St Peter's Prep Schools ... The Difference Part 4

  • July 16, 2020 | Greg Royce: Rector

Last week I began dealing with the four elements that schools had at their disposal to educate children.  Only Curriculum was covered.  Methodology, Staff and Environment follow in this part.

1. Methodology

By methodology, I mean methods used to transfer knowledge to children or adults.Methodologies have developed and been created in response to developments in human psychology and neuroscience.There are consequently hundreds of named methodologies but it is interesting that those most in line with current research bear much in common with Aristotle’s methods.

Many schools espouse a particular type, including the flipped classroom, blended learning, enquiry-based learning, Kip McGrath, Accelerated Christian Education, Montessori, Singapore Maths, Master Maths, Kumon, amongst others.

St Peter’s is not wedded to one, single method.It recognises that each child is unique and learns differently.As such, our approach is non-sectarian and we use a variety of the best possible methods that we can find.

We believe that although children arrive with different levels of aptitude, they all have equal potential and no matter how any individual struggles, we continue to hold the belief that with more effort and different techniques, he/she has the potential to achieve alongside his/her peers.Thus, rather than give a child 56% for Maths and move on to the next concept, we would prefer that we say that the child hasn’t grasped it yet and should continue to grapple until the concept has been mastered. 

Our goal is to personalise learning as far as we are able for each individual pupil.


2. Staff

We’ve discovered that St Peter’s often takes longer to appoint staff than our competitors. In the last decade, it has become commonplace to advertise three times for a post until we find the person we want.We think the reasons are as follows:

2.1. We seek staff whose track record demonstrates a genuine empathy for children and a delight in seeing young people develop.  We want people who see teaching as a career and not simply as a job.  No-one at St Peter’s works half-day.

2.2. We seek team players.  Traditional teaching, strangely, does not include the element of team as strongly as this occurs in other professions. Architects work in teams as do doctors involved in surgery and lawyers preparing for a case.  In the main, teachers traditionally entered the classroom, closed the door and got on with it.

In the notable experiment conducted by the evolutionary biologist, William Muir, in the 1990s, average laying chickens were grouped as were prolific layers. After two generations, the average flocks were still laying, while the prolific laying group was decimated having pecked each other to death.The results were applied to human behaviour and have subsequently been endorsed by other researchers and particularly by Martin Reeves, Simon Levin and Daichi Ueda. Essentially, the research demonstrates that groups which include ‘rockstar’ performers, will almost always be out-performed by groups with normal IQs, provided that they have a high degree of social sensitivity, give each other roughly equal time and are helpful to each other. A majority of women in the group also has a positive effect. The adverse situation exhibits unhealthy competition, selfishness and adverse performance. Examples cited include well-known European soccer franchises and companies such as Amazon and Enron.                                                                                         

Lesson and curriculum planning are required to be done in groups at St Peter’s.Unsurprisingly, the sharing of ideas results in better quality thinking, enhanced learning opportunities for pupils, collective accountability and continuous improvement for the individuals involved.

2.3. Traditionally, teachers were viewed as professionals and the ‘font of all wisdom’ and were consequently left to their own devices by Heads of schools.  Other than checking that the curriculum was being followed, lessons prepared and marking of work was being done, teachers were free to adopt their methodology of choice.  Moreover, despite the training they’ve had, many teachers revert to practices they experienced as pupils at school. Recent discoveries in the fields of psychology and neuroscience have allowed us to dramatically improve pupils’ ability to learn.

It is our experience that many of the above developments have yet to be included in the curricula of university education departments. Consequently, St Peter’s has a comprehensive training programme to educate new staff in the ‘St Peter’s Way’. Some of the topics in this programme are covered in this article. It comes as a substantial challenge for experienced trained teachers to have to unlearn some methods which were previously approved and to break habits. Many find our approach to positive discipline, encouragement and high expectations difficult to implement if they have been accustomed to enforcement of a list of ‘rules’.Some are not used to tolerating pupil mistakes.

As a consequence, we seek teachers who are open to growth.  In order to grow, one must receive criticism and be open to this. The attitude we require is that of a ‘growth mindset’ as defined by the psychologist, Carol Dweck. Many teachers are ‘soft-centred’, gentle, loving and confrontation averse.  It’s just as well since they’re looking after our children!  We don’t want them to change, this is exactly the personality required to encourage children. We do, however, want them to learn not to take criticism personally, but to see it as a means to improve in the same way we want them to demonstrate to children that it’s fine to make mistakes, accept criticism and to learn from this.


3. Environment

Aside from our growing knowledge of the importance of environment, we also understand that the learning environment that suits children is often very different from that of adults.How is it that so many seem to be able to study while their ears are assaulted by deafening music!

As regards the classrooms, our preference is for as much space as possible and the freedom to use furniture to create dedicated areas e.g. for reading, group work, research and so on.These need to be changed from time to time and so the type of furniture is important.Tables on wheels, rather than desks, for different configurations.A choice between stools and chairs, also on wheels or sliders for easy movement.Boys like to move. Tell them to sit still and keep silent and their brains switch off! The colour Yellow stimulates alpha brainwaves and assists in learning.

The mental environment includes all those influencers which affect character, motivation and mental health.  There are many conventions, protocols and traditions in the traditional schooling system which constitute the school’s ethos. Some practices are disagreeable and even unacceptable and amount to psychological toxins.  These include humiliating initiation rituals, narrow categories for recognition, over-emphasis of the importance of certain extra-murals and even subjects, racism, sexist and homophobic conventions. The danger exists that so many of these conventions have existed for so long that it does not occur to people to question them.  It’s simply the ‘way we do things’. 

Maslow's Hierachy

An effective way of auditing the ethos is to gauge whether or not its practices meet the needs of Maslow’s Hierarchy.   If any failed to provide all pupils with an equal opportunity for recognition, development self-esteem or the opportunity to self-actualise, they should be replaced.

Since ‘self-examination’ of a vast, intricately woven and imbedded set of practices constituting the ethos is such a complex exercise, St Peter’s has turned to Professor Martin Seligman’s discipline of Positive Psychology.

This school of thought seeks not merely to treat mental illness, but to make life more productive and fulfilling and to identify and nurture talent. We use the 6 essential elements to evaluate all aspects of our ethos.This is a work in progress and a summary is set out in the table below.