance of foundational literacies, e.g. literacy, numeracy, science, and so on (WEF 2015), and the relationship between a child’s competence in these literacies and them realising their ‘creative potential’ (Robinson 2001:131), became more and more evident. Sir Ken notes how ones ‘creative achievement’ is related to the control one has over ones ‘medium’ – the paintbrush of an artist or decorator, pen / pencil of a writer, or piano in terms of music.

‘Children and adults need the means and skills to be creative….These things need to be learnt and if they are not, the creative possibilities…are limited’

Robinson, K. (2001) Out of our minds: learning to be creative. UK: John Wiley & Sons, p. 131-132.

Within a school context children need valid reasons to want to develop certain skills. These skills could and should be introduced as and when it becomes evident that a child requires them; ideally when they show that they are ready, when they identify a desire to utilize and therefore learn a particular skill. Children then need to be given an array of opportunities to apply the skills they’ve acquired – creatively – and an array of opportunities that require skills that they don’t yet have; once again, this requires dancing between the known and unknown.

… the importance of the environment and their posture as facilitators. Rather than a predetermined curriculum or prescribed program of activities, delivered to children by adults, the ‘theme’ for the week – An inquiry into identity – was effectively realised through the provision of space. Facilitators were intentional about offering a cognitively, physically, spiritually and socio-emotionally diverse space, where the experiences, feelings, thinking and views of a group of unique children were welcomed, valued, respected, and celebrated.

In summary

Through a brief exploration of sound, children were able to embark on a journey of self-discovery – individually and collectively – a journey which enabled them to develop a range of foundational literacies, competencies, and character qualities (WEF 2015), in what was an authentic emerging context, rather than a ‘staged’ sterile environment. In learning how to share a space, and make room for the other – cognitively, physically, spiritually, and socio-emotionally – the children’s inquiry caused them to work alongside others with different viewpoints, empowered them to assign themselves roles in groups – based on skills, rather than age or gender – and led to a deeper understanding of sound and their true selves.


Rill B. R., and Hamalainen M. M., (2018). The Art of Co-Creation: A Guidebook for Practitioners. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan.

Robinson, K. (2001). Out of our minds: learning to be creative. UK: John Wiley & Sons.

The Glossary of Educational Reform (2015) Scaffolding [online], Available from[Accessed April 2019].

The World Economic Forum (2015). A New Vision for Education [online], Available from [Accessed April 2019].

Re-positioning the Curriculum

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In feeding-back findings from our world-wide research into child-centred inquiry-based approaches to education, we were asked which curriculum we are planning to use. Some parent-carers have concerns that the South African curriculum is not rigorous enough, and that it is not supporting children to develop skills they need to thrive in the 21st century; skills such as creativity, critical thinking / problem-solving, curiosity, and collaboration.

As parent-carers we need to be seeking spaces where our children can develop these skills.

But are we asking the right questions?

As we researched approaches to education around the world, approaches which enable children to develop knowledge, understanding and skills to fulfil their aspirations and relevant for today’s society, it was evident that every teacher we met, in every school, in every country, had to work within a prescribed curriculum. The curriculum wasn’t the limiting factor preventing children from developing skills but rather each teacher’s belief about the image of the child – and thus their approach to teaching and learning.

Allow me to explain further…

In 1968 Paulo Freire critiqued education systems that fail to ‘develop the critical consciousness which would result from [children’s] intervention in the world as transformers of that world’ (p. 47).

If we believe children are nothing more than empty vessels that need filling with information, then teaching and learning will be approached from the understanding that educators need to talk whilst students passively listen; in the hope that what is being downloaded can be regurgitated at a later point by the learner – a ‘feat’ for which they will be symbolically rewarded.

Education in this sense is about filling children with content, with little consideration given to application, analysing information or collaborative problem-solving.

In contrast, if we believe all children are competent, capable, creative and curious, then teaching and learning will be approached from the understanding that every child should actively participate in their own learning and development; educators / teachers here will work with students to determine what should be learnt and how best to learn it. Education in this sense ensures greater involvement and sustains interest; children discover for themselves in authentic situations, co-constructing knowledge with others, as they develop skills in creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration and innovation.

