In January 2021 we learnt that for the second consecutive year, GCSE and A-level examinations would not take place. These traditional yardsticks by which we have for years assessed and rewarded students for achievement over their school careers, would be replaced.
Covid-19 has forced us to do things differently. The pursuit of A* grades and the associated school league tables have become a popular fascination in the annual race to the top, but amid the recalibration of how these assessments are made, perhaps it is time to re-examine scholarship at a more fundamental level.
The raison d’être of education has certainly come a long way since the three Rs of yesteryear. Today, as educators, we seek to instil so much more. Like the ‘give a man a fish’ proverb, spoon-feeding education, cramming or ‘teaching to the test’ will only ever get a student so far.
We know that by instilling curiosity, the love of learning and the means to become a true scholar, we set young people on a lifelong learning journey that will take them so much further. But what exactly does modern scholarship look like?
According to the dictionary, a scholar is someone, “engaged in intellectual or academic pursuits”. Traditionally those pursuits would be of a serious, sustained line of enquiry. The very notion of being ‘scholarly’ assuming both depth and breadth, analytical skills and academic rigour – all essential skills that are required at university and at Putney High School, which we begin to teach in the classroom.
Like many forward-thinking schools, we pride ourselves in teaching students how to think differently. Opportunities to be curious, to question and to conjecture begin as early as year 7 with debating, the popular badge challenge and the year 8 BAFTA awards, which invite students to respond creatively to topics of their choosing with anything from a podcast, short film or this year even an embroidery depicting the climate change debate.
In year 10, the introduction of philosophy, politics and economics (PPE) introduces political philosophy and lively discussion on the nature of being – are we all inherently good people or are we selfish toilet roll hoarders?
PPE has the appeal of breadth, offering the opportunity to look at a range of interrelated ideas and ideologies, encouraging critical thinking and broad concepts such as the discussion of ethics, liberalism, economic policy and the role of society – all food for thought for modern scholars and what we hope they will become: the ‘ideas-makers’ of the future (and at Putney, we have plenty of those!).
Taking ownership of your learning is a key ingredient in the recipe for scholarly success. The Athena Programme is our unique programme of academic extension – a customisable plan of self-directed study which encourages students to pursue scholarship and academia beyond the syllabus in preparation for entry to the top higher education institutions and a more demanding style of learning.
Taking ownership of your learning is a key ingredient in the recipe for scholarly success
Participants enjoy the opportunity to build an academic CV, interacting in new ways with their peers and their teachers as they research in depth, and analyse, discuss and present their work through university-style seminars alongside evidenced reports and presentations.
This year, a year 11 student wrote an essay on intersectionality in politics asking whether all women face the same discrimination just because they are women, or do they need to be considered differently. Year 10 pupils have undertaken courses on ‘What is History?’, ‘The Chemistry of Chocolate’ and even epigenetics in biology.
In addition to the necessary breadth and depth, thinking completely out of the box, rather than ‘tick the syllabus’ box, is the order of the day in every subject and at every opportunity. Our LEAP lecture series is a programme of 40-minute talks covering many disciplines (typically particular areas of academic interest or staff expertise) and designed to whet students’ appetites for university courses and prepare them for lecture-style learning.
From the classroom to co-curricular clubs and societies, from debates and essay competitions to science and maths Olympiads, most schools offer a wealth of opportunities for students to explore their passions and begin to stretch their intellectual wings beyond the confines of the curriculum.
And what use is scholarship without application? Modern scholarship must surely have one more distinguishing characteristic: the ability to apply the knowledge gained and style of thinking to the world in which we exist. Having the vision to generate original ideas and to problem-solve are becoming ‘must-have’ skills at the top of many employers’ wish lists.
These are crucial ways for young people to make their mark in a world where increasingly, the old ways are being replaced.
At Putney, we now teach design thinking as part of our year 9 curriculum – a bespoke course in addition to design technology and computer science where students are encouraged to employ skills from a range of disciplines in a practical way. Whether they’re designing innovative app prototypes or competing to build the best autonomous robot, an understanding of software engineering, project management and product design will serve them well, whatever career path they travel.
So, in these most unusual times, as the cohorts of 2020–21 prepare to embark on their adult lives, how should they distinguish themselves? Many would argue that they already have, through the resilience, adaptability and good humour they have shown in the face of rapid change and uncertainty.
One thing they can be certain of is that they are scholars in every sense of the word. The way we do things may be changing, but these young people have the knowledge, the skills and most importantly the mindset to continue their learning journey far into the future – just what this brave new world needs to get back on track.