The Fire and the Knife and the Peak Experience

This blog post is fascinating, and this looks, from the lovely website, to be a great example. It would not be my intention to do down a setting so clearly that states:

…we pride ourselves on helping your little adventurers be the best they can be. Part of this shared journey involves providing appropriate risks for them to face, encouraging them to learn how to overcome them independently.

At the same time I return to the principal idea in the blog post, staring from its headline photo and title: “Our Forest School sessions have revolved around using a variety of different tools for different purposes.”  My issue is the one I raised on this blog about what Outdoor Learning is for. The farming and teaching background at Welton Free Rangers gives it a particular, and very rich slant on countryside appreciation. Their sessions are described as having “revolved around using a variety of different tools for different purposes.” In other words there is a purpose behind the sessions.

I’m not wanting to quibble here, but simply to add (for my students, whose essays on risk in Early Years are due this week) a query about the more dramatic elements of Forest School: knives, fires and the like.  Are they the essential element to Forest School? “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?” … What do we ask children to do when we take them outside? do we take children out for peak experiences or something more subtle? Or is it that the week-by-week experience builds into something less instantaneous but just as momentous?  I worry that when we talk about knives and fire we diminish the slower learning that for me is at the heart of being outdoors.  “Red Fox” (Ed Harding) makes it very clear that at Welton Free Rangers time is on their side, but is spent wisely. The last lines are lyrical:

By providing the time and space for them to experience failure, to experience losing their balance, they learn to get back up, to try again, and to succeed. They will grow up stronger, and safer for it. Come on everyone. Let’s get risky.

Let the reader understand: risk is often experienced over a longer term than the immediate hazard, and the benefits are deeper than simply mastery of a tool.


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Return to…

A return to Garner country is demanded. I will confess here what Mat already knows: I dream of Ludchurch and spend a lot of sleep time in Thursbitch.

It is unfulfilled business, I guess, that takes me back. While these chaps seem to have done the things we might have I am left feeling that there is more to do, more to say. Is this because I am looking for a “safe” way of looking at the experiences we had, a tame Analytic Autoethnography (Anderson, Journal of Contemporary Ethnograph, 2006: thanks to Jon Reid for the source)? Am I just fighting shy of the overwhelmingly evocative? Would categories and Digimaps tame our experience? A lengthy quotation follows, although I would discourage this in a student essay:

Evocative autoethnographers have argued that  narrative fidelity to and compelling description of subjective emotional experiences create an emotional resonance with the reader that is the key goal of their scholarship. The genre of auto ethnographic writing that they have developed shared postmodern sensibilities—especially the skepticism toward representation of “the other” and misgivings regarding generalizing theoretical discourse. Evocative autoethnography requires considerable narrative and expressive skills..

and these are skills beyond me, or maybe the hugeness of the experience simply dwarfs my skills.

It is as if (clumsy extended metaphor alert) I foolishly took up a challenge and find the Big Thing (Garner’s translation of þurs)  bigger and more humbling than I had expected, and the Gawain quest provides a suitable framework.



In the comfort of Camelot the quest was achievable, but in Thursbitch I found something- a project, an attraction, a something that cannot be reduced to analysis. I note Garner talks about the bigness of the þurs…  So this brings me to the ambiguity of the relationship between Thursbitch and Gradbach. In Ludchurch we met up with the big, slow awesomeness of the Green Knight, but just because it is big, is this Thing the þurs? My instant reaction is to say that if Ludchurch is safe, Thursbitch is danger, the Valley of the Living Dread in Erica Wagner’s tricksy phrase,  and for me maybe Ludchurch is (as I’ve said before) masculine, and Thursbitch, feminine: Sarastro and the Queen of the Night.  Lost on the moor, in the fog, lost in the folklore, and in some hinterland of Jung and Freud… Two different big things – lots of different big things – in my mind. Continue reading

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Contains Cannibalism and Barry Manilow

This was my “trigger warning” for our Becoming a Reader class this week in which we rounded off our work on traditional tales with a rendition of The Story of the Grandmother – and the meeting at the crossroads with Bzou, the werewolf –  and a look at how culture informs our reading of a text, for which we used Copacabana.

I rather like this session: “What’s a ‘showgirl’?” “What do we understand by a ‘dress cut down to there’?” and just who did shoot who[m]?  It allows me to present the work of Hilary Janks and Mary Roche not just as ways to look at children’s reading but also at us as adults becoming readers. I am fortunate to be able to explore this further with Mat in his Reading for Pleasure MA module tonight.