As we establish a school we start with the belief that every child is a unique individual who is competent, capable, creative and curious. As teachers our posture will therefore be one of provoking learning by facilitating engaging ‘projects’ in line with children’s interests.

The word progettazione is a concept we initially encountered in the Northern Italian city of Reggio Emilia, which is where we began our child-centred inquiry-based education research. Over the next 10 weeks we had the opportunity to experience similar expressions in various contexts, forms and languages all over the world. Although progettazione sounds a lot like the English word ‘project’ is it best understood as ‘design’, which articulates better what we mean by ‘project’. Education is not about off-the-shelf, prepackaged, or prescribed activities – with predetermined outcomes, scope or time-spans – but rather a learning trajectory that encourages children to explore an area, with others, through multiple lenses and directions.

A ‘flexible approach’ with ‘an openness to the unexpected and new thoughts’ of children and adults alike (Moss 2005:27).

Progettazione observes, interprets, and documents, ‘The ordinary moments and everyday experiences in the classroom’ (Kashin 2014). It is an approach that lends itself to an integration between subject areas. Most ‘moments’ and ‘experiences’ are worthy of exploration, but not all of them necessarily, ‘lead to an all-encompassing long-term project.’ Regardless of whether an inquiry is long or short, it is a collaborative approach that encourages the development of creative problem-solving, and self / social intelligence.

Working in this way requires staff to have a good grasp of educational milestones, with an understanding of the knowledge and skills children should be developing at certain stages. Curriculums for the various subjects outline this information. We imagine we will have a fusion of curriculums – from different countries – to ensure quality and high standards.

Over the last couple of months, we have been particularly exploring milestones within early childhood development (18 months to 5 year olds), and mathematics for 5 to 9 year olds. The curriculums at our school won’t dictate teaching and learning, but as children explore an area, experience, or moment – collaboratively solving the challenges they encounter – staff need to be able to identify which areas of the curriculum are being fulfilled and consider how to provoke further learning. This may sound messy, but none of us work or learn in silos. Our interests enable us to explore an area through multiple lenses, with seamless connections between disciplines.

‘We need an education that values different modes of intelligence and sees relationships between disciplines. To achieve this there must be a balance of priorities between the arts, sciences and humanities in education and in the forms of thinking they promote. They should be taught in ways that reflect their intimate connections in the world beyond’

Sir Ken Robinson 2001. Out of our Minds, p. 201.


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An equal and integrated South African society, which begins with citizens – children, their parents-carers, and the wider communities that they represent – learning how to live together, through the provision of education that is high quality, diverse and accessible.


Quality Education

Research shows that quality education requires a child-centred inquiry-based approach to learning where children can develop C21st skills in the foundational literacies of science, technology, mathematics, and languages – not just ‘spoken’ languages, but through a variety of medium, e.g.

‘drawing, painting, building clay and wire sculpture, shadow play, collage, dramatic play, music, and emerging writing, to name a few’

Edwards C., Gandini L., and Forman G., 2012. The One Hundred Languages of Children: the Reggio Emilia Experience of Transformation. Santa Barbara: Praeger, p. 7.

Children develop competencies as they respond to complex challenges creatively, critically and collaboratively, all within a context where character qualities of curiosity, initiative, adaptability and leadership are valued (The World Economic Forum 2015, A New Vision for Education).

We are committed to being a school where the capabilities, creativity, curiosity and intelligence of every child is recognized and encouraged, as they actively participate in their education and development; voicing, shaping, forming and creating their future (Cagliari 2012:195).

Quality education involves making space to unlock the potential that all children possess to be the co-creators of a future South Africa that is equal and integrated.

Diverse Education

Facilitating diversity within the classroom is central to a school’s ability to offer quality education. Studies show that, ‘Diverse groups do best at complex problems and innovation when the facts aren’t clear: each individual’s perspective allows him or her to tackle challenges differently, and, when stuck, rely on others’ differing points of views to progress’ (The World Economic Forum 2018, Why diversity is more important than Talent).

