I am as deep into George Monbiot’s Feral as he is in ling, or wrack, or any other dense vegetation he encounters as he travels through the book. His view of nature and landscape is only dwarfed by this vision of what might be or what might have been in the “re-wilding” of Europe, of Britain in particular:

The sward on the verge was an exuberance of colours as rich as the Lord Mayor’s Show. Here were dropping red spikes of sorrel, golden bird’s foot trefoil like Quaker bonnets, the delicate umbels of pignut, heath milkwort – some pink, some blue – red campion and cut-leaved cranesbill. Here were little white flowers of eyebright, with egg yolk on their tongues, dark figworts, which released a foxy smell when I ran my hand through them,, purple knapweed, pink and white yarrow, foxglove, mouse ear, male fern, deep cushions of bedstraw, wild raspberry, heath speedwell, hogweed and willowherb…

It is as lyrical a use of plant names as any poet might employ.

His wrath at the violation of his vision employs the poetics of the fire-and-brimstone preacher, and while he is at home with the humour of black cat spotting, and has an eye for the quirky detail when talking about beavers or woolly rhinos, he reserves a particular distaste for the “sepia-toned” conservationist who seeks to preserve rather than rewild. Monbiot hits out at the Nazi sympathies of Konrad Lorenz and the “strong suite of what might have been psychopathic traits” of Joy Adamson. This is a not a man to mince his words.

And it is this keen sense of how poor our vision of landscape is, how bound up in the artificialities of the pastoral that is the most intriguing thing for me. The imperialist and imperious “assemblage of species” that Monbiot attacks is at the heart of young children’s literature; the re-presentation of the desired, the nostalgic landscape that provides setting but also instructs the reader: this is where the narrative happens, but also this is how the outdoors should be.

Reader beware, therefore: if Red Grouse are a “key indicator” (a view challenged by Monbiot at one point), I worry that so are the small, mixed woodlands and rolling hills and small fields of the Each Peach Pear Plum, or the quiet country lanes of Joe’s Cafe, or the magnificent spread of scenery in Bear Hunt.

Addendum, Easter Tuesday

The latest in the Guardian from George Monbiot. I may come back to this.

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Outdoor Learning Whan That Aprille With His Shoures Soote

Two things coincide tomorrow (Tues 1st April) that I am involved in: Whan That Aprille Day, Maistre Chaucer-off-Twitter’s way of celebrating ancient languages, and the Oxford Brookes Learning and Teaching Conference. I am tweeting about one, and giving a paper (more of a napkin or even a serviette, really) on whether students need to go outside to learning about outdoor learning.  This is my punt:

While many people writing about the nature of young children’s learning underline the importance of first-hand experience (e.g. Fisher 2013; Canning 2013), little attention has yet been paid to whether teaching adults about young children outdoors is best done through practical experience. This session would aim to look at:

  • what elements of outdoors learning for young children can most effectively be translated into adult experience and why.
  • whether practical experience of being outside adds substantially to the students’ understanding of young children’s learning.
  • whether experience of being outdoors should be an integral part of the “learning journey” of a programme that does not have a required professional output such as QTS.

Canning N (2013) “‘Where’s the bear? Over there!’ – creative thinking and imagination in den making” Early Child Development and Care, Volume 183, Number 8, 1 August 2013 , pp. 1042-1053(12)

Fisher J (2013, 4th ed) Starting from the Child. Maidenhead: Open University Press

And I thought, foolishly, that translating some of my powerpoint into Latin would be a good thing to do. Maybe just the title of the module I’m talking about.

Translating Outdoor Learning in the Early Years seems a good enough project until you realise that outdoor learning is not an easily translated, and neither is Early Years. Neither concept is really around in classical Rome, although of course both education and  the joys of the locus amoenus are well documented.

What kind of learning are we talking about? Eruditio? No, that’s not it. DoctrinaEducatio? Ah, but is learning the same as education? Even if we can translate “learning” as “education,” will that fit? Disciplina? Well, that begs the question as to whether outdoor learning is a set of skills and cultural practices: maybe it is. Perhaps the verb-noun infinitive of a word like cognosco? Hmmm. Well then, disco? How’s about a gerund, signifying “something that is to be taught”? A plural form?

