It has occurred to me that a weekly reflection about our school will be a valuable communication tool for our community, both teachers and parents. Feel free to respond to me with comments and feedback.

As we grow into a larger school, with new parents and new teachers all the time, it is vitally important that we retain, refine and build on our successes, while we correct our mistakes and strengthen areas of weakness.

Because we have not bound ourselves to any fixed educational system of philosophy, it is important I begin to articulate and communicate our core principles to us all, especially since not everyone has been introduced to our founding ideals communicated regularly at our Info Talks. I will gradually compile these reflections into something of a school booklet that will serve any newcomers in acquiring a sense of our ethos and the expectations of our community.

For this week, I reflect on the story of establishing our school, and how the way we have established it has directly informed our educational model.

We conceptualised Kairos School along the ideal of creating the most effective school for contemporary, urban society, with 21st century Johannesburg society as its particular context. From the outset, it has always been clear to me that the “most effective” school in our context cannot be created entirely on idealistic lines, as if the school exists on an island with every single child guaranteed to continue through to adulthood within the same system. Contemporary society necessitates mobility, and therefore Kairos students need to be empowered to cope in other schooling contexts, even those contexts have educational cultures which are often not ideal, and sometimes even anti-educational from a certain point of view.

For example, in an “ideal world”, tests would be entirely diagnostic tools which would be utilised by the teacher-parent-student partnership to ascertain the gaps of understanding in a particular area of a student’s knowledge, as well as the gaps in the curriculum from the point of view of the child. In an ideal world, tests would assess what students know, not what they don’t know. In the “real world”, however, tests generally measure a very narrow area of knowledge, and anyway do not measure the student’s knowledge of a subject but rather his or her skill at writing tests. A correct answer seldom indicates understanding but rather capacity of memorization and decoding ability of the codes and clues in the test question, and an incorrect answer can often disguise good logical thinking processes that led to that answer. Also, a good mark in a school test generally means a child is able to manage time pressure well and can complete a large number of questions quickly, rather than any indication that the child understands the content of the discipline with any depth.

Nevertheless, in the “real world”, it is judicious for children to be familiar with the skills of decoding test questions and completing questions quickly, because that is what today’s schools generally require. While it’s vital to celebrate the multiplicity of “intelligences”, we also must work on the progress in academic skills as well as test-writing skills. At Kairos School we champion the ideal of deep and thorough understanding of content, as well as celebrating each child’s broad competence in all areas of life, while we also recognise that the capacity for speed and learning the codes and cues of tests are necessary “life skills” of a School, even though these “life skills” tend to be less relevant for life.

Obviously it is inevitable that I have leaned heavily on my educational experience in founding Kairos, and in joining us in 2012 Maya has leaned heavily on hers.  Therefore our school carries much of the ideas and values implicit and explicit in the alternative schooling systems of Rudolf Steiner and Jiddu Krishnamurti, respectively. I was thoroughly introduced to Steiner through my time at Emerson College, UK, and Michael Mount Waldorf School in Joburg, and Maya was head teacher of the visual arts at Brockwood Park in Hampshire, UK.

The Waldorf School system that has arisen from the ideas of Rudolf Steiner has been the inspiration for a wide variety of aspects of our school: the integrated-studies system of the month-long theme; the emphasis on storytelling according to particular story genres according to the children’s age; the unlined books and the emphasis on drawing; the other arts such as painting and drama; craftwork as separate from art; the traditional playground games; and the class rhythm of interspersing focused activity with more relaxed expressive activity.

The Krishnamurti Schools, of which Maya’s Brockwood Park is a shining example, has inspired our emphasis on the relationship between student and teacher; our invitation for students to negotiate with us our school rules and agreements; the connection between child-oriented art and the modern adult art world; as well our inviting students to influence some of the content and educational procedures of our lessons.

Furthermore, my own background in the BoysToMen mentoring network has inspired our daily check-in with our feelings; our Non-Violent Communication method of conflict resolution from Marshall Rosenberg; as well as some of our use of facilitation and role play for resolving some emotional issues that sometimes confront us from time to time. And my knowledge of educational theory and exposure to tertiary practices has informed my introduction of our LiD research projects; our Multiple Intelligences assessment framework; and our use of Philosophy for Children (P4C) techniques.

It is important to note that we have clearly not bound ourselves to one fixed educational system or model. From the outset, we have allowed a strong emergent impulse to be present in the school, so that we remain responsive and flexible to what we notice in the classroom, the playground and the parent community, always informed by our own gut instinct of what is right for any moment or context. The result has been an unusually effective learning environment where our children are both unusually happy to attend school and unusually motivated to engage in learning, compared to conventional schools in the marketplace. It is clear that without the usual pressure associated with conventional schools our students have been making excellent academic progress.

This combination of happiness and motivation to learn has been our great success and the source of our quick growth in student numbers. We have always described the philosophical rationale for our educational model in our Info Talks and Power Points and the Parent’s Pack, but it seems our success really comes down to this simple duet. We have children who are happy to come to school, eager to meet their classmates and their teachers, yet we have not had to compromise their academic progress. It is vital we retain these two principles as we expand into a larger school.

This emergent school system aligns neatly with the Sri Aurobindo Ghose’s idea (quoted in P B Saint-Hilaire’s 1961 excellent account of his educational philosophy, Education and the Aim of Human Life) of an “ever-renewing curriculum”. This was mirrored later by Postman and Weingartner’s superb 1969 polemic on conventional schooling, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, with their principle of an “ever-renewing society” — the entire book which is uploaded on our website.

Kairos School therefore finds itself in a conscious balancing act between the tension of endeavouring to offer its students an ideal education, with a broad, deep, far-sighted, life-relevant and meaningful curriculum, while at the same time offering its students the opportunity to acquire the “tricks of the trade” in the system of schooling, as it is known today. The reality that we only have a fixed amount of time in a school day and week results in this balancing act, which is a dynamic and ever-renewing one while we continue to maintain and refine the elusive balance.

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