The Schools We Don’t Want

There are plenty of people ready to speak out about the type of schooling we no longer want, the industrial model education of yesterday that gets perpetuated in slightly altered forms despite the weight of voices to speak out against it. I’m as guilty as the next man for this. Prominent people who’ve stressed the need to get away from this model include Seth Godin, Sir Ken Robinson and now George Monbiot, British writer on politics and society;

The Guardian – George Monbiot – In the Age of Robots, Our Schools Are Teaching Our Children to be Redundant

George Monbiot is a respected writer on society, politics and a prominent columnist on important issues. In the article, with perfect justification, he attacks the industrial model of education, the gaps between what’s going on in too many schools today and the skills young people need to really flourish in the Twenty First Century and the relevance and applicability of much of the knowledge being crammed in to children. He also does a reasonable job of highlighting some of the reasons why, despite all the protests, little changes.

However, it’s when Monbiot, like many other commentators before him, comes to the alternatives that we see one of the reasons why change is so difficult. He gives a number of examples – giving students ipads, taking them out in to nature, imaginary project tasks, Reggio Emilia but for many educators, parents and even the politicians the sheer variety of these different options seems to be what daunts them and eventually causes them to settle for little tweaks around the edge of the existing industrial paradigm model.

For example – if we take the ‘getting back to nature’ idea, I know plenty of urban brought up children for whom this would be a minor form of hell. They would be uncomfortable with dirt, uncertainty, potential dangers and risks. Some might also be unsettled by the uncertainty of purpose, with the result that their learning in that environment is very limited and they just count off the time until they can get back inside a building.

Taking the artificially constructed projects idea, I was recently intrigued by the ideas developed by Marc Prensky (the man who came up with the terms – digital natives and digital immigrants) in his book – “Education to Better Their World.” He sees a future where a great deal of children’s school time is spent on real projects with real implications and real impacts. I don’t think anyone knows exactly how such an approach would work, yet. But, it’s going to be fascinating to follow through on those ideas.

At one point, Monbiot’s article becomes more about teachers than children. I’m afraid i don’t buy in to his ideas that if you just leave teachers to do whatever they wish and go individually in whatever direction they choose, this will deliver the answers. With justification, parents and society cannot accept that the educational outcomes for an individual child become a mere lottery and a game of chance determined by who happens to be their teacher. We also cannot be naive that teaching is ‘a calling’ and a passion for every teacher in every classroom. For an enormous number it’s a job choice out of a variety. In such circumstances, we need clarity in our expectations, we need accountability and a strong commitment to supporting the learning and continuous improvement of the educators.

I don’t claim that I’ve got all the answers any more than anyone else as to exactly how a the most ideal school education programme should look going forward. However, I believe for all of us collaboratively, the answers lie in developing our understanding of the world our children are growing up in, their needs for the future; emotionally, socially, economically and spiritually (in the broadest sense). The child and their interrelationship with their world now in the future should drive our decision making.

Mixed Outcomes From Delaying School Start Times

Over the last few years there has been a growing level of noise about shifting school start time for teenagers in high schools. The argument is that teenagers’ body clocks are running on different time and that, to acknowledge that, we shouldn’t ask them to get up so early in the morning and school should start later.

I’ve read a lot on this and, my son for one would hate to hear me say it – I never really bought it. I remain open to be convinced, but as of now I just don’t believe the case has been made strongly enough.

Even before getting in to the science and the issues about children and their body rhythms there are, to my mind, some very obvious practical issues. In almost any city in the world, the one good piece of news with early school starts is that the commute time for children is reduced by the fact that they’re on the road to school before the worst of the traffic. As the early hours of the morning move forward, every 10 minutes later leaving home requires an extra 5 minutes on the road. So, you finish up with situations where a 45 minute shift in school start time only sees students leave school 20 minutes later than they were before. The rest of the time is ‘lost’ on the road in heavier traffic.

In addition, many families have their time routines dictated by the time parents need to leave for work. So, again, shifting the school start time may have relatively little impact for the child. practically, the family may still need the child to get up at about the same time.

Then, we come to all the reasons why this was being suggested in the first place.

When I was growing up, there was a continual game going on between me and my sisters and our parents. The object of the game from our perspective was to use every kind of subterfuge or time-wasting excuse to stay up. My son did exactly the same thing from an early age. I think it’s driven by all sorts of things. FOMO – fear of missing out is one part. In addition, there was television and that always seemed to offer the most interesting and tempting fare just after the allotted time for going to bed.

