Circles for Learning at Lewes New School by Alison Waterhouse.

At Lewes New School we introduced a project called Circles for Learning into school two years ago. We had been lucky enough to employ its creator Alison Waterhouse as a Consultant and were fascinated by the project she described.

Circles for Learning is a unique whole class inquiry led project that introduces a baby and Mum to the class to develop observations, stimulate discussions and research which then lead to a variety of activities with the children. The Mum and baby visit once a month for an hour at a time for a year or longer.

The notion of ‘Slow Food’ inspired a global movement when hamburgers came head to head with the culinary heritage of Italy more than two decades ago. Since then, ‘Slow’ has become something of a cultural revolution – encompassing not just food but travel, product design, town planning, business, parenting and every imaginable aspect of life.

A growing number of educators believe that schools, too, could learn a thing or to from the pursuit of slow. British children are among the most heavily tested in the world yet, as the Slow Education manifesto suggests, “the results are unreliable, it distorts teaching, and undermines the capacity of students to think independently and deal with the challenges of life today”.

The Lewes New School has been offering this approach to primary education for more than 15 years. Children work in mixed age classes on inquiry-led, collaborative projects that allow them to follow their own interests and actively construct, and reflect on, their own ideas. Children’s wellbeing is recognised as the foundation of all learning so opportunities to nurture relationships and promote wellbeing are woven into the fabric of everyday life at the school. The Circles for Learning Project fitted well with the ethos of the school.

We were able to undertake the project in our Year 3 and 4 class and also in our Year 5 and 6 class where it has provoked and stimulated a wide range of activities, questions and discussion with the children. We were lucky enough to have two parents in nursery who were really interested in the project and who volunteered to bring in their babies and share the journey that they and their little ones went on with the children. Both little ones were completely different which of course stimulated very different observations, discussions and follow up activities and research. There were however 3 main threads that ran through the work in both classes: skills we need for learning, social and emotional skills including emotional literacy, empathy and resilience and neuroscience, all of which linked to wellbeing.

The children have all fully engaged with the project and have become extremely fond of their ‘class baby.’ They have benefited tremendously from watching early blocks for learning being laid down and learning unfold. It has allowed and encouraged the classes, with their teachers, to explore the skills they need for learning and how these develop. It has also enabled them to explore the importance of relationships and observe how a safe and secure relationship enables a baby to be curious and explore and how this develops as the baby becomes a toddler. The children have then questioned what they have observed and linked this to their own development and ability to learn. With the help of their class teachers they have been able to undertake a range of research and activities stimulated by what they have seen and the questions they have asked.

Our focus within Lewes New School is very much on the process of learning and not just the end result. Staff work hard at providing and facilitating rich and creative experiences for their children and so the Circles of Learning Project very much linked with the practice already established within school. The richness of the experience and what the children have gained from the project is delightful. Our Year 5/6 class engaged in research leading to a final debate which evolved from the question ‘Does love grow brains?’ This finally led to the focus of the debate ‘Do you need love to learn?’ A fascinating couple of weeks ended in a mornings debate in which the children discussed, argued and presented evidence to support their point of view. For the Year 3/4 class whose baby was very shy and reticent when she arrived in class for each observation discussion about feelings and emotions and how they make us behave led to several weeks work about how we learn, when we learn best and how do we get ourselves into the ‘learning zone?’ which then lead to what is thinking? And what sort of self talk do we experience?

We have found that Circles for Learning has continued to extend the rich language of learning that the school has developed over the years and has supported children both observe and understand that learning is not a static thing but something that grows and develops as they themselves grow. It has strengthened the relationships between children and teachers within the classroom as children have explored questions, thoughts and beliefs about learning and shared these with each other. It has added to the culture and environment that school has created to enable children to explore and develop an understanding of emotional literacy and how what we feel and think can impact on our behaviour. It has linked with the growing work on mindfulness that Lewes New School undertakes and supporting children manage their learning and self regulation. It has really developed an ability to think and wonder about another person, how they might feel and how they may experience a situation and therefore strengthened the development of empathy. It of course has also led to questions and exploration about what it means to be a parent and how having children impacts on your life, your thinking and the way you live. For many children the observations have led them to think about how a parent puts the needs of another first and how important that is for the child their development and how this experience impacts on how they believe the world works and how difficult this can be. This need to think about what we as individuals need and also what the community in which we live needs be it home, family or class, school or the wider community has provoked thought and debate that has encouraged inclusion, community and sense of belonging.

So what have the children thought?

‘Amazing and something all schools should do’

‘I’ve really enjoyed watching baby Theo and how he has developed through the different phases. It has been really interesting to watch him as he has grown and felt more confident in exploring away from his Mum.’

‘I have enjoyed learning about other people’s minds and what they may be thinking and experiencing.’

‘I have learnt a lot about how we all learn and the skills I need for learning, it has been great fun.’

Circles for Learning has been a rich experience for both children and adults alike and this has emerged from the very fact that it is ‘slow’. Given time to watch and wonder about another human being, children develop empathy and a greater understanding of their own needs and the needs of others which has had an impact on each individual and the class as a whole.

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Alison Waterhouse is the founder of Circles for Learning, founding head of a Therapeutic Special School, an SEN Consultant and Educational Psychotherapist based in Kent, UK.

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