Janks makes a powerful point – or set of points – here:

“…decoding is often equated with reading and is associated with functional or basic literacy….The interrogation of texts, reading against the text, is tied to critical literacy and implies that readers recognise texts as selective versions of the world; they are not subjected to them and they can imagine how texts can be transformed to represent a different set of interests.”

and if I had one wish for our third year students, or maybe even just a wish arising from this module, it would be that their time at Brookes  has allowed them to develop just this critical literacy –  that policy, just like Garner or Shakespeare or the EPPE review, can only ever present selective versions of the world. I’m not asking for cynicism, or a world in which the principal graduate attribute is becoming a Radio 4 listener – but for an engagement with ideas which asks about viewpoint and opinion and world view in a critical way.

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The Back of a Shadow

We have been looking at fatherhood and (not quite a coincidence) looking at the work of Alan Garner, and for me they came together here, in Ludchurch.




I am not going to draft out a whole history of Lud, or Ludd, or delve into the speculation the Internet loves of sun-worship and pre-Christian themes in some kind of Ur-Gawain, tempting though they are, but in trying to make sense of Ludchurch in the Garner landscapes I need at least to find a place for  Lud.

There is a useful site here for the Gawain literature, and a good ME text here.  From these I have picked out some of the points about the Green Knight.

Half etayn in erde I hope þat he were…

For wonder of his hwe men hade,
Set in his semblaunt sene;
He ferde as freke were fade,
And oueral enker-grene.

An Ettin, the other kind of giant from a þurs but clearly from the green world of magic, “he carried himself in hostile fashion,” or “as a Fay-man fell he passed.” Not someone to tangle with, his holyn bobbe in one hand, an axe in the other. The scene is about colour and movement and threat – while Ludchurch, although “oueral enker-grene” is enclosed, and (when we visited, and when the Man visits in Boneland) silent -a cultic space, not an agent.

The location of the Green Chapel has been discussed by others, including Alan Garner, and with more re-reading after visiting Ludchurch  I am drawn to its cliffs and rocks and  “knokled knarrez with knorned stonez.”    In Gawain it is a place of an evil cult, maybe more than an echo of un-Christian practice.

Here my[gh]t aboute mydny[gh]t
Þe dele his matynnes telle!
‘Now iwysse,’ quoþ Wowayn, ‘wysty is here;
Þis oritore is vgly, with erbez ouergrowen;
Wel bisemez þe wy[gh]e wruxled in grene
Dele here his deuocioun on þe deuelez wyse.
Now I fele hit is þe fende, in my fyue wyttez,
Þat hatz stoken me þis steuen to strye me here.
Þis is a chapel of meschaunce, þat chekke hit bytyde!
Hit is þe corsedest kyrk þat euer I com inne!’

But in this place, and from the encounter with the half-Ettin Bertilak -and through the magic of the powerful Morgan –

(“Þe maystrés of Merlyn”…”Weldez non so hy[gh]e hawtesse
Þat ho ne con make ful tame–“)

– Gawain learns his lesson.

Do we meet in the Green Man a father principally as instructor and law-giver?  And where does this father “sit”? I began to speculate on the landscape way back in my research proposal in 2010; perhaps I was too glib to write earlier about ” the world of the dad, not the desert of the Patriarch”? To move into my present concern for Alan Garner’s real-and-mythic landscape, how does an author concerned with real places manage their mythology while keeping them recognisable, in some sense “true”?


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My Outdoor Learning

Last weekend (the final weekend in Oct 2016) I went outside.

Not to the allotment, and not to the Kalahari: a sort-of-adventurous outside for a 59-year-old academic who was a great hiker in his early teens but since then…

Well,  this is where we went.


And the “we” is Mat Tobin and I.

The notes of the work leading up to the trip and then the weekend’s notes are here:

It’s very obvious what we did well, and equally obvious what I didn’t prepare for properly.  Ah well, it was a first go. Others have also attempted it – cf Emily Morrison. There are even YouTube clips. As Garner and Langland say we “blostrede forth as bestes ouer baches and hulles,” and saw, and learned and came back.

What I want to think about here is how children’s experiences of “going out of their comfort zone” might parallel mine. I am struck by an impressive autoethnographic study by another colleague, Jon Reid, whose imaginative leaps have compared the metaphorical journey into doctoral study with physical travel.  It would be too cheeky – not to say intrusive –  to use his ideas verbatim, but let me just pull up one idea: that learning is very easily translated into journey imagery, and that the relationship is so intimate that “outdoor learning” might even seem a tautology.

