What kind of toy is your brain?

“If little else, the brain is an educational toy. The problem with possessing such an engaging toy is that other people want to play with it, too. Sometimes they’d rather play with yours than theirs. Or they object if you play with yours in a different manner from the way they play with theirs. The result is, a few games out of a toy department of possibilities are universally and endlessly repeated. If you don’t play some people’s game, they say that you have “lost your marbles,” not recognizing that, while Chinese checkers is indeed a fine pastime, a person may also play dominoes, chess, strip poker, tiddlywinks… or Russian roulette with his brain.” Tom Robbins ‘Even Cowgirls Get the Blues’.

I like this quote. Mainly because, as you might have gathered by now, I think that Tom Robbins generally fires ideas right into the bull’s eye of truth, but also because he realises that people have different sorts of minds. Ken Robinson (another one of my intellectual pin-ups, as you know) explores this idea of wondrous human variety in his famous talk about how schools kill creativity. Trainee teachers are taught to ‘differentiate’ the work in their lessons, and plan for the types of learning styles: ‘visual’, ‘auditory’ and ‘kinaesthetic’. But what about the guy who learns science best when painting, or remembers complex numerical sequences listening to really loud music? It is a true shame that there simply cannot be space for everyone’s own way of learning to take place at the same time and in the same room during a 50-minute lesson. We hope that the children who come to the Hackney Pirates have more of a space for this tailored learning, whether because they are receiving individualised support from their volunteer, or because we get them to dance, record films or write on the walls.

This week we have been pointed in the direction of Purpos/ed, an online organisation with ambitious aims. It states that it is ‘going to change the world’, and describes itself as ‘a non-partisan, location-independent organization aiming to kickstart a debate around the question: What’s the purpose of education?’ I’ll throw my piece of eight in for good measure. In my opinion, education in its most simple form is about creating an individual who can make their own way through life doing things well; a person who is equipped to make a mark on the world and able to make their voice heard. Sometimes children can’t understand the long-game of learning, especially if they are not given the opportunity to practise what they learn along the way. They find it hard to equate the exercise-book-mulch that they are forced to churn out in Period 3 on a Tuesday morning, with skills that will enable them to write reports at work, complete tax returns and romp home with a pocketful of dough after a day at the races.

I was taught Latin when I was seven. I didn’t see the point. It wasn’t until A-level Spanish class that I did, but now being able to stumble my way through a conversation with a Spanish-speaker is one of the delights of my life. A boy I taught in North London expressed a similar frustration when I was trying to persuade him of the importance of grammar. Me: ‘Come on Jeff, remember what you need to do at the start of a sentence?’ Jeff: ‘Don’t be extra, Miss. This time in 3 months, I’ll be on the site helping my dad and I won’t need no punctuation ever again’. Me: ‘But I assure you that at some point in your life you will need to know how to write, and I’m only trying to help you to do that’. (Oh how pompous teachers can sound…) Jeff: ‘Whatever, like you can help me live my life! I’d like to see you laying bricks.’ You get the idea. One wonderful thing that we are able to give the children at the Hackney Pirates is the chance to practise the skills they learn at school; to correct that missing capital letter because they are publishing a book, or updating a website. The real-world outcomes they see are relevant to them and are immediately consumed and valued by others. Effectively, we are educating them by stealth. Our Pirates are seeing past the dingy obstruction of National Curriculum levels and SATS tests, and using their skills because they are focused on the end goal. They are energised and motivated to make something great of their work because they can carve out something individual, in response to something they love. To bulldozer straight into Robbins’s metaphor, our pirates can tiddlywink right onto the river card, bet on black in a hand of dominoes, check mate the roulette table, and still win.

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