For children today two significant things have happened. Firstly, the temptations of media have multiplied exponentially. So much so that the TV may hold relatively little interest compared with the PS4, social networking etc. Secondly, ‘discipline’ and rules are not as cut and dried as they were in my time, especially with teenagers. Parents find they have to ‘pick their battlegrounds’ with their oh so sensitive teens. Peer pressure says that everyone else stays up to whatever time they want, so attempts by parents to exert any kind of rules are seen as draconian and completely unreasonable. Thus, masses of research that shows that like most adults, teenagers are sleeping less now than in the past.

So, if this becomes habitual, should we really be surprised that they can’t get up in the morning, or that their body clocks accept this as normal?

There’s another problem that started, I think, with my generation and has only got worse since – the laying in at weekends. This is the idea that you can get yourself increasingly sleep deprived all week, and then make up the deficit by staying in bed late at weekends. All my understanding today of the evidence is that this is disastrous – a terrible thing to do and highly detrimental to the body clock and to many other aspects of effective functioning.

I have to acknowledge that I picked up this particular bad habit in my younger years and, at times, it’s been hard to escape from. So, I can quite understand how children today are even more quickly sliding in to the kinds of habits that don’t support them to be at their best in the morning.

The evidence is starting to come out, more and more, that this was a naive and simplistic response to a problem that is really, more than anything else an issue of self-discipline, good habits and persistence in the face of temptations. Here’s a recent article;

US News – Later High School Start Times Yield Mixed Results

My son recently had a change of travel arrangements to school. it meant he leaves the house around 20 minutes later than he used to. For the first couple of months, this was great news and he was fresher, on time and I didn’t have to chase him out of bed in the morning. However, over time, even though i encouraged him to stick to the previous bed time, he started to push the limits on the bed time. The result – probably as much struggle to get up on time for the later time as for the earlier time. The benefit of those 20 minutes has already gone.

As I said before, I’m still open to being convinced that there is a scientific basis to this – one that doesn’t simply reflect that adjusted sleep habits have their own outcomes. In the meantime, I’ll keep working on undoing the bad habits I’ve acquired regarding sleep over so many years. Maybe, ultimately, setting good example is the best thing I can do for my own child.

Raising Children in the ‘Post Truth’ World

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Here is an article that I wrote that was published in the January edition of Ipoh Valley of Dreams. I was provoked to write it in response to more and more media comments about the world we’re living in and the nature of politics in the world.

I found myself very conscious of the impact all this can potentially have on children and young people, growing up confronted by all this.

Selling The Future

As educators, when we talk to parents about our schools, our approaches to education and what should matter most in the education of children, we need to talk a lot about the future – the future of the child, the future of the world we are preparing the child to live in and how that child can be helped to have the maximum chances of success in that future. So, for example, we talk about the vital importance of developing the skills of being a lifelong learner. This doesn’t just impact our communication with parents, but also with teachers.

That’s a massive problem for us because, as Seth Godin makes clear in this blog post – the future doesn’t sell, but the present does.

Seth Godin blog – It’s Almost Impossible to Sell the Future

So, while we’re earnestly selling parents on the idea of their child’s long lifespan, the likelihood of multiple careers, need for flexibility, resilience, lifelong learning and re-learning skills etc., the parent just wants to ask, “What did my child score on this week’s Maths test?” Further, teachers are very often sold on the idea that their work only has real meaning and motivation for them if they’re engaged in activities that show immediate response – can I see that this child is better at using adjectives this week than last week, is the class better at reciting their seven times tables this week than they were at the end of last term?

I firmly believe that this is one of the biggest hurdles that gets in the way of the kind of reforms that education needs. Whilst those of us who’ve studied hard, worked to understand the latest research, strived to understand where the leading experts tell us the world is going in the future and then put in the tough work to figure out what that should mean for reforming education are, to some extent, destined to find many of the most important messages falling on deaf ears with the key stakeholders we need to carry with us.

They all want to know what’s appealing, shiny, new and now. In these circumstances, we shouldn’t be surprised that when schools are marketing or even when educators are sitting around planning together, the talk is almost entirely about how we can do what we do today, just a little bit better. This incrementalism feels comfortable to all concerned, but in a world that is changing as fast as ours, it may be doing a massive disservice to our children and producing a generation of children for whom it will be a matter of luck and exposure as to who is able to take most advantage and succeed. There would be way too many students lead to believe that if they diligently apply themselves as the teachers and their parents tell them, produce good scores and grades, that the world will be theirs. When they discover this isn’t the case, they’re going to feel sorely cheated.

