Are children’s fads a gift to teachers looking to inspire jaded pupils, or are they distracting us from a duty to explore bigger things, asks Debra Kidd...
Every now and again, a fad or fashion arrives that captures children’s imaginations. Furbies, Pokémon, loom bands…we’ve all seen them come and go. As teachers, we often view these crazes as opportunities to open up learning and engage children – we call it relevance.
But we only have a limited amount of time in the classroom and there are so many amazing things to learn about. Can we really afford to use children’s outside interests at the expense of opening them up to new learning that might not only captivate them, but build their cultural capital for the future?
This was the subject of a fairly hotly contested debate on social media a short while ago and it raised some important issues about how we choose to spend our time.
In order to make any decision about what to teach and how to teach it, we all need to think carefully about why we teach it. Or why we teach at all. If, like me, you feel that the purpose of education is not simply to change the life of a child, but to empower her to make the world a better place, there’s a lot of work to be done. For me, when planning a lesson, while I may have a task-related objective in the back of my mind – e.g. writing a report and understanding its features and functions - the task itself is not the focus. It’s a vehicle for something much bigger – an inquiry question or ethical dilemma that will challenge the child to the extent that writing a report becomes a necessary and desirable outcome. Working in this way forces a deeper level of thinking when choosing the content and contexts of our lessons. That’s not to say that Pokémon is meaningless, but it is meaningless unless you draw attention to a deeper and more challenging area of knowledge.
For example, if the children are exploring the idea of a global economy and how companies keep their products fresh in order to reach new audiences, then Pokemon is a great example. But if the goal is to simply give them something to write about, it seems like a lost opportunity to really explore a topic of significance.
Our children are growing up to face some very challenging circumstances. Isolationism in an increasingly global economic frame; climate change; rising xenophobia… It is they who have to cope with and hopefully alter the world in which they live and we need to think very carefully about how we prepare them for that future and how we empower them with the belief that they can effect change and make the world a better place. To do this, we need to develop conscience-led curriculum planning in which the topics and texts we choose and the tasks we set are infused with tales of resilience and hope.
We need to introduce children to heroes who have changed the world from humble beginnings and to the heroes in small spaces – who run food banks and charities, who foster children, who make the time and space to tackle difficulties in their local communities. We need to give children access to the whole range of questions that drive curiosity and lead to advances in our civilization. We need to move away from umbrella topics with their tenuous spokes reaching out across the curriculum and more towards plaited inquiry in which the curriculum is weaved into deep and thoughtful investigations.
Can Pokémon, loom bands and and Furbies do this? Maybe. But only if you look for the inquiry under the fad. Instead, why not find topics that get children thinking about concepts like Beauty, Love, Freedom, Democracy…In one school I visited, the topic was India. The inquiry question was “What is beauty?” – the children were making kites and investigating the kiteflying festivals in India with all their beauty and colour and fervor. And in doing so they uncovered a darker side to the tradition. The desire to win at all costs had lead to the manufacturing of razor sharp strings, giving an edge to the kite flyer, but proving lethal to children and animals getting in their way. When does beauty give way to ugliness?
Can the two coexist? Now that’s something worth grappling with.
Debra Kidd has worked in education for over 20 years, teaching children from the ages of four right through to post-graduate students. She has delivered CPD nationally and internationally.