Intellectuals in the Sticks

Charlotte Weatherley, Assistant Head at Knighton House School, tells us how they encourage students to find their inner intellectual through exploration and creative thinking in the Dorset countryside.

Everywhere in fiction and meta-fiction there are cities and many stories are built on the duality of the urban narrative (and if you ask Dick Whittington or Emma Bovary it is as much emancipator as tormentor to the characters who inhabit it).

Using the metaphor of the seed to represent how cities grow, each emerging with its individual character, unique energy and canon of ideas, in Magdalena Tulli’s book ‘Dreams and Stones’ the narrator tells us, ‘when the city germinates, when it ripens and when it rots, it contains within itself all possibilities at once, and the entire plan of the world’. Within the plan, ‘every boy would become a pilot and every girl a schoolteacher’ (or vice-versa) but post-pandemic, aspirations for our children are changed; suddenly we distrust the ‘rot’ and no longer do we want an entire plan of the world, but only a safe space within it.

Does it necessarily follow that the sons and daughters of the urban cognoscenti (or any regular urbanite with children to educate) wants to send them to country schools? No; too much quiet and too much dark, with anything beyond the Home Counties intellectual rough country. But as one little rural prep school who offers ‘all possibilities at once’, and we are surely synonymous for all rural schools, in our countryside demesne you will find the Muses of intellect, creativity and inspiration alive and well – wearing masks and socially distancing – but still pretty muscular.

In Dorset, where we are, the energy with which our pupils ride ponies and climb trees is expended just as vigorously on intellectual pursuits. Our curriculum 2019-2020 took the theme of Heart, Mind and Body, shaping and driving all our planning, and although the closure of the school momentarily diverted us (we wrote a new curriculum for Lockdown), we unapologetically embrace intellectualism here and do not shy away from difficult concepts with which to engage our pupils. Without the pressure of performance (although we prepare for scholarship, we no longer sit Common Entrance) and from the safety of their bubbles, next term our pupils will have the luxury of engaging in critical thinking about the seismic changes brought about by global contagion; not least the likely landscape of their future working environments. Our recovery curriculum will be heaviest on promoting their intellectual wellness – bringing our pupils to a state of mind for learning again.

Focusing on Bronte’s use of language, Year 7 and 8 listened to the full audio version of Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ this year. Pupils added such a richness to their knowledge of vocabulary: ‘pelisse’, ‘contagion’, ‘resurgam’, ‘blanched’, ‘slattern’, have found their way into the girls’ lexical notebooks, more importantly, the story was a way in to understanding the mechanics of reading and how it continues to evolve, even after 5000 years of practice.

Learning about ‘Saccades’ and ‘Fixations’, we simply boggled at the way the brain makes meaning of text, and though they enjoyed Charlotte Bronte’s incredible novel thanks to the genius of YouTube, pupils had to think hard about the radical changes to the mechanics of reading brought about by this very technology. Using Maryanne Wolf’s award-winning article on reading in the digital age was a powerful why when it came to discussing the continued relevance of books from the past. ‘Skim reading is the new normal.’ says Wolf and ‘the effect on society is profound’. Wolfe describes how much we are losing (not least the deep dive into what matters) as we negotiate overwhelm on digital platforms.

Her readers of the future, those we have in the classroom now, must develop the habit of bi-literacy; able to decode the shorthand of social media (knowing your DM from your RT), they will also have the muscle to engage with hard, dense texts (like Jane Eyre) from the 19th century. And what about tri-literacy? Lockdown has shown that really great experiences for learners can take place on Teams and Zoom. Not sure about elsewhere, but out here in the shires, that is what we are talking about.

Picturesquely housed in the old stables, in our science lab the true Enlightenment concepts of logic and reason reign in lessons, but intellectually, what is equally important, is that pupils visualise how scientific concepts link together. So breathing, exercise and respiration form a quorum, with no one process to be viewed in isolation. Further, while logic says a 2D picture is truly a 3D object – the cells and vital organs of our bodies which make us live – we prefer a powerful reinforcer in the classroom to make that point come home to pupils; so it was that KS2 and KS3 spent an afternoon in February dissecting pig hearts; life and death processes; it’s our everyday in the countryside.

And do we know anything in the hinterlands of Caliope and Clio (the muses of epic poetry and history) and Erato and Euterpe (those of love poetry and music) or indeed the five others who make up the nine Muses of Greek mythology?

Ballet Rambert who visited us for a dance workshop prior to Lockdown, and indeed anyone who watched the girls carefully process each moment of the choreography (Christopher Bruce’s work ‘Rooster’ and ‘In your Rooms’ by Hofesh Schechter), would say yes. Thinking how much meaning could be conveyed in even the tiniest movement, pupils brought an intellectual quality to their interpretation of the dances, which in our discussion of the mind-brain debate we have already touched upon. The brain governs physical processes (such as moving the body in a certain way) and the mind interprets and refines the movement – or is it that simple? Up in the stables, that is likely to be one of the subjects being discussed, although not the only one; how to run a socially distanced equine event is a genuine worry for riders.

Intellectualising, by which we mean applying theories and analysing (something) intellectually or rationally, is at the heart of all our teaching – so pupils in a Geography lesson might think about the Hoyt and Burgess models for urban development (towns growing in concentric circles) but they will apply the theory with the clarity of their own villages in mind – the rural layout of these small communities a super reminder of how urban growth begins. Even more helpful, if we want to see the reality of coastal erosion, microclimates, or other geographical features, we hop on the minibus or stroll about the grounds to get our data.

Unashamedly building intellectual characteristics in our pupils (think independence, perseverance, optimism, courage, confidence in reason and fair-mindedness) and with no need to pay into the anxiety stress bucket of sitting highly competitive exams, unlike their city counterparts, rural schools have more in common with the philosophers of the 18th century: teach the child nothing (well not things they will forget straight after the entrance exams anyway) and let them think. It is just what we do in the sticks.

Written by Charlotte Weatherley, Assistant Head at Knighton House School.