This fast-paced world bombards all of us with messages, both of the intelligible and the inane kinds, with relative ease. Sorting through that clutter is far less easy or relaxing. As educators, of course, we soon learn to be attuned to listening out for the real needs of our constituents, whether fellow teachers, parents, or the pupils themselves.

As I have worked in education – mostly in middle and secondary – over the past three decades, it has seemed to me that the pupil voice regularly is the most interesting of the three. There is a fantastic freshness, and honesty, about how children can express themselves. About what they desire to know. It may be a commonplace to hear the phrase, “If you want the truth, listen to a child,” but that fact does make it any less true.

Although working much more in school administration in these latter years, there still is nothing better than to escape from the confines of one’s office and to head out, to explore the corridors, and classroom offshoots, throughout the school. It so happened that today, a Monday, after teaching a class on “Beowulf” to Primary 5s (to cover for a teacher), I also took a one hour debate class in After-school Activities

There, during the five minutes warm-up, getting the children to reflect on their experiences that day, one child responded to a question of mine by saying, “Today I asked my teacher, ‘How it is that we remember what we learn?’” Yes, asking any question pretty well is easier than getting the answer, definitive or otherwise. Understood. But these words Pedro uttered this afternoon engendered a great conversation among the children (mostly Primary 4s and 5s) in the room. Rarely intervening, only to guide, I sat back and admired.

Remembering what we learn begs the great question of exactly what is learned. So, ‘Why do we present X and Y to be learned by our pupils?’

It is said that (especially in this technologically ultra-modern world), our knowledge, and to a lesser extent, skills, will become obsolete all the faster. Children today, it seems to me, really need to be convinced that the material placed in front of them at school really is apt. Life is short (it always was) and they are getting ready to use the things learned (knowledge and skills) in school in real, practical ways. And they truly sense it, too.

Too often we confidently stand in front of our pupils, not unlike the three peculiar and unsympathetic visitors to a classroom in Chapter 1 of Dickens’s “Hard Times,” and ‘dominate’ the conversation. ‘This is our curriculum and this is exactly what we have decided to do. Children, tag along.’ My thesis is not to hand over the keys of the asylum, no! But, we need timely reminders that more pupil-directed learning has such advantages.

Pedro very fairly had asked how we do we hang on to what we have learned. Well, just like that. My experience convinces me that giving children plenty of responsibility – in an age-appropriate way – is healthy to their overall formation and, moreover, effective as regards the retention of what is learned. We try, then, to get them to self-reflect a lot. In Kindergarten it is an ongoing oral exercise. It is, too, in Primary, but reinforced through their pithy written entries at the end of the week in their Agendas. ‘What was learned well, and why?’ ‘What was learned well, and how?’

Our Kindergarten and Primary curriculum programmes uses plenty of project work. Just as I admired the conversation in debate this afternoon, so I heartily concur with my Kindergarten Coordinator, Ms. Emma, who, in a recent interview with me, reiterated her belief that children know a lot more than we give them credit for.

Young though they are, there are so many personal experiences that they can share. Today, in discussing the aforementioned Anglo-Saxon hero, Beowulf, the Primary 5 children dissected what the term “monster” meant to them. (Beowulf has to face a particularly deadly dragon, a challenge which J. R. R. Tolkien would have heartily approved.) Many of the children made reference to younger siblings and their general beliefs in creatures in the cupboard and under the stairs, coyly admitting that they, too, had been susceptible to such fears. A text that is some 1,300 years old became decidedly contemporary…and apt. ‘How do we tick?’’ ‘Why do so many children experience fears?’ ‘What are the best ways to conquer them?’ “Do those methods work?’ In no time, psychologists all!

Tom M. J. Wingate