It isn’t, of course: I’m not saying that no-one learns indoors, or that learning outside is automatic, or something so process-led that merely travelling is to arrive.  I simply can’t (yet?) get my head round the learning we did, since it was bound up in three elements:

  • Who I am and the past that brings me here, both positive and negative;
  • The experience of planning, doing, seeing;
  • Peak experiences.

“What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?” What did we go out to see? What do we ask children to do when we take them outside? There is a challenge, maybe even a hint of sarcasm in Jesus’ question to the comfortable bandwagonners in Matthew 11. What attracted me to the weekend? A love of being outside, a sense of challenge, a friendship. What did I go out to see? I went to find Thoon and found Lud.

The planning taught me a lot of skills, from Digimaps to revitalising my small skills with OS on the ground. The doing – the emailing for a taxi, sorting accommodation &c., &c. – was small beer compared with the journey up, the staying in Cheshire. I could have stayed for a week, repeated the visits we made, taken a lot more time over every aspect. I talk a lot to students about the value of first-hand experience, but here I was out doing stuff  myself: the verge by John Turner’s stone; the oddness of Jenkin Chapel; the wet underfoot past Gradbach and the sound of the water on the stones – the clonter. A series of little things making one big event of discovery.

And the huge experiences. The face in Ludchurch, the struggle to Thursbitch, the hardness of the journey from the valley to the Tor (and Mat’s driving us back to Oxford). I feel – as I suspect Garner intends us to – torn between the opinions of the scientist Sal whose mental state is allowing her the insights in Thursbitch that drive her story, and the hesitation of her devoted companion, the Jesuit medic Ian. Where they discuss “sentient landscape” encapsulates my own dilemma:

“Are you telling me, after all we’ve seen and done here, that this is just any old gritstone anticline?”

“I’d say that it’s a powerful and dramatic sub-Alpine environment. But what I accept as appearing to be strong atmosphere is no more than our projection of our own experience and emotion onto a circumscribed place.”

“How can a man with your job talk such crap?”

And this brings me to my pedagogic questions: do we take children out for peak experiences or something more subtle? When we talk about the “learning journey” where does this metaphor (here it comes again) lead us? Is there a spiritual dimension to the week-by-week going to Forest School – and does it need actively fostering or is it just there? What do we send children out to see? Reeds shaken in the wind or something bigger?



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Lessons from the History of Teaching Reading

It is now unorthodox or even heretical – except among those for whom it is not – to claim that the simple view of reading is fallible. I noticed recently a University lecturer being taken to task for “pedalling tripe” by suggesting he was going to read Davis’ critique of systematic synthetic phonics. We live in a time where vitriol is easily poured out – whether on those heartless fascists who espouse a top-down model of teaching or those careless, loveless airheads who think that children should find it all out for themselves. Such, at any rate, would be the Martian judgement (for “Martian” see the work of Eric Berne as shorthand for a commentator completely outside the system). No matter how important they seem to the protagonists, Single Issue Politics -whether at national or staff-room level – can get very nasty very quickly.

So let’s just have a look at  a few sources:

The ‘simple view’ shows that, to become proficient readers and writers, children must develop both word recognition and language comprehension. Letters and Sounds is fully compatible with the wider, language-rich early years curriculum. It will help practitioners and teachers adapt their teaching to  the range of children’s developing abilities that is common in most settings and primary classes.  The aim is to make sure that all children make progress at a pace that befits their enlarging capacities.

Yes, Letters and Sounds.


It is teachers themselves who will ensure our target is met. This Framework for Teaching [sc the National Literacy Strategy] is a practical tool to help teachers do precisely that.  All teachers know that pupils become successful readers by learning to use a range of strategies to get at the meaning of a text…As with reading, it is important that pupils learn to write independently from an early age.

The first NLS Framework.


That to this day our Crop answers not our Seed; that our Childrens Attainments come not to our just, and Rational Expectations, is so stabbing an Experience, that it ought not to be mentioned without a Flood of Tears.  The grand reason why you hear Children so much, and yet teach them so little, is because you hear them so confusedly. Put therefore as many of them into one form, as you judg [sic] to be of an equal capacity, or at least no great difference between them…Let an hour every day be solemnly spent in sounding and spelling those words, which you find in the Two last Chapters which contain most, if not all the difficulties are usually met with in the whole English Tongue.

