Play-Park Pedagogy for Trojan Mice

Posted on April 20, 2013


Since writing my post about Trojan Mice for March’s Pedagoo London event I have been extremely flattered by the support for the concept by many people here on twitter and in the blogosphere. It seems that the core message (that we work in a complex adaptive education system and so must embrace practitioner-led, classroom-focused, small-scale innovation as the central plank for school improvement) resonates with class teachers and school leaders equally.

At the same time as accepting the bouquets though, I have been administering a brickbat or two of my own to my own theory. Most notably I have been asking myself how a complex adaptive, or Trojan Mouse, approach can possibly be cultivated by school leaders in a way that is purposeful for the institution and supportive for the individual. And finally, after a month or so of consideration, the answer has come to me in a flash or inspiration whilst watching my daughter investigate, evaluate and master the apparatus at a brand new playpark.

As I was watching her make sense of the new equipment, I realised that she was not unlike many of the teachers I work with in the way in which they interact with teaching methodologies and techniques. Let me explain:

Some of the pieces of apparatus were new and shiny (or at least they looked so to her because of their new packaging and shiny colours). Naturally these were the ones she was attracted to initially. She stopped and stared at them at first, trying to work them out. The observed other children playing on them to see how they got on and to learn from their successes and their mistakes. She then threw herself at the new equipment and had a go, sometimes successfully and sometimes less so. She didn’t wait for the outcomes of randomised control trials. She learnt from success and learnt even more from failure. She became proficient and, in some cases, set herself on the path to mastery (and trust me it has already felt like 10,000 hours that we have been there!!!).

Other pieces of equipment were like old friends to her. Although these weren’t the ones she went to first they are the ones she is increasingly gravitating to because she knows what she can do and knows that she achieves success with these because she has already done the 10,000 hours or so on them. The repetition is part of the joy, as is the ability to amaze other children with her adeptness on these pieces of equipment (can’t think where she got this showiness from!).

As I said earlier, all of this got me thinking about how schools are like play parks (or perhaps how pedagogy itself is like a play park) in that as we enter the arena of lesson planning we see in front of us a range of teaching strategies that we can deploy to help convey the core knowledge to students whilst strengthening their skill base. We can rely on old favourites, try completely new strategies, revisit once-familiar techniques or (perhaps most importantly for this play park analogy) mix and match a range of teaching strategies for each class to reflect our moods, the nature of the learning we wish to prioritise, the ethos of the individual groups or even the specific students within these groups, and so on and so on.

The truth of the matter is that although teachers do have a tendency to default to a dominant mode when the pressure is on (unless they are busy doing something untried and untested for Ofsted being the cantankerously counterintuitive profession we are) the majority of us spend our days slipping in and out of a multiplicity of techniques, showing mastery of many in the process. I wonder if many other professions find the need to do what is essentially the same task in so many different ways as do teachers. I rather think not. And although it can be self-defeating at times (how many of you have spent hours rewriting perfectly serviceable lesson plans in a desire to improve it from last year?) it is a sign of how seriously we take our work, how complex and adaptive is our education system and how responsive we are to the needs of the specific students we teach.

And so, given that I was still watching my daughter, I began thinking about the kinds of teaching approaches that are visible in the Pedagogical Play Park. Forgive me the extended metaphors and, of course, the mixed ones but I think that there may be something in this.

Swing Pedagogy
This is one of the staples of the teaching play park. It is the nuts and bolts stuff we learnt as students and NQTs which started with people pushing us to get us moving. It is techniques such as whole class discussion and student independent working. As we learnt the cadence of the job we began to grow confident in the upswing of teacher action and the downswing of student response. Remember those “I do, you do, I do, you do” lesson plans from the early part of your career?

And although this largely transactional approach to pedagogy can be dull to watch and repetitive in its motions, it is a beautifully reciprocal model of teaching and learning (teaching and learning, teaching and learning) that can grow stronger through repetition. It is also a model that, with greater exertion on the upswing by teachers and greater confidence on the downswing by students, can lead to that magical point where the stomach flips and the eyes can see for miles.