We are therefore committed to establishing an approach to education that is intentionally inter-cultural, in a school where children, educators and parent-carers develop deeper understanding, appreciation and respect for all cultures through the mutual exchange of ideas about the past, present and future (The Spring Institute, 2016).

“We will find the future in places where new forms of human coexistence, participation, and co-participation are tried out….It is necessary for us to learn this unity in diversity, and this diversity in unity”

Rinaldi, 2001. Making Learning Visible: children as individuals and groups. p. 45.

As we seek, celebrate and embrace diversity, no one is left unchanged, because we all learn from one another (The Spring Institute, 2016).

Accessible Education

As one of the world’s top 10 culturally and ethnically diverse countries, at the tip of the most diverse continent on the planet, South Africa has one of the most sought after resources to facilitate the world’s best education system – diversity. To facilitate a diverse, quality education accessible across South Africa’s socio-economic divides – which currently dictate that, ‘…if you’ve got money, you have a better education’ (Gallie 2015) – requires proximity to diverse communities and an innovative fee structure.

Calculating school fees on an income-based sliding scale increases access to quality and diverse education, which nurtures the foundational literacies in a character building context that develops the competencies that every child requires to thrive in the 21st Century. In 2016 we asked one hundred parent-carers whether they’d be prepared to pay school fees calculated based on their household income; 86% of parent-carers said ‘Yes’ – they would – provided that the education their child received was ‘high quality’.

Praxis – how we realize the theory

The image of the child

Every child is a unique individual who is capable, intelligent, creative and curious. To fulfill their potential, children need to be active participants in their learning and development. In our school, educators will work alongside / with students to determine what should be learnt and how best to learn it. A child-centred inquiry-based approach to education ensures greater involvement and sustains interest; learners discover for themselves in authentic situations, constructing knowledge with others. Our approach will enable children to develop knowledge, understanding and skills which are necessary to fulfill their aspirations and relevant for today’s society; competencies that help them approach complex challenges through critical thinking / problem-solving, creativity, communication and collaboration.

Staff posture

In order to believe, encourage, and support children – as they fulfill their holistic potential – teachers – just like the students (children) they teach – need to see themselves as capable, creative, curious, intelligent and active participants as they teach, learn and develop. Class teachers and the school’s leadership model what it means to be life-long learners as they dialogue, listen, observe, provoke learning, research, respect thinking, welcome questions, and work with each students’ unique cultural experiences, ideas and views. To ensure an intentionally intercultural context that encourages exploration, teaching and learning, staff will plan, teach, review, reflect and re-plan collaboratively, as a team.

The Environment

The school environment will provoke learning and discovery by making space for children to express and explore their creativity. ‘Modern Learning Environments’ (MLEs) are adaptable, changing, emerging, full of possibilities, interconnected, limitless, open, always varied, with different levels, perspectives and points of view. Children will be encouraged to use various learning spaces, and move freely between disciplines, both inside and outside (example, right).

The built-environment will be conducive to the cognitive, physical, spiritual and socio-emotional development of 21st Century character qualities such as curiosity, initiative, persistence, adaptability, leadership and social / cultural awareness.

Relationships with parent-carers

Establishing, sustaining and developing quality, diverse and accessible education in praxis is the shared responsibility of the school’s leadership and staff team, the child, and their parent-carers / the wider community. Research shows that where parent-carers are co-learning, committed and contributors to their child’s education, those children are more motivated (Okeke, 2014).

As the leadership, and teaching staff of a quality, diverse and accessible school, we will be intentional about developing genuine, meaningful and mutually beneficial relationships with parent-carers, and the diverse communities represented in the school, by prioritizing practices, rhythms, and ‘ways of being’ that accommodate, celebrate and promote relationships that are welcoming, inclusive and life-enriching for all.

Will all this competition be death of us?

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I woke up, glanced at the previous night’s football results – as I always do before jumping into the shower / bath – and, as soon as my head hit the water, I surprised myself with a thought:

“What would life be like without all this competition?’