Nathaniel Strong, England’s Perfect Schoolmaster, 1699


However, my concern in this post is not about the veracity of any of these claims, but the “truthiness” behind them, the forcibly put assertion that “this is the way.” We are used, now, to Secretaries of State being, claiming to be (or even overtly supplanting) experts, so this language is very familiar. It could be argued – for the first two, at least, that this is the Government showing leadership.

I am not so sure: the displeasure and downright unpleasantness shown in these arguments by this side or that seem much more to be connected with a who-shouts-loudest demagoguery than with a willingness to listen to various aspects of the argument, and this, if nothing else, is the critical job of higher education research: to read, mark, inwardly digest, rather than simply support the shrill.

Our Education Studies students (and others of the undergraduate programme taking the year 1 module on Introduction to the Study of Education) please note: education systems that demand compliance, over-loud claims for odd pieces of research, (even) jocular and plausible lecturers are there for you to sift much more than to be believed.




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It is worth speculating on the nature of curriculum. What is it? Who owns it – and by owning I suppose I’m asking “In whose gift are the decisions about it?”

As I’ve pointed out before (notably in the chapter on curriculum in Themes and Debates), while play is a key factor in a child’s learning and development, it does not take place independent of other learning; the provision of good quality experiences (in the home or in another setting) takes account of play as an enriching experience, so that adult-led experiences go hand-in-hand with the learning that arises from the children themselves and their play. Adults make choices about when and how to intervene – and this should be done sensitively and with an understanding of a the individual child’s needs and intentions.

So does this mean that play as a self-chosen activity is actually a myth? That the child is not really the free agent we fool ourselves into envisioning?

I think it depends on what is meant by play, a phenomenon every childhood practitioner might say they recognise but which actually carries a multitude of meanings so that it is really a series of interlocking experiences and intentions rather than one thing that is either here or not here. Maybe the same is true of curriculum.

“Ownership” is therefore a crucial issue for both – but maybe that isn’t  the right word. Is the problem embedded in the notion of control? Does anyone really need to “own” – as in possess and control – complexity? If play is a set of actions that involve emotion, competence, imagination, freedom, how can we say it gets owned? Or rather, if we own it, do we ruin it? A wise monk once said the Magnificat is a great, wild horse that we tame into being a farmyard pony: perhaps if we seek to limit play – Golden Time, and “Now you’ve done your work you can go and play,” and “This is an activity the grown-ups think is fun” – we take the edge off its imaginative, creative possibilities. The children may not have limitless freedom – but in play, their possible worlds are expanded and expanding, and we can limit this only when we are clear when and why we should.

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A Thousand and One Things

September is here. Nearly.

I seem to have avoided those panic articles this year (maybe they didn’t happen) about getting your child ready for school, although this from PACEY comes up as (nearly) my top hit. I’m glad I found it. It’s worth a read at a number of levels: straightforward and very much from a settling-in approach rather than a “ties-and-PE-kit” way of thinking about school, it’s something parents might find useful, and, because it’s not from School A or Class 1 it’s general enough to be useful for a wide range of people.

Your child doesn’t need to be able to read, write or do sums before they start school. Children start school with a wide range of abilities and their teacher will be skilled at helping children progress at their own level.

Chat with your child abut starting school.

Try not to make comments such as “I hated school…”

Don’t over-hype school…

Do you know exactly where to take your child and at what time?

It’s a good idea to keep the first few weekends quiet…

Plenty in here, and if the informal language stumbles just a bit, at least it is informal; it sounds like advice, not regulation, even on hand washing and bedtimes.

I would suggest that a good F1 (Reception) or Y1 teacher might take some time to turn this round:

Do my expectations for last June make this September’s parents nervous? Have I remembered that Primrose (or Sendak, or Busy Bees)  Class this year are an academic year younger than the children I said a tearful-and-relieved goodbye to just six weeks ago? That some of the parents didn’t make it to the Open Evening? Are all parents aware of the pressures on our day, and the best ways of getting in touch with me? Am I (somewhere) aware of a voice saying “That’s enough settling in”? What is my answer? And the NQT way of doing this? Well, look at your school, look at all the new faces, and take those first few days to recognise what it is to be a New Starter, however old you are…

… and do remember that the statement about Summer-borns is one that can’t be emphasised too much:

Summer-born children in particular, who start school soon after turning four,  may need extra sensitivity and flexibility to help them settle in.

