The right environment for kids

She modelled what she taught. The familiar mattered to her. So did beauty. So did family. She would have made a superb lawyer. Always crisply dressed, punctual, a stickler for detail, and very, very clever.

She stopped her law degree midway through it and went into teaching. Not because she had sensed this was her vocation, but for her younger brother.

He, too, was studying law; but neither the wider family nor their friends could support him through his studies. That fell to his sister. Her meagre teacher’s salary saw him through his education.

He completed his degree and became active in human rights and politics. He was very effective—right up to the day he was arrested and imprisoned.

I was sorry to hear about her brother; despite his release, I gather he never recovered. Like Winston in George Orwell’s 1984, he lost interest in everything.

For very different reasons I was glad for her. She became an exceptional teacher-educator. At a minimum, she directly and positively affected several thousand people. And then many more as a result of education policies she pushed through later in her career.

I met her in a sunlit corridor. It was break time. Children were mulling around in pairs or groups, laughing, pointing accusingly at one another, and chatting with staff. But amid all the lovely noise of life, she carried a tremendous sense of composure. Clarity, too. I liked her immediately; you knew she cared, and that she was capable.

During the following months, I came to understand that she not only had mastery of her material, but also a profound sympathy for her environment. She knew every student in the school and everything about the families. Without exception.

Four things flowed from this. Firstly, she picked her staff: the right person for a particular group of students. Secondly, her teaching weaved seamlessly from the known to the unknown. She began with the familiar, leading students to the new and unfamiliar—in delightful and tailored ways.

Thirdly, and in relation to the levels of trust she created by leading students from what was familiar to the new, she created a secure environment for discovery and experimentation. Students gained the confidence to move from description to analysis, and from evaluation to creative application.

As well as generating familiar but new environments for students, she also majored on beauty. Perhaps that was a part of the same tactic. Resources were scant, but she managed anyway. Her classrooms were filled with posters, artwork, teaching aids. Beautifully presented. Delicately ordered. She intuitively recognised beauty mattered. It mattered in the classroom. Her handouts were magic; her examples playful, copious and yet exact.

I wasn’t sure of the importance of this at first, but her office, classrooms, garden and home persuaded me.

There was certainly room for personal taste, but principles like simplicity, harmony and proportion, when adhered to-as she so convincingly did-seem to generate something special, whether this was with reference to the architecture of a school with its open areas and living spaces, or the decorated walls of a classroom, the simple presentation of teaching material or food on a plate. Simply put, beauty mattered.

Some things she said, were timeless and not subject to the whims of culture. Pieces of poetry we recited, films we watched together, and passages of music we listened to would stand the test of time. She assured me. Just like the works of Dante Alighieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Beautiful composition to her was startling, timeless—drawing us out of ourselves.

Her expectations? High, yet attainable.

A brilliant head of department and teacher. Yes.

She looked for the best in her students and got it. Socially and academically. Courteous, tough, but fair; everyone I met liked and respected her. Quite an achievement in any work environment—especially so in teaching.

What she modelled, and what I came to understand, was effective learning occurs when kids initially recognize the environment they are in; too alien or strange and you will likely lose them. Secondly, steps count: moving from the known to the unknown in a deliberate simple way. Thirdly, aesthetics count (whether we admit it or not). And moreover, a psychologically secure space for learning abets exploration and discovery.

I have not been surprised, therefore, to read of recent developments in EdTech. A raft of major tech players have started to acquire app-makers, and to develop user environments that are familiar and safe. Environments where kids can explore, discover and learn at their own pace and without threat.

Vine has a new children’s platform for age-appropriate content. YouTube has launched a site for under 12 year-olds. Google has bought app-maker Launchpad Toys with its extraordinary app using augmented reality, that brings the imaginary close to the actual, playing on kids imagination, their love of stories and sense of fun. And Apple, sensitive to child safety and already expert in education, has its Family Sharing feature.

The growing ubiquity of handheld devices, their graphical capability, speed, and portability will continue to change the face of education. As very powerful tech companies increasingly bring their platforms, tools and knowhow to education, we will see some of the basic principles of teaching reflected in apps and programmes. The digital worlds kids enter will be secure, safe, playful, beautifully rendered, strange, testing, and yet recognizable. The best apps or videos will move children along contiguous steps, enabling them to learn something new, stretching them without losing them. As feedback loops develop they will also provide multiple, specific strategies for learning a particular concept or skill. Kids that simply can’t grasp these will be given another way to try to do so. Repeatedly, until they have it.

But to reiterate, key to all this will be the creation of a right digital environment for discovery and learning. One that has a great user interface, beautiful graphics (even as Minecraft has shown us!), and an ease of uptake. Parents and educators will also want to know that when their children use mobile devices for entertainment, edutainment and education they are operating in a secure, safe and relevant context. Any investment we make in children always has their well-being, formation as people, education and safety in mind. EdTech will follow this long-established trend.

Take away points: Digital media and technology will continue to enhance education. They bring options to learning previously unavailable; and they finesse time-honoured practices. Vitally, digital material will meet kids where they are ability-wise, while digital technology will provide a safe, interactive and compelling learning environment where they have the freedom to explore, experiment, discover and create.

Research: The crucial importance of knowing your students well, developing great relationships with them, and of garnering their trust. Creating an optimal educational environment. Cornelius-White, J. (2007). Learner-centred teacher-centred relationships are effective: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 113-143.

From Beauty, edited by Dave Beech, Documents of Contemporary Art: Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just, 1998—The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, delivered at Yale University:

A peerless Murray Perahia playing and conducting Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Piano Concerto No.27 K.595:

Ben Johnson. To Celia (1616). Skip the recital!

Google and Launchpad Toys:



  1. Hi Paul,
    Excellent article as usual, such a pleasure to read. Do you worry about equality of access to emerging digital education tech? Sorry for the brief question.
    Best regards as always!
    Peter Veloo


    • Thank you, Peter, a delight to read your question. Yes I do worry about equality of access to education. It is a matter of justice and quite literally keeps me awake at night. But I hope that emerging digital education tech will ‘level the playing field’ neutralizing the effects of poor teaching and little or bad education material. I anticipate that in Africa, Asia and India mobile devices are going to help rather than hinder access to good education. The sheer size of the mobile market now in China, etc.— is astonishing; and it provides us with opportunity (and of course, risk). Equality of access to theses devices is greater than it is to good schools! Not a perfect solution, but moving in the right direction.


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