It’s not that the team I follow are doing badly, in fact they’re top of the league (as I write), but what is it that makes me want the team below to lose so badly? Should I really care that much? What difference does caring about something I can neither control nor contribute to make anyway? Surely I’d be better off starting my day focusing on something I can influence?

The more I reflect on sport, education, daily life, the more I’m sensitized to just how much is about winning vs. losing. Reflect on it for a minute with me. What does it say about the value we place on the poetic and expressive languages we all possess when Grammys, Man bookers, Oscars, elevate the few? To judge art as “good” or “bad” misses the purpose of art – surely? In Britain there is an Honours System that rewards achievement, bravery, service, etc. Every year it feels like sport is the closest thing to knights on horseback. Call me naive, but I’d like to think the thought of a reward wasn’t what drove most of these people towards chivalry.

To do your best, make the A team, ‘ace’ that test, get ahead, and win at all costs, represent some of the many competitive narratives that mommy’s little champion and / or daddy’s precious princess can expect to enter at birth. When a young child receives comments like ‘Aren’t you just gorgeous’ or ‘That is such a beautiful picture’ or ‘If you just do X, then you can have Y’ then there is a real danger they’ll spend their lifetime seeking extrinsic rewards.

In Creating cultures of thinking, author Ron Ritchaart suggests competition is, ‘practically baked into our system of education, in which rankings, GPAs, and exam scores are used as measures of accomplishment and criteria for admission to university programs.’ Ritchaart questions the idea that learning needs to be competitive (p. 27-28), and encourages us to:

…settle for nothing less than environments that bring out the best in people, take learning to the next level, allow for great discoveries, and propel both the individual and the group forward into a lifetime of learning’

Ritchaart (p. 5,6).

Similarly, the author Brian McLaren (2012), questions the kind of world we’ve created with our historically hostile narratives of assimilation, competition, domination, isolation, purification, revolution, and self-preservation. He asks if we wouldn’t all be better off with benevolence, collaboration, community, hospitality, inclusion, generosity, unity, solidarity? Crafting a different story for schools, Ritchaart asks educators, parents & citizens to consider:

  • What if schools were less about preparing students for tests and more about preparing them for a lifetime of learning?
  • What if schools measured success not by what individuals did on exams but by what groups were able to accomplish together?
  • What if schools took the development of students’ intellectual character as their highest calling?
  • What if understanding and application of skills and knowledge rather than the acquisition of knowledge were the goal?
  • What if students were really engaged in their learning rather than merely compliant in the process of school as it is done to them?
  • What if students had more control of their learning?

In this new narrative, ‘…classrooms, and organizations become places in which a group’s collective as well as individuals’ thinking is valued, visible, and actively promoted as part of the regular, day-to-day experience of all group members’ (p. 29-31). Its reminiscent of primary schools in New Zealand, where 3 classes of up to 30 children share ‘modern learning environments’ that are flexible enough to facilitate learning as one large collaborative, in ability groups, small groups – working independently or alongside a teacher -pairs, or alone.

Although New Zealand was one of our last stops as we researched what the world has to offer in terms of quality education over 10 weeks in 2018, it was the first place I was struck by how teachers’ belief in the capability, creativity, curiosity, intelligence and active participation of children in their learning, meant they didn’t just encourage collaboration but expected children to share their challenges, insights, learning, observations, thinking, etc., because we arrive that the best by building on the ideas of others. Schools in Blenheim, on the Northern tip of New Zealand’s South Island, practiced what Ron Ritchaart calls ‘ice-creaming’ – where children’s ideas develop, emerge, expand, form, and so on, as they rest on the foundations that are created by the preceding ideas of other children in their class.

Teachers at the best child-centred inquiry based schools we experienced around the world modeled a collaborative non-competitive culture in the way that they planned, documented children’s learning, reflected together and taught: co-learning alongside their leadership, peers, children and parents.

