Building Our Puzzle at Bridge House Preparatory School

Over the past two years, almost every school on the planet has had to rethink, redesign and re-arrange lesson plans, content and methodology to deliver teaching and learning on multiple platforms. It has generally been the outliers raising their hands to point out that the cataclysmic disruption to the status quo caused by COVID-19 is offering schools a unique opportunity to review, re-examine and re-imagine their purpose, praxis and pedagogy.

Teachers have had to prove themselves to be extremely agile, flexible, and able to work within and around much ambiguity. Indeed, to all intents and purposes, many teachers have had those tried and tested lesson plans (finally) wrestled from their clutches, as they have been forced to make quantum leaps to meet the challenges foisted on them … and then realised that they could manage. And felt proud that they had done so!

We know the ‘what’ but what about the ‘how’?

Alongside the World Economic Forum’s recommendations of what industry needs from young adults, we understand the value that socio-emotional support, experiential learning, disruptive technologies, sport, music and the arts, ethics, citizenship education, even breathing techniques and mindfulness bring to our offering as independent schools.

But any education is more than just the sum of its parts. Finding synergy, a ‘macro-interleaving’, so that the parts of the whole blend and combine to reflect nuance and depth, is critical. We know what we need to do; now it’s all about how we do it.

My cry is to not press ‘restore to factory settings’. Default is a dangerous thing! Perhaps some ‘pieces’ need to be lost?

What is our core business?

Let us start at the very beginning. What is our core business? What is the framework of what constitutes junior school?

In a nutshell, it is literacy. And no, I do not mean learning to read. I mean speaking, singing, counting, listening, explaining, describing, debating, planning, interpreting, presenting, writing, recording, researching, and thinking. The ability to comprehend, and so develop logic, reasoning and computational thinking requires ‘enhanced literacy’, regardless of the subject.

I am well aware of the adage that children move from learning to read, to reading to learn. But therein lies the problem. Just because a child can read mechanically, does not render them literate. Unfortunately, the development of reading skills has long been seen as belonging to the section of the ‘puzzle’ called languages. What a tragedy. Every section of the curriculum is dependent on literacy and has its own literacy requirements. Every teacher needs to have and hold on to the concept that, before all else, we are developing literacy.

Literacy is so much more than decoding a word on a page. In fact, celebrating a child’s ability to ‘read to herself’, is very short-sighted, as any language (English, mathematics, hockey, robotics) needs to be spoken, heard and ‘played with’, to foster comprehension and interpretation. Literacy, and the fluency and agency that develop as a result, requires time, effort and investment from every teacher.

Such is the access to content in today’s world that even our preschoolers can direct us to ‘Just ask Google!’ We all know where that can end up! But, if by the end of their junior school pilgrimage, children can frame their question correctly in order to find the answer; select the appropriate detail within their research; differentiate the misinformation from the verifiable content; and then rework their response (using written or spoken language) to demonstrate a thorough understanding of the answer they sought, they are fully literate! They can think.

This will not, however, happen if we teach in silos. A current ‘buzzword’ in education circles is interleaving, a process where students switch between topics within a subject in order to improve their learning in that area.

Interleaved tasks require different or varied strategies or skills to solve each problem, and different topics are ‘woven together’ so as to achieve a depth of learning. Is this a new idea? No. It is the way forward-thinking schools operate, as pupils are encouraged to apply skills and knowledge in one domain by drawing on previous learning, and deliberately integrating concepts and ideas across subjects. Such transference of skills produces agile thinking, confidence and creativity in problem-solving. It requires comprehension (literacy) and accelerates comprehension skills.

Building the puzzle at Bridge House School

Building our puzzle

Allow me to make some comments regarding our ‘Standard Operating Procedure’ at Bridge House Preparatory School in the Western Cape. Our mantra is ‘no silo-thinking’ as far as possible. A prep school is not constrained by the demands of a standardised exit assessment, and despite there being specialist teachers, teaching in a junior school is by nature generalist.

My responsibility as the head of academics is to uphold this principle and ensure that it is reflected in our thinking and planning, and teaching and learning – in the way we ‘do school’. The overarching purpose is to build and consolidate the framework within which children can explore, grow and move with confidence to the next phase.

An integrated curriculum approach, rooted in an understanding of the concept of developing literacies, guides our teaching and learning and is reflected in our timetable. While we are cognisant of recommended time allocations per subject, we seek to create ‘chunks’ of time on each task by grouping subjects together, rather than offering multiple short lessons.

Children feel less hurried, no bells chase them, and the fewer, longer lessons per day allow everyone to achieve more. Our prep school campus layout, where classrooms spill out into quads and gardens, with picnic tables doubling as extra work spaces, creates a natural milieu for collaborative work, differentiated teaching and even individual focus. Across the prep school, there is a strong emphasis on ‘keeping grounded’: the stronger the concrete element, the more easily the child flows into the abstract.

Into this puzzle we have inserted the newly required, deliberate focus on technology and computational thinking. Using the framework offered by our recent partnership with Digital Media Academy, each grade takes three full teaching days a month to get their teeth into an aspect of digital technology, including design principles; big data; coding; AI; sound engineering; robotics; graphics and entrepreneurship.

All our children need to learn these new languages, while applying skills in a project-based learning environment. Hence designing in Tinkercad and printing a correct-sized sarcophagus (for which the Grade 5s made mummies!) flowed out of a mathematics project on negative spaces, which led to exploring how positioning a dam requires an understanding of the use of negative space.

At Grade 7 level, collating data from fitness exercises in physical education classes led to comparisons against international age-based fitness norms, reflected as various types of graphs. Further exploration of the uses of data led to an exploration of ‘smart cities’. Communication, comprehension, and fluent articulation of ideas remain front of mind.

Bridge House School in the Western Cape

Patience: Building Rome (and our puzzle!) doesn’t happen in a day

Over the years we have recognised the effectiveness of setting aside whole days for projects – some even across grades to foster the mentor-mentee relationship. We have adapted assessment rubrics and our reports to reflect the ‘softer skills’ alongside academic rigour and progress, as a matter of course.

We don’t write formal examinations until Grade 7, and in so doing reclaim nearly five teaching weeks across the school year. This means more time for wider-world learning, camps, immersive activity days, and digital technology skills, and more time for developing ‘enhanced literacies’ while doing the things a prep child needs to do and experience. We are building our puzzle. We know which pieces we need. And it’s looking good.