Tomorrow the title of Module U70124 (Cursus U70124) will be Discenda (those things which should be learned) Puerilia (in childhood) Extranea (to do with being outside). I am uncomfortably aware that cognates of another possibility, eruditio puerilis extranea, come very close to extraneous and puerile erudtion.

Absit omen.

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Black Dogs

I want to move away from “my” wolves and werewolves to their cousin, Black Shuck.

Black Shuck, the demon dog whose appearance heralds death, is a now-forgotten standard of English Folklore. He is well represented here, in what could be his homeland of East Anglia.  Linked in Wikipedia and elsewhere with Viking tales of Odin (the creature’s other name, the Grim, who makes a guest appearance along with so many other mythic animals in Harry Potter, has cognate names in various Scandinvaian legends), this is a terrifying creature that has a lot in common – in shock value at least – with the werewolf, and with the hound-like aliens of Attack the Block. Somewhere in our catalogue of things we are frightened of is the sudden, vicious attack that the canine embodies. The Black Dog also makes another appearance, for example at the heels of Winston Churchill, and I’ll be coming back to that in a minute.

Jack Zipes’ still wonderful study of Red Riding Hood that I come back to again and again suggests that Red Riding Hood changes or is changed by storytellers to meet the concerns of the audience over the years. The wolf, too, alters appearance and character, and not just in RRH: sexually predatory, or gluttonous, a wargus  and a killer like Robin Hood or Long Lankin, his defeat in most versions makes the story bearable: so too, we retell the story of the Black Dog, who becomes not a herald of death but a symbol of depression. Winston Churchill descried his depression as a black dog, and the image is taken up by the Black Dog Campaign. It is well worth a look at as a campaign in itself and its aims of reducing stigma, getting people to talk, &c., are really important.

The Black Dog has been used as a metaphor for depression from antiquity to the present day. To bring the campaign to life we have designed visually striking Black Dog statues.  The physical presence of a Black Dog will help people to define their experience of the ‘invisible’ condition, which characterises mental illness, as well as promoting more open discussion, understanding and acceptance. In order to deliver a positive message of support, the black dogs will have a ‘collar of hope’ and wear ‘coats’ designed by celebrities, artists and members of the public.

It is also worth (in a small way) reflecting on how the wolf-dog creature we fear, perambulans in tenebris, transforms as we need it, reflecting our current concerns. The “catalogue of things we are frightened of” is also, because of its place in folklore, a catalogue of things story can help us make sense of, or warn us about.

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Do they all live in the same wood?

Building on the real question posed by a four-year old reading Red Riding Hood, I would want to explore the nature of the landscape in which ‘fairy tale’ characters from Western European traditional tales have their adventures. Some of this landscape is represented in older versions by clear topographical features which root the story to particular places – the chalk pits of Tom Tit Tot , or the Blackdown fairy markets discussed by Katharine Briggs. In more recent representations of the landscape in children’s literature, authors have used intertextuality to play with the notions of place. Using insights from ecocriticism, from historical landscape studies such as those by Oliver Rackham, and the study of folk tales from writers such as Jack Zipes and Sandra Beckett, I propose exploring the landscape(s) of Janet and Allan Ahlberg (Each Peach Pear Plum; Jeremiah in the Dark Wood and the Jolly Postman), Lauren Child (Beware of the Storybook Wolves) and other works such as Nicola Smee’s Finish the Story Dad to see
• Whether there are discernible features in the ‘fairy tale’ landscape that suggest a common understanding of that environment;
• Whether an intertexual approach from modern re-authoring of traditional stories enlightens the reader or impoverishes the stories;
• What the agents in the stories do to interact with their environment.

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This posting from me  is just a jumped-up tweet, but what’s behind it is worth sharing, I feel. Steve Wheeler (whose blog is always a good read) has an insightful view of pedagogy here in his latest post.

Good pedagogy is about guiding students to learning. It’s about posing challenges, asking the right questions, and presenting relevant problems for learners to explore, answer and solve. True pedagogy is where educators transport their students to a place where they will be amazed by the wonders of the world they live within.

Yes, well worth a look.

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How to ask a question

Last Friday and this Tuesday I taught very small classes – ten in each. Something of a luxury, not because the showman is put away in a class that size but really because the academic can come out.

The first class was a sort of guest spot on the outdoors in an international perspective in a module called (surprise!) “Cross-National Perspectives in Education,” and raised questions (I hope) around the validity of evidence from sources grabbed (purposefully) from YouTube, and set in the context of harder (but less immediately illuminating) data such as stats on life span.

