Each week, at my daughter’s primary school, like most schools across Australia, we have assembly. It’s an opportunity for a particular neighbourhood or year level to show their learning to the whole school community. I don’t go to assembly every week, so it was purely by chance that I found myself at the back of the crowded, noisy gym last week with all the other parents, waiting to see what the show of learning would be.
My daughter goes to a local government school in the inner north. The school adopted an inquiry based learning philosophy over five years ago, and while it doesn’t suit everyone, and sometimes panics certain families because they struggle to quantify their children’s learning, the very notion of instilling a passion to learn in children as young as five is remarkable. Children do not sit in traditional classrooms. They do not learn en-masse. Instead they are involved in leading their own learning, by making choices about how they want to investigate a particular inquiry. The investigation can take the form of an animated film, a documentary, a book, a play or in the case of the recent Year 1 inquiry – the design and construction of a range of toys for the children of refugees.
Learning from the perspective of an inquiry into a subject, means that the learning can start from various points. It can, in the case of this inquiry, be a moral conundrum – what would it mean to a child to be denied the space and freedom to play? Children can then take that learning in a myriad of directions – instead of being guided through a right or wrong process, they are guided through their own hunger to learn. The inquiry only ends when the children have exhausted the subject and understand it from every perspective. It also means that each child will learn about that subject differently, depending on his/her own input. So rather than narrowing learning and teaching, it opens it up to a million possibilities.
As we walked into the gym for assembly that morning, the foyer was filled with displays of colour and beauty. On the floor were large play mats with space stations and astronauts and cars and roads. There was a huge beanbag brimming with incredible hand-felted, handmade, stuffed toys. Monsters grinned up at us from the floor as children pointed out their favourites. Finally there was a mass of wooden vehicles – brightly painted and immediately enticing. They looked more like something you’d buy from an expensive toyshop than something made by children in the junior school.
As the formal assembly began, one of the students (a little girl of six or seven) explained how she believed all children should have the right and the freedom to play, and it was her comments that had kicked off a term-long inquiry culminating in the most extraordinary display of why inquiry-led learning works.
From the seed of an idea, the Year 1 neighbourhood had invited David Manne, refugee lawyer and school parent, to come in and share his knowledge of the lives of refugees. Then armed with information, the children began a collaborative process of designing, and then making their own range of toys to gift to the children David had spoken about.
There was the soft toy group who felted and dyed their own fabric, before designing creatures of all shapes and sizes, and then (with parent and teacher help), bought these creatures to life. The wooden toy group had created their vehicles around the theme of an airport, and then built them with another parent helper, before painting them in bright primary colours.
As the children introduced their work with pride and confidence, they took us through their journey of learning. They had to work together and one little boy explained which elements of three different children’s pictures had gone into making one soft platypus. Some children spoke about creating felt birds because they were the symbol of freedom. Others spoke of designing a toy similar to one they had at home, because they thought it would mean more. Another group of children stood and read from the cards they had made - messages of hope and friendship, and a real understanding of what it would be to live without the freedom to play.
The assembly was gripped. Parents were crying. The older children respectfully listened. Barely a week since Nelson Mandela had died and on International Human Rights Day, it seemed fitting that the children spoke so eloquently, so innocently, of freedom, and the right of all children to play.
From one inquiry into the importance a toy can bring into the life of a child, came all this learning. Design. Illustration. Literacy. Numeracy. Collaboration. They’d shown how education could transcend teaching, and become about something so much more. A genuine understanding of what it must feel like to be the child of a refugee living in detention. And the tiny fire was lit – if learning can be fun, amazing, inspiring, challenging and end with something so pure, then surely it beats sitting at a desk all day.
As we watch governments grapple with public education, battle over funding for public schools, all I can say is I’d rather a child who can learn, with hunger and joy, than one who can ace their NAPLAN tests.