Slide Pedagogy
This form of pedagogy is, in its very essence, deferred gratification in action. Think about it: we ascend trudgingly to the top of the steps (and for some slides this is a lot of steps) often behind a number of others before sliding down the same distance in a fraction of the time. In teaching these are the activities that take us a long time to plan and take the students a very short time to complete. Now I have a particular bee in my bonnet about this form of Play Park Pedagogy because it has become dominant in the National Strategies era. Think Diamond Nines and other card sorts and you’ll know what I mean. Over reliance on this teaching style is a spirit-sapper, a morale-killer and, ultimately, a career-shortener.

But used infrequently and with careful thought as to how the outcomes of these activities can be sustained beyond the attention span of an amnesiac goldfish, Slide Pedagogy can lead to the fireworks display moments in our careers (I’m really mixing the metaphors here, folks): the times we and our students will never forget. Putting a lot of effort in for seemingly little reward may be as sustainable as having fireworks displays all year round (and who would really want that anyway) but we all need an ooh and an aah from time to time.

Roundabout Pedagogy
These are the teaching strategies that foster collaboration and interdependence. Watch children on a roundabout and you’ll see the very essence of cooperation and shared working. You’ll also see a lot of injuries as they fall (or jump) off and arguments as they establish their roles and responsibilities. You’ll also see very few adults involved once the spinning starts, but a lot of them looking on feeling sick on behalf of their children. These features aren’t too dissimilar to those encountered by children and adults in the classroom where the learning is done collaboratively in groups.

Whilst there may be a lot on the surface to recommend Roundabout Pedagogy, it’s worth remembering that adults are perhaps the most valuable (certainly the most expensive) asset in the classroom and that we ought not throw our professionalism baby out with with didactic bathwater. We may even want to keep the bathwater!! Too many lessons with students at the helm calling the shots can be as disorienting and discombobulating for the students themselves as an extended spell on the roundabout. Learner-led learning isn’t an unconditionally bad thing, but nor is it an unconditionally good thing.

Zipwire Pedagogy
Ahhh, zipwires. Perhaps the one piece of equipment in a play park that promises the most in theory and delivers the least in reality. Viewed from a distance these teaching strategies (often found in teaching manuals, on twitter or from watching ‘Dangerous Minds’ or ‘Dead Poets’ Society’) look enervating, exciting, exotic and enticing: like something from a Bond movie. But then, somehow, once you transplant them into your own classroom they seem ordinary, or awful, awkward and generally awe-less. They just don’t work like they’re supposed to. In play-parks the reason for this lies in the risk-averse, health and safety, washed-out, anodyne and generally joyless nature of children’s play (go have an afternoon in the padded cell hell of a soft-play centre if you don’t believe me). And the answer to this? A parent who applies

So if we are to make Zipwire Pedagogy work for us our role as teachers is to remove some of the safety features in our planning. If we are to take risks then let’s take them properly and make the learning genuinely exciting for students. Let’s oil the Zipwire for extra pace in their learning or incline the angle for extra thrill in their learning or push them as hard as we can for that extra kick to their learning. In short we need not to borrow seemingly wonderful ideas and expect them to create wonder in our classrooms, but remember that we are one of the essential ingredients of wondrousness for our students.

Monkey Bar Pedagogy
Monkey bars are my daughter’s favourite: the apparatus she keeps returning to and the one at which she is most adept. She has tremendous strength in her hands and upper arms and has truly mastered the rhythm of her swinging so that she can easily traverse the largest distance both forwards and backwards. And she did this through hours and hours of independent learning. She conquered her fear of the height. She conquered her worries about letting go of one bar to grasp the next. She conquered her frustrations at not being able to generate the amount of swing she needed. She conquered her crossness at failing to make it all the way across.

Any parent will tell you that the Monkey Bars are the one piece of apparatus in a play-park where you can’t do it for them. You have to cajole in order to cultivate an ethos of courage, creativity and consolation, and rely on their metaphoric cojones to do the rest. Similarly in our classrooms – using Monkey Bar Pedagogy – there are times when we need them to do it alone, encounter difficulty and failure, learn from their mistakes and reflection, then do it better and better until they get it right (or as right as they can).