The second was my “Becoming a Reader” class, where the ungarded students were lively and argumentative while presenting to one another on issues around reading and memory, reading schemes, motivation…

So far, so good.  What struck me was that the smaller classes gave us all time to listen, to question, to discuss. They gave me time to listen, and to raise questions – and to listen to my own questioning.

But what sort of questions do I raise? How do I challenge students? I think – I hope – I do so with some reference to the kind of progression in thinking skills I’m looking for. I’m looking less for an answer about “How many children attend the pre school in Norway that we saw?” than I am for some response to “What do you see as the drawbacks to the kind of provision we saw?” or “Why might a family education project in Kenya be presented as a women’s empowerment project?”

But do I – do we – model effectively enough the deeper questioning we seek from our students? I ask a student to “be more critical” – but can I, hand on heart, say I have shown the students the kind of questioning I want them to do?

This comes to a head with the students I’m meeting tomorrow, and to the stream of Masters students who have come to me this week to check their essay titles are “on the right lines.” What makes a good question, a good area for a short essay, a fruitful line of discussion?

I think we’re back, to a greater or lesser extent explicitly,  at Gibbs’ reflective cycle and Bloom’s taxonomy.  Watch out for that threadbare carpet, please, as I suggest

  • To what extent do you think you can rely on…
  • How valid do you think the argument is…
  • Can you use this argument in a different context/Can we explain this another way…

…are  good ways [for me] to go, rather than nervously saying “Do you understand this?” “Are you with me?” or (in some ways the most cowardly of all) “I’m assuming you’ve all read this.”

This would/could/might lead to better questions at least at M-level or L6. Armed with this – or having armed my students with it? – I can genuinely expect essay proposals that are not “How can a practitioner support role play effectively?” but “To what extent might practitioner support improve children’s experience of role play?” or “What theoretical background might a practitioner employ to understand role play in a setting?” Tentative. Exploratory.


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The Guardian Letter, Fri 21st Feb 2014

Local politicians must take action to protect provision of quality for young children. We are profoundly concerned about the widespread loss of local early years provision of quality and the resulting harm to children and their families. We understand that the resources available to local government are being reduced, and therefore difficult decisions must be taken. But we urge local politicians to protect early years provision, which can have a lifelong, positive impact on young children and their families. Otherwise, we will all pay in the long-term for cuts being made in the short-term.

Since 2010, the number of children’s centres in England has reduced from 3,631 to 3,116; and some of these centres are information hubs open in name only – “half a person and a bunch of leaflets” as Naomi Eisenstadt, the first national director of the Sure Start Unit, has summarised the situation. The House of Commons select committee also reports that “many maintained nursery schools have closed in the last decade” (over a hundred in England) despite robust evidence to show that they offer the best outcomes to disadvantaged young children. The benefits of attending a maintained nursery school last right the way through the school system: their closure represents the worst sort of short-term thinking. The youngest and most vulnerable children are being harmed by these irresponsible actions.

Where is the quality for two-year-olds? Local government has a vital role to play in the successful delivery of the national programme to provide free nursery places for disadvantaged two-year-olds. We know children will only benefit if they attend a good-quality early years setting with appropriately qualified staff. So we are dismayed that some councils fund settings without a good Ofsted rating, and further dismayed by the cutbacks to training courses and to teams of early years advisers. Without training and ongoing support, how will quality be sustained and the poorest settings improve?

A recent report on summer-born children has highlighted the pressure being put on children and parents by local authorities and schools to enter reception class before the age of five.

All these short-term actions which damage children in their early years will have an upward impact as they go through their schooling. This in turn damages communities. Local authorities must do more than blame national government and the economic recession. We therefore call on candidates in the forthcoming local elections in England and Northern Ireland to stop cutting early years provision and pledge their support for the high-quality provision that will benefit young children and their families now, and for years to come.

