The Tree of Knowledge

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There is always controversy when the Government rewrites the National Curriculum. Certainly in Junior Schools, as Key Stage One and Two are being rewritten, the debate has tended to focus on what to teach rather than how we should teach it.

For me, a key failing in this way of thinking is that focusing on content rather than on the process of learning fails to appreciate improvements in technology. These days, retaining knowledge is not as important as an individual developing the skills necessary to find information and in doing interesting and creative things with it once they have found it. We know from higher education and the world of work that motivated, creative and confident pupils who can solve problems, collaborate and communicate effectively are as highly sought after, if not more so, as people who are good at amassing knowledge and passing examinations. At BGS we focus on how we help our girls become highly efficient at both.

As we understand more and more about how the brain works, which parts are activated by what sorts of experience and task, we can use this information to focus on activities and strategies that provide the best kinds of learning. Within this sort of environment, the limitations of focusing solely on issues such as whether we should we teach more locational knowledge in Geography or if we should include only British History on the syllabus are hugely apparent.

This week, I attended a Junior School conference where they likened the learning process to a tree of knowledge. The leaves, the lush growth at the top of the tree, are the things that a learner has learned – the knowledge, the fact and ideas. These ideas, the leaves, grow through studying within subject disciplines. The branches are those disciplines. Learning within these disciplines grows out of the trunk, which we might imagine as the self-image of the learner, how they see themselves, their self-esteem.

All these things are the visible part of what the learner is about, but just like the tree, these things only grow because there is a system underneath that supports it and keeps it upright. We might think of this support system as being the skills – the ability to think, solve problems, the ability to read, write and count – that every learner needs. Even lower down the tree – the tips of the roots, where the nutrients and water the tree needs are taken in – we might think of the dispositions a learner needs, such as confidence, compassion, resilience and resourcefulness. To extend this analogy even further and apply the lifecycle of the tree to that of the learner, come the autumn, the leaves fall from the tree and blow away. Some are reused by the tree as decaying litter but those carried away on the breeze are not needed by the tree. Similarly, what knowledge we’ve accumulated but don’t need we forget and discard. However, because – just like the tree – we have the right support systems in place, we can regrow those leaves of ideas and information, when the need or spring arrives. Unless the roots and trunk are strong the knowledge will not regrow, hence the vital importance of developing and nurturing not just the leaves but the whole structure.

I found this a useful and interesting analogy and it reminded me why it is so very important that as a school we should continue to focus as much on how our girls learn and in ensuring their foundations are secure, as the leaves, the knowledge, that as adults we know we forget too quickly. In an age where mobile technology means we can retrieve information, and regrow those leaves, with the click of a button, this has never been so pertinent. 

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