Read PACEY’s guidelines, or read your own school guide for new parents, and turn it on yourself, not to beat yourself into a nervous pulp, but just to remember to take care of yourself, to take time, to be the skilled teacher the children (and the parents and the school) need.

Gavin and Errol and Sophie and Sushma and David and Kate and Robert and Alison may be starting school (glad to see PACEY still cite this classic)  – but so, in a sense, are their parents. And so, as you receive them, are you, dear colleague. Have a wonderful year.



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University here we come…

It was interesting, in February this year, to reflect on transition to University. We need to look again at study skills and differentiation; that, at any rate, was my message from the spring. So with that in mind, I read one of the umpteen student-facing advice articles in the papers today: this is a representative one from the Guardian. This one – on what to say (or not to say) in a Clearing ‘phone call – was interesting, but gave no clue as to what, as a tutor I might sound like. Here we are all en masse anyway. What do we look like?

It’s been interesting to reflect on the kinds of conversations I’ve had today. They are, after all, part of the transition commerce, part of our “selling” ourselves to one another, the over-confident young woman (trying not to cry?), the breezy young man who tells me today is “scary.” And me: potential rescuer? someone you could work with? academic Pandarus? just another teacher telling you teachery things? And never mind about selling me: what about selling my course – even Higher Education as a project? Part of the transition, after all, is to believe (or at least to want to start to believe) that this going to be something worth doing for three or more years. I won’t start the hare of “worth” here.

A huge number of applicants – as I suppose will be bound to happen in Clearing – tell me that “Exams and me never really got on.” It’s therefore a delicate balance between telling them that

  • everything will be all right
  • exams are not always the best way to predict how someone will do at university and
  • you will still have hard work ahead.

I am faced, too, with the incessant drone on social media about “A Level Results Aren’t Everything.” I know they’re not – and I recognise (even when I don’t remember my B B D from 1975) that they feel like they’re everything. But they are something. At the very least, they are a punctum at the end of two years’ study; they might feel like a judgement on fourteen years of schooling. Might a student come to Education Studies with a fundamental question “Fourteen Years: what was that all about?”  I am back at my talk in May on Why Education?


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Pangur Ban

The White Cat and the Monk by Bogart and Smith

The White Cat and the Monk by Bogart and Smith

This is a charming book. I have loved  the poem – or at least the translation – for years. This picture – and the following ones – are a romanticised idea of medieval scholarship; the margins of texts (and texts themselves) attest to cold, cramp, poor light – and Church, and music, and beauty… I guess the closest  I ever came to this image of a scholar when young was sitting in Pusey House library one Corpus Christi, with the chapel organ and sweet incense wafting through the gothic reading room.

Perhaps a better model of a scholar is M R James, who even as an undergraduate undertook detailed study of MSS, and whose palaeographic works were my sourcebooks as a young graduate student. Painstaking. Silent, except for a cough, a creak of a floorboard, or sounds from a group outside in the sunshine. As a graduate student, a kid in a medieval sweet shop, ferreting around in dodgy catalogues felt as if James was at my shoulder. In reality, I was much more like Adam, David Lodge’s anxious protagonist in The British Museum is Falling Down, juggling family, scholarly activity and a hope against hope to continue doing so as a job. The book was instrumental in my first leaving academia: this wasn’t a life for me. It took working in libraries and then teaching (both of which I loved) to bring me back, not quite full circle.

And so when a student came to me to think about a career as an academic, what was I to say? What do I do? I have written about what I do when people think the University isn’t working – that is, when undergraduates are not about – and tomorrow I return to work, a good month or so before any undergrads arrive, except by email.  What is in store?

The job is not well delineated: fiction fictionalises, job descriptions hardly give detail (ah, yes, there’s something that needs doing tomorrow). This  post, however, from Ana Canhoto, is a really good indicator of what many academics’ life is like: no gothic beauty (except, for me, what the bus takes me past every day) and not much MS textual analysis. I did hit a vein of gold in my research on Friday (not helped by my cat, Ziggy, who wouldn’t be allowed in the Bodleian) but tomorrow is meetings, timetables, and NSS score analysis.

So would I want Pangur Ban and a cell to work in? Or do I really relish the ringing ‘phone, the dripping emails, the knock on the door and “Can I have a word?”  I think, in some way, I do; at least they are part payment for the task I love: teaching, or as someone once described it, “showing off for money.”


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