Helen Moylett President of the British Association for Early Childhood Education, Prof Tina Bruce Marion Dowling, Retired Her Majesty’s Inspector, Bernadette Duffy Head of Thomas Coram Centre for Children and Families, Prof Aline-Wendy Dunlop, Jean Ensing Retired HMI, Professor Chris Pascal, Rosemary Peacocke Retired HMI Prof Iram Siraj, Lesley Staggs Retired national strategies director of early years, Prof Kathy Sylva, Prof Colwyn Trevarthen, Denise Hevey Emeritus professor in education, University of Northampton, Anne Nelson National Association for Primary Education, Wendy Ellyat Save Childhood Movement, Jo White Headteacher/head of centre, Portman Early Childhood Centre, Dr Margy Whalley Director, Pen Green Centre for Children and Families and Pen Green Research Base, Ben Hasan Chair, National Campaign for Real Nursery Education, Jane Payler Chair, Association for the Professional Development of Early Years Educators, Pamela Calder On behalf of The Early Childhood Studies Degrees Network, Melian Mansfield On behalf of Early Childhood Forum, Nancy Stewart Early Learning Consultancy Emeritus professor Tricia David, Nick Swarbrick Oxford Brookes University, Dr David Whitebread University of Cambridge, Beverley Nightingale University Campus Suffolk, Rosalind Godson Unite/Community Practitioners’ and Health Visitors’ Association, Penny Webb Proprietor of Penny’s Place Childminding, Kathryn Solly, Edwina Mitchell On behalf of OMEP, Michelle Melson, Chris Palmer Chair of trustees of Centre for Research in Early Childhood, Birmingham (CREC), Maureen Saunders Trustee of CREC, Sheila Thorpe Trustee of CREC, Professor emeritus Philip Gammage Trustee of CREC, Professor emerita Janet Moyles

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Resistance or debate?

A selection from Saturday’s conversation on BBC Radio 4′s Week in Westminster (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03tqx9x) between David Blunkett and Nick Gibb:

NG: …He [Michael Gove] doesn’t set out to be non-consensual, but what can happen is that if you’re determined to ensure that the reforms are implemented which he is they will ruffle the feathers of those people who are resistant to that reform.

DB: Well I’m not sure about calling the teaching profession The Blob is actually all that consensual…

NG: No, well, the Blob isn’t the teaching profession, the Blob is not the teaching profession…

DB: Well, who the devil is it then?

NG: The Blob, I’ll tell you who the Blob is, the Blob are the academics in the education faculties of the Universities and the Local Authority advisers and they have a particular orthodoxy that they impose on the teaching profession….

[A discussion on who has power continues]

NG: …. Now, well, now they have less power because automony has been given to the professionals and at the expense of the education faculties and at the expense of the local authorities and that is why there is this anger by those people about what Michael Gove is doing

DB: Nick, Nick, you’re fighting a past battle, you’re fighting a past battle begun twenty-five years ago in 1988 by Ken Baker and you’re still fighting it now [....] That battle’s over; the battle for the highest standards in every school, the life chance of every child whatever their background, that battle will continue…

NG: There is still an intellectual battle to be won about child initiated learning, about mixed ability teaching, about how you teach arithmetic…

I can’t spare the time to challenge the logic in the first section about consensuality and resistance (or to hark back in any detail to David Blunkett’s phrase about people being “cynical”), so here are just a couple of thoughts from the Blob, if that is who I am (quite apart from the insult, I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the pigeonhole; I am in no way knee-jerk resistant, for example): if there is an intellectual battle to be fought over child-initiated learning, then perhaps the research done by the Universities might be useful evidence – or is an intellectual engagement really not about weighing evidence, but about who can shout the loudest, be the rudest (and I know some HE and school colleagues who have not held back here)? And on the side-swipe on child-initiated learning, do we discern how The Foundation Stage might be further dismantled, with insights from psychology and sociology – not to mention the everyday pedagogy of the nursery I brought with me into teacher education – swept aside in the kind of rhetoric I have commented on before?

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Open Air Schools

A now lost phenomenon, largely built on how people understood tuberculosis – but does the Open Air School movement have something to teach 21st Century Britain?
Check this out: http://municipaldreams.wordpress.com/2014/01/21/aspen-house-open-air-school-lambeth-doing-the-world-of-good/

As the blog post states:

This was an education rooted squarely – though without the rhetoric – in the principles of the Swiss pedagogue, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi: a focus on the equilibrium between head, hands and heart, a belief in the free development of each child’s potential through observation and discovery of nature and the material world.

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A Ghost on the Fens

Just a quick link (before my teaching moves away from Outdoors, last semester’s work) to a vimeo short from a few years ago, from Robert MacFarlane.

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