It is fascinating to think of schools as microcosms of society each with their unique ethos created by the multilingual and multicultural richness of the society in which they exist, and that each individual brings with them. I have always been fascinated by the prospect of creating a teaching, learning, leadership and community in the classroom and throughout the school that not only reflects and celebrates this multilingualism and multiculturality, but which also uses it as the basis of its philosophy of education to drive every aspect of the teaching and learning process.

This vision lies at the heart of the philosophy of education and school leadership that I have been developing during a lifetime in education and that has now become known as the Joy of Not KnowingTM (Staricoff, 2021) and that offers, as part of the daily routine of the classroom of the classroom and of the school day, the opportunity for every individual  to think multilingually when accessing the curriculum and to co-exist as part of a multicultural classroom.

In order to imagine how this vision translates into practice, the Joy of Not Knowing approach (JONKTM) describes three principal strategies to introduce the concept to the children during the JONK Learning to Learn Week. This is a week dedicated to equipping children with all the tools, strategies and dispositions that enables them to become effective lifelong learners and to be able to thrive socially, emotionally and academically during the year.

In the first scenario, children are encouraged to launch into their learning in the language of their choice. Taking away the constraints of engaging in the learning by only being able to use the language of instruction is extremely powerful, enabling the child to engage with the learning not just cognitively but emotionally too. Let’s take the example of writing a poem. Very often the child would feel much more comfortable to express their feelings and thoughts in a language that is not the language of instruction. They would write the poem in their preferred language and then create a second version using the language of instruction.

In the second scenario the child is offered the opportunity to use more than one and their whole repertoire of language to engage with the task, using a pre-determined structure set up by the teacher. If, once more, we use the example of writing a poem, this structure may involve writing alternate verses in alternate languages or if creating a Mind Map, the student is tasked to creating different branches of the Mind Map using different languages.

In the third scenario, the child is completely free to use their entire repertoire of language and cultural heritage to think through and complete the task, without there being any pre-set parameters or constraints. For example, I recall a child who had lived with her family in Peru for two years who would complete the home learning tasks by using a complete mixture of English and Spanish and often embellishing her work with aspects of Peruvian culture.

When the children, families and staff begin to feel that the school embraces a multilingual and multicultural ethos and culture, the partnership with families is strengthened and the benefits become multifaceted. Indeed, research shows that thinking, learning and co-existing in a multilingual and multicultural school environment offers so many emotional, cognitive, social and neurological benefits and these benefits are felt in equal proportion by the multilingual child as well as the monolingual child.

The Joy of Not Knowing approach introduces a philosophy of education that every practitioner can use to design and create the conditions that maximise the emotional well-being of the child before they meet the learning. Removing the anxiety of not knowing, of feeling uncertain, of having to encounter new concepts, of not being able to access the learning are all critical aspects of enabling the children to feel able to thrive and to succeed, to embrace uncertainty and to develop an intrinsic motivation for wanting to know, what they know they don’t know. The multilingual thinking in multicultural classrooms approach to education is a fantastic vehicle with which to engage the learners emotionally and create the conditions in which they can all succeed. This is because the culture created brings to life the wonderful sentiments expressed by Nelson Mandela when he said:‘if you talk to a man in a language that he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart’.

When the experiences at school go to the heart, the transformational impact that education has on children’s lives is endless and lasts for life. I hope that this piece has inspired to have a go, it is extremely exciting to see what may arise.