Climbing Frame Pedagogy
Climbing frames are the showiest pieces of equipment in a play-park, combining elements of most other pieces of apparatus. They require a range of skills from the children who use them, not least of all the metacognitive skill of being able to select which skill to deploy at any one time. In classes I have observed the best example of Climbing Frame Pedagogy I have come across is SOLO stations, where students identify themselves where to start in terms of their understanding of a topic and then progress through a range of activities to deepen and extend that understanding.

There are limitations with climbing frames though. Sometimes children stick with what they find easy and avoid what is less certain to them. The role of a parent in this situation is simply to be around and offer suggestions that make it safe for children to leave their comfort zones. In the classroom it can be easy to set up multi-activity ‘stations’ and then leave the students to it, trusting them to select well. But we all know those students who will choose unwisely, some who are overambitious and others who will play it safe. I’m a great fan of those surveilling teachers who can, once they have set a group of students off on tasks, maintain a watching brief that stops them from being dragged unnecessarily into more work (when they have already done theirs) but allows them to identify with laser-like precision who needs what help and when. That is the essence of Climbing Frame Pedagogy.

Outdoor Gym Pedagogy
The most recent addition to British play-parks is the outdoor gym, aimed mainly at adults but try keeping an 8-year old off them!!!! These pieces of apparatus are intended to be less about play and more about focused development but can be great fun nonetheless. In terms of the classroom I would suggest that Outdoor Gym Pedagogy is the mode I am most likely to slip into in the final few weeks before Y11 or Sixth Form students sit their external exams. In these lessons EVERYTHING is geared towards those externally set exam criteria and strengthening students’ ability to take what they know and make the most of it given the structure of the exam paper itself.

Outdoor Gym Pedagogy is excellent in short bursts at these times but just as my daughter loses interest in these ‘healthy’ apparatus (in a way that she never does with any of the stuff listed above) we need to be aware of overdoing the exam criteria lessons. With such a focus on assessment for learning, modular courses, the re-sit culture and, latterly, controlled assessments we have headed a long way down the path of making learning a joyless activity for many students past the age of 14. And the irony of it all is that we don’t need exam skills lessons to make learning effective, just as we don’t need outdoor gyms to make play active and healthy.

Play-Park Pedagogy
So why is this little piece of whimsy (far more whimsical than wisdom-filled) the next stage in my thinking about a Trojan Mouse approach to leadership of teaching and learning at a whole school level? Where is my advice for school leaders? Why have I barely mentioned leaders and only talked about teachers and students? Well, I suppose that that last question is rather the point of this post, and of the full range of my developing philosophy on the development of a Trojan Mouse approach to pedagogy.

The place within the Play-Park Pedagogy that I would like to see reserved for school leaders is the bench shown in the picture above. Too often school leaders try to dictate what piece of apparatus teachers and students play on. Through the INSET they deliver or the pedaguru-scribed tomes they proffer or the courses they sanction or the subjective judgements they make in observations or the examples they hold themselves up to be, they send the message that teachers must teach in this way and that students must learn in that way.

Instead we should devote much more of our time to watching and listening to our teachers make sense of each piece of Play-Park Pedagogy for themselves. We need to see them interact with other teachers in ways that demonstrate the mutuality of schools at their very best. We need to hear the squeals of joy and the groans of frustration as they he things right and get things wrong in equal measure (for how can we tell students that failure is okay if we don’t do so for adults?). We need to feel the sense of energy that is generated by individuals when they really master a technique or a tool for effective learning.

And at the end of the day, when the sun sets on the Play-Park Pedagogy and the chill of the evening descends, we need to gather up our observations and our understanding garnered through careful listening and talk to our teachers about what they’ve done, what they’ve enjoyed, what success they’ve had, what struggles they’ve encountered and what they’ve learned from these two equal imposters. And then we need to think about how we can give them more time in the play-park, more time to play, more time to learn from each other and more time to grow as individuals and as teachers.