James Nottingham’s first inspiration was Philosophy for Children (P4C). As a teenager, he hated school – partly because of personal circumstance and partly because he resented the outdated content and teaching methods of the 1980s. So, when he came across P4C in the early 1990’s, he took to it like a duck to water; here was an approach to learning that questions, challenges, inquiries and encourages healthy scepticism. It teaches students ‘how’ to think rather than ‘what’ to think and he loved it. Still does in fact.
The second inspiration was something he rallied against – the national curriculum. Not that he’s against curricula in general, but in this case, he was: the first national curriculum for England & Wales, introduced in 1993, pushed creativity and the arts to the edge of school life, replacing them with a ‘tick box’ culture in which teachers had literally hundreds of descriptors they had to ‘tick off’ as soon as they had taught them. It was as if there was a cookbook that had to be followed – using each recipe just the once so that by the end of the year, all students would be well-fed and ready to be weighed.
Champions of this new curriculum banged the drum of ‘grades and standards’ and rallied against anything thought to be contrary to this, including the arts, creativity – and at the time, P4C (despite the overwhelming evidence that P4C contributes positively towards grades as well as to its central focus of developing critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinking).
This ’curriculum vs. creativity’ debate polarised opinions unnecessarily, setting up a false dichotomy between content and creativity. Many people knew it was possible to have both, but many disagreed and sought to expel ‘extra-curricular’ topics from the timetable. So, it was in this context that James tried to find ways to bridge the gap by showing the benefits of P4C and explaining its approach to improving standards whilst also teaching creatively.
Then, in 2003, James heard John Edwards presenting his ideas about leadership, during which he described Bruce Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development (1965) as rather like going through a pit. That was his eureka moment; he thought to himself, whenever he runs P4C sessions, he takes students through a ‘pit’. They start with a concept; interrogate it to the point of confusion; collect together the most important characteristics; and then form a new and better understanding of the concept.
Following the conference, he got in touch with John Edwards and with his blessing, James created what he is now known as the Learning Pit. James also developed four stages to the model: Concept; Conflict; Construct; Consider, and then latterly published his ideas – first in a journal in 2007 and then in his first book, Challenging Learning (2010).
As is so often the case, the term, ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ seems absolutely applicable here. From Matthew Lipman and Ann Margaret Sharp, the creators of Philosophy for Children; to Chris Rowley, a senior lecturer at Charlotte Mason College who introduced James to P4C; John Edwards from the University of Queensland who was the first person James heard talking about a ‘pit’ to describe getting worse before getting better; to those throughout James’s career who have challenged, encouraged and supported him to refine the Learning Pit even further, including Jill Nottingham, Martin Renton, Steve Williams, Will Ord, Barry Hymer, Roger Sutcliffe, Karin Murris, Sara Liptai, Carmen Bergmann and George Telford. All of these people have played their part in helping to shape what has become one of the most popular and enduring heuristics of learning to emerge in the last twenty years.