Keeping pupils eager for knowledge
Joe McKee joins Wellington College International Shanghai this academic year after 25 years as an educator. He was, most recently, in Beijing in a senior leadership role at another international school. After a couple of weeks settling into Shanghai and the College itself, Mr McKee is keen to share his vision for the future of Wellington’s Senior School.
Knowledge is a word that people hear me use quite a lot, because I have strong feelings about it. I believe that knowledge is under threat in education because too many people are willing to believe that it simply means a set of inert facts and details that can be read from a textbook or found online. Knowledge is much more complex and energetic than that; having knowledge of a subject means truly exploring it, questioning it from as many angles as possible and engaging with it as deeply and enthusiastically as you can.
There is some talk about skills in education and, while that has some value, I don’t think that teachers are here just to give their pupils generic skills. I also think that ‘real’ skills are the practical expression of different kinds of knowledge. I think that we should be developing in pupils a desire to build their own webs of knowledge, to hunger for different kinds of knowledge and push themselves to become deeply knowledgeable across a number of areas. Achieving a knowledge-seeking atmosphere is one of the most important parts of my hopes for the Senior School.
I believe that this is a fundamentally important approach that applies to all subjects and all pupils, regardless of their interests and capabilities. If you think about anyone you’ve ever admired, they will almost certainly have a huge amount of knowledge about something. They might be extremely knowledgeable about something that’s socially respected and valued – such as medicine or a sport or speaking different languages – but equally it might be a very different kind of knowledge, such as the ability to read social situations or a deep understanding of other people’s emotional needs.
Embracing a love of knowledge
I know it might sound romantic but I’ve never met anybody who wasn’t a professor of something; every single person has profound knowledge in at least one area. All of these forms of knowledge are inherently valuable, not least because what we know (or think we know!) does so much to shape our sense of who we are. We have to ensure that every pupil has the opportunity, support and encouragement to discover what kinds of knowledge genuinely excite them, and then successfully guide them through building their own understanding.
Having teachers who, as well as being highly professional pedagogues, are also unselfconsciously in love with a number of areas of knowledge helps immensely in creating this kind of atmosphere. We already have a team of teachers who are not only highly effective educators, but who also care deeply about the areas of knowledge that shape their lives and inform who they are as individuals. We want our teachers to be sharing their love of their own ‘knowledge worlds’ – which are always far bigger than just ‘subjects’ – with our pupils, inspiring them to go out and seek knowledge in a similar spirit. Our Principal, Eleanor Prescott, talks about having a ‘geeky school’, which really speaks to me because I am, first and foremost, an utter geek! Fortunately, geek is a word which has much more positive connotations today. It is just another, quicker way of saying that someone is extremely passionate about something, something that reaches beyond oneself. In short, we should be encouraging all pupils to find and embrace their ’inner geek’!
Embracing creativity in teaching
Additionally, we have to be very creative and imaginative when thinking about how to keep providing interesting experiences for the pupils, in and out of the classroom, that allow them to come into contact with the unusual, the novel and the things that might not be so easy to grasp at first sight. As a literature teacher, I think what’s true about poetry applies on a much wider level: the beautiful tends to be either very simple or very complex…And it’s not always obvious which is which! A fascination with complexity – a word I prefer to ‘difficulty’ – is where creativity and intellect, the head and the heart, become the same. I think scientists and mathematicians recognise that just as much as musicians, actors and poets. I want to be continually encouraging our teachers to be pushing things just slightly beyond pupils’ current grasp, not so it frustrates pupils, but in ways that excite and tantalise and develop that sense of the beauty of complexity.
This can mean teaching methods that are knowledge-building and inquiry-based and don’t shy away from complexity: challenges, puzzles, the driving use of the magic word, ‘if’. So, for example, you might ask a physics class: ‘If the Earth’s gravity was two-thirds its strength, what would be different when you look outside our classroom window? And would the window itself be different!?’ This challenges pupils’ imaginations as well as their knowledge. Again, we want pupils to be looking at knowledge in this active, inquiring manner, rather than seeing it merely as a set of stale, inert details.
Embracing the Wellington values
Naturally, this sense of continual excitement and discovery only really works if the pupils themselves are willing to be drawn into it, willing to be individual, intellectual, independent, inclusive and – one that might look easy but really isn’t – willing to be inspired. That needs the opened mind, the opened heart. That’s why returning to the Wellington values will always be so important, because in order to create that learning atmosphere where everyone is capable of a passionate engagement with different kinds of knowledge, it’s essential that each pupil develops the right attitudes and willingness to connect with the people and opportunities around them.
As W B Yeats said: education is not the filling of a bucket, it’s the lighting of a fire. Our aim is to light that fire in each pupil so they can seek out the knowledge that excites them, and that will enrich the whole of their life. If that happens, they can achieve great personal as well as academic success.
Head of Senior School