When she was 13 my daughter, Thea, spent a month at Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia as an exchange student. I was privileged to visit on a few occasions. There are many Quaker schools in Philadelphia – the city of brotherly love founded by one of the early Quakers, William Penn – and most have decamped to the leafy suburbs and are now almost indistinguishable from other expensive private foundations. GFS remained in what is now a very poor, mainly black part of the city, a haven of calm amidst decaying brownstone buildings and dirty streets. Its Meeting room, wood panelled and spacious and set amongst trees and grass, dated from the 17th century. About 50% of the school population are from the local neighbourhood and supported by generous bursaries. The other considerably more wealthy 50% come to the school because of a belief in the liberal values, which probably prompted the Obamas to choose a Quaker school.


Thea loved the freedoms she encountered there. She had freedom to wear whatever she felt like. It was sometimes difficult to distinguish staff from students in their uniform of cut off shorts and t-shirts with political slogans. The only stipulation was that logos celebrating alcohol or drugs  were not tolerated: a blow to the Scottish rugby players on exchange sporting their sponsored tops. When staff and students spoke together, all used first names. Thea had freedom to attend lessons or not; to determine the nature of assignments; to decide whether to hand these assignments in or not. The young people took responsibility for the community, as they do at Boothams in York: some seniors were organising coaches for the school and wider community for a political march in Washington while we were there, for example. Most of all, she had freedom – nay encouragement – to express opinions, however divergent, however radical, as long as she listened to and respected the viewpoints of others. She reveled in the permission to let go of the all pervasive conflict between being popular and clever: at GFS she could be both.

But I think her most important learning was about herself. And this, in part, was due to the internal reflection encouraged by the peace and stillness of the daily silent meeting.

In an article called ‘Obama’s daughters could find themselves heading to Yorkshire to visit the ‘twin’ of their Quaker school’, Janet Murray describes the morning meeting, perhaps the most distinctive feature of Quaker education. .. There are almost 500 students and there doesn’t appear to be a seating plan, but everything is calm and orderly. … They sit in silence for a full 15 minutes … The meeting is a period of silent worship, which is open to everyone. There are no priests or hierarchy; in a Quaker meeting everyone is equal, so anyone can speak or ‘minister’ if they wish to. This deep regard for equality is at the heart of Quaker education.

I was reminded of a comment made by a former student of mine, encountered 20 years after she had been in my P5 class. She remembered me not for the clarity of my expositions, not even for my theatrical telling of tales, but the times when ‘we sat and did nothing’. She echoed what a student in the article said: Periods of silence help you relax so when you go to lessons, you’re in a good state of mind. I had endeavoured to create some calm by focusing on a lovely picture or piece of music to my somewhat unruly classes at least once a week.

‘Tranquil’ is a word rarely associated with my daughter and I, unfortunately. Perhaps we benefit more than others from enforced periods of stillness. I do feel that such moments are beyond price. Maybe we should do more in school to stand and stare, to spend time in contemplation as well as in active learning, to meditate on the big questions. I think we owe it to our children as well as to ourselves to take time just ‘doing nothing’.

I have for years espoused the notion of active, experiential learning. I believe it is essential for developing cognitive and interpersonal skills. However, it is tempting to confuse physical activity with understanding: sometimes mere activity masquerades as learning. There is a more complex choice than that between didactic teaching and constant movement. Unwarranted movement in class may be no more than displacement commotion, giving the illusion of learning but failing to develop thinking.

 Genuine differentiation focuses on the use of the most effective and learner-centred method to ensure the greatest understanding. So whereas some students will learn most effectively by being involved in physical activity, others will benefit from teacher exposition or quiet pondering. Reflection and the assimilation of complex information are active too.