Teachers have their motivation tied to seeing short term gains in children’s learning. So, focusing on the children’s acquisition of ‘stuff’ is inevitable. Parents and school leaders are also happy to focus on these things because they provide easy, simple and immediate measures for accountability. “How else would we know if the teacher is doing their job effectively?” they might all ask.

The challenge is that we need to find the right ways to steer our children’s education in an effective direction that provides a meaningful preparation for the future and the longer term, by carrying teachers and parents with us. This is a hard message to sell, and we’re going to need new ways to do that. The easy way out would be to settle for incrementalism and work to introduce a few future focused elements in an education approach which remains short-termist. However, I believe this would be to fail our children and we have to figure out how to make the future more appealing, believable and

Moving Learning Forward

Here’s a great new TED talk that will particularly appeal to anyone who’s bought in to the ideas and concepts of growth mindset. Whilst the headline and the promotion of the video may be focused on adults who want to get ‘unstuck’ in making progress in the things that matter to them in their lives, I believe it also carries some important and valuable lessons for education.

When planning for lessons and supporting children’s learning, it’s vitally that educators have clarity in their intent about when an activity is geared to learning and acquiring knowledge or competency and when it’s designed for practice. Too often, there’s a muddy vagueness about which we’re trying to achieve and a belief that if they’re merged together there will be discernible progress.

This process can also be made more overt and transparent with the young learners – so that they understand at any point in time whether they’re engaged in a learning activity or a practice activity.

Questioning Stereotypes on Millennials

We’ve been told many things about millennials as a way of identifying them as a group and being able to understand how they differ from those who were the generation that came before. it’s been very tempting at times for people to hear the suggestions about what defines millennials and to then look for clues to back up those beliefs.

So, we’ve been told that millennials are the laziest, flakiest, neediest and most self-absorbed generation that has ever lived. It’s said that they’re almost impossible to employ because they are so desperate for praise for even the slightest of effort, jump ship at the drop of a hat without developing any sense of loyalty or commitment and that they have been so pampered that they can’t take criticism.

It’s a truism that any attempt to take a whole ‘category of people’ and to generalise them in to a stereotypical definition and place them in a box is doomed to failure. But, it’s useful when we get actual data to enhance our understanding of what really goes on in the minds of any pre-defined group.

This really matters when we consider that over half of the world’s current population is under the age of 25. Incidentally, there are many definitions of what is a millennial, but the generally accepted textbook definition of a millennial is a person born between the years of 1982 and 2004. So, today our Secondary Schools, colleges and increasingly our working places contain sizable populations of these people. It’s often suggested that many of the problems for this generation stem from the fact that they were brought up in a climate of the ‘self-esteem’ approaches to child-rearing – a set of beliefs that criticism and negativity should never be used with children, that everything must build their self esteem.

So, it’s useful when there’s real research that seeks to determine whether/ how much truth there is in the stereotypes. The following video and article clearly demonstrate that (at least in the USA) the evidence is weak at best. For example, the interesting term ‘work martyrs’ (otherwise workaholics) applies more to millennials than to any other generation. These are the infamous American workforce members who don’t use all their vacation allowance.

World Economic Forum – Positive Narrative For the Global Community

The article also carries some other interesting data. It’s good to see that such a high proportion of millennials hold a positive perspective on the future. It would be easy to believe that, bombarded with negative media reporting, they would be beaten down to believe they lived in a world that was only going to get worse, certainly not better. They are, in fact a generation of optimists.

Their attitudes towards refugees in their countries or neighbourhoods shows that there is a caring and compassionate leaning that belies the reputation for self indulgence and self interest. The report and the survey don’t seem to touch upon why the levels of civic engagement by these people were so low in UK Brexit referendum or the American election. However, it does suggest that if they were more politically active and voting, their influence would lead to very different outcomes.

One belief of my own does seem to be borne out by the survey – these young people are more acutely in to money than those who went before. ironically, we know from other research that, at least until now circumstances have meant that they don’t make money in the ways of previous generations. It’s said that they are the first generation since the industrial revolution to make less in real terms at the same age than their own parents did. I think this highlights the need for leaders in organisations to engage these younger employees, to help them feel a greater sense of purpose, belonging and contribution to their organisations. However, we may still have to accept they’re more likely to gripe about the money! maybe we and they just have to live with that fact.

Whilst there’s encouragement in this video, the article and the research, I do believe that we need to paying more attention to changing the ways we educate and the ways we lead to get the best from these young people.

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