The Headteacher: Preparing students for tomorrow’s workplace

Evaluative  thinking can deliver the knowledge needed to form new ideas
Evaluative thinking can deliver the knowledge needed to form new ideas

As a headteacher, I’m acutely aware of the fact we’re preparing children to go out and work in jobs that probably don’t even exist yet, which is why I believe the education we provide should be as much about encouraging creative and evaluative thinking as about learning facts.

The best way to prepare today’s students for tomorrow’s workplace is by embedding the skills they need to think independently and to instil the confidence to draw on their foundation of knowledge in order to form and apply new ideas.

People who, from an early age, can evaluate, compare and draw useful conclusions from apparently disparate facts are in a better position to use their own initiative in the workplace.

I was very interested in a recent report into the changing fortunes of UK cities over the last 100 years, which concluded that the ability of each city’s workforce to adapt had been the most important factor in determining their economic performance.

During a century which saw many cities decline as their traditional resource or local manufacturing base fell, those which thrived made a point of replacing them with adaptive and innovative business environments for the 21st century.

The Centre for Cities report found that, whereas 100 years ago a city’s natural resources bred success, now it’s the quality of the people. Those with a fixed mindset are left behind, while those who embrace change as a challenge to inspire new ideas are more likely to succeed.

Darwin himself concluded the most powerful species were those which adapted to change without losing their fundamental identity. “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change,” he said.

Equally, as a school, we have to adapt to meet the changing demands of society. We’ve done this very successfully over 500 years, during which time our motto, Virtute et Veritate (With Courage and With Truth) has served us well.

Learning something new sometimes means having the courage to take risks in our learning, to explore theories and ideas even if ultimately they’re discarded. This takes a certain self-confidence – but is also essential if we are to grow.

Life also teaches us that those who do best aren’t afraid of failure, rather, they use it as an opportunity to learn and improve, and this informs our teaching approach at Pocklington School.

We pride ourselves on the quality of our relationships in the pastoral, but also the academic sense, and foster a classroom environment that motivates students to have a go. Effort is recognised and valued alongside good results at every level.

Youngsters from the Early Years onwards are encouraged to illustrate the same sort of independent thought in academic work as they do outside the classroom. Lessons are planned around giving them the opportunity to evaluate and apply knowledge, rather than simply acquiring and retaining facts.

With our youngest pupils, we might introduce this by asking more probing questions, asking them to make comparisons, and encouraging debate. Once the skill of breaking something down into its relative merits, and evaluating it, is embedded, the ability to compare and draw conclusions is easily transferable.

It works well across all abilities and is an approach parents can easily encourage, too, by asking more searching, open-ended questions. A debate about the relative merits of a McDonald’s and KFC, for example, could be steered into one about the sort of fast food restaurant they’d create.

So-called Higher Order Thinking has always been part of a rounded education but we’re becoming more and more aware of the importance of those techniques to best equip children to lead a successful life after school.

We’re planning to introduce a cross-curricular homework project for this summer term, to encourage students to make connections between what they’re doing in various subjects. This teaches them that what’s useful in one area can be equally applied to another.

This approach is equally valuable in bringing out the best of our more able students.

For the last five years, we’ve been offering sixth form students the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ), which allows them to be examined on a piece of independent research into an area which interests and enthuses them.

Their research can be presented either as a mini-dissertation, or in a variety of practical artefacts, a process which, although supervised by teachers, encourages students to be self-motivated enough to research and think independently.

By selecting a topic they’re particularly interested in and exploring it at a deeper level than their A-level text books, they’re demonstrating the sort of initiative and independent thinking that universities are looking for and will make them stand out among the other top grade students.

Similarly, we responded to requests from students and are piloting off-timetable Greek and computer science GCSE’s for those who have a particular enthusiasm or aptitude. We also support year 11 pupils who wish to apply for the prestigious Arkwright Engineering Scholarship, and talented mathematicians enjoy the challenge of entering the national Olympiad competitions, which tests them at the highest level.

We work with many external educators, too, in order to take advantage of the new skills and innovate techniques evolving to help bring out the best in our students. Education consultant Mike Fleetham,, visited our year 7 and 8 students to introduce strategies which foster creative, evaluative thinking, and worked with teachers to help them develop fresh approaches to helping students at all levels of ability to benefit from a curious and proactive attitude to learning. Elevate Education have worked with our sixth form students as part of their exam preparation.

The ability to evaluate, apply and synthesise knowledge is a skill that gives people the edge, whether they’re five, eighteen or fifty, and regardless of academic ability. The world of work we’re ultimately preparing young people for requires them to be collaborative, with the inner resources to work well both independently and collectively, inspired by others’ success and seeing failure as an opportunity to learn.

At Pocklington School, we seek to produce the sort of young people who don’t take things at face value, who can ask questions and interpret information.

In short, we see it as our duty to nurture people who are not only valuable members of an innovative, flexible and successful community and workforce, but are capable of leading it into the future.