As the future leaders of the school in South Africa, Rachel and I have a growing sense of the importance of creating a culture which wakes up to the possibilities of collaboration – to the potential of ‘us’ – and how this will be fundamental as we seek to facilitate quality, diverse and accessible education. The dynamic balance between assessment, whilst encouraging intrinsic motivation intrigues me.

Is it possible to create a culture where children – from a very young age – record, review, reflect and redirect their own learning? Will greater self awareness mean children will know how to be the best versions of themselves, not in competition but collaboration with others?

While they may seem contradictory, the two leadership pillars of self awareness – identifying motivating core values and beliefs – and ingenuity – embracing new approaches, strategies, ideas and cultures – are intimately linked. Energy is created when they fuse

Lowney C., 2005. Heroic Leadership, p.250).

Parenting and Education

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January is upon us, and within the next couple of weeks, children in South Africa will start to embark on a new school year (our school year runs from January to December). But what are our responsibilities as parent/s? How can we have a positive influence on our children’s education? What kind of environment can we as parent/s provide to support our children to develop in to adults who are creative, curious, critical thinkers, problem solvers, innovative, collaborative, inclusive, motivated, and have purpose?

When I (Rachel) think back to our son being 3-years-old, he was naturally curious. Zac would ask endless questions, which we, as parents, would do our best to respond to appropriately; not always giving an answer, sometimes asking him what he thought, or asking another question to provoke him to go deeper and stretch his thinking. Observing and listening to him as he explored through play revealed a rich imagination and incredible creativity, as he searched for solutions to the situations that he faced or had constructed himself. We, as parents, did not need to teach him these skills, as Wagner highlights:

‘…human beings are born with an innate desire to explore, experiment and imagine new possibilities … to innovate.’

Wagner T., 2012. Creating Innovators, p.26.

As Zac moved in to the school space he wanted to learn to read and write, he had a desire to develop the more formal skills of communication and had an inquisitive mind when it came to numbers. He learnt as he explored and played with others. So, as I reflect on my own experiences as a parent, and think about establishing quality education for others, I wonder what can we do to encourage and nurture these ‘child-like’ qualities, if our children are naturally curious, wanting to experiment and learn?

Wagner, in the writing and development of his book Creating Innovators, spoke to a number of parent/s of children who have become innovators and entrepreneurs, both in the social sphere and in the field of science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM); parent/s who all supported their child’s interests and natural curiosity. Through his research he found many commonalities in the way parent/s supported their children, including:

  • providing home environments where children were free to discover, to experiment, to explore their questions and find answers
  • providing toys / activities / resources that supported their child’s imagination and creativity
  • encouraging risk taking and learning through trial and error
  • not over structuring their children’s time after school, so children had space to explore, play, discover etc.
  • encouraging reading for pleasure
  • spending time as a family
  • supporting their children as they pursued their interests

Above all, what these parent/s had in common was a deep respect for their child’s interests and abilities; embracing who their child was. They were intentional in offering different activities related to their child’s interests and passions. Parent/s believed in their child’s dreams, encouraging them within this, rather than worrying about a career. They listened to their children’s ideas, dialoguing with them as they explored challenging areas and developed the value of giving back and making a difference.


Reflecting on Wagner’s research, there are definitely areas where I want to improve, so I can support my son (now 18-years-old), as he seeks to pursue his dream and fulfill his potential.

Maybe this has touched on something that you – whether you’re a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, and so on – would also like to develop in the year/s ahead; if so, why not spend a bit more time reflecting on the last two paragraphs (above)…

  1. Take the time to read through the last few paragraphs again.
  2. Highlight the areas where you are doing well.
  3. Highlight one area which you know you need to focus on in order to support your child, grandchild, nephew or niece etc. Break this down. Decide one thing you can do in the next few days and build on it.

‘As a parent, what is most important is to respect your children and to listen, but not to be too free. There have to be limits, boundaries, structure. But too much of this – of teaching them to be obedient – can kill the creative impulse. The challenge is to balance respect for authority with constructive engagement and constructive rebellion – teaching your kids to be strong, but giving them the walls to push against. You can’t separate innovation from disobedience. But you can’t be an innovator and rob banks’

Semyon Dukach