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.

New Perspective on ADHD?

For quite a few years there have been people ready to at least hint that all might not be healthy around the issue of ADHD. Concerns have arisen about how the condition came in to existence, was recognised formally, how the pharmaceutical industry mad it a point to emphasise that this was a condition meriting long term treatment with powerful medicines and how it came to be diagnosed so readily that in some parts of the US one in eight children have had this label put on them.

When i talk about those who hinted that all was not well, one prominent person who immediately comes to mind is Dr Ken Robinson. For a long time he’s been questioning whether all is well, though prefacing most of his comments with a statement that he’s not qualified to say that ADHD doesn’t exist. People like robinson have to be very careful indeed. many have taken on the vested interests of the pharmaceutical industry and found that they paid a heavy price. For someone like him, discovering that routes to get his messages out about the needs for change in education would be a price too high to pay.

So, it struck me very forcefully when i saw that someone very prominent in the psychology field has now broken ranks and dared to come out and say just that – he doesn’t believe ADHD exists!

Power of Positivity – Harvard Psychologist Reveals ADHD Doesn’t Really Exist
(Click on the link above to read the article)

As you read the article, it’s very clear that Kagan isn’t just making a point about ADHD alone, but about the general pattern of over-diagnosis in the mental health profession that is having a devastating effect on too many people’s lives. Not every symptom is a reason for a diagnosis. He advocates for more time to be spent investigating causes.

In a school environment, I have often seen that it’s way too easy for the professional child carers to look for a simple diagnosis that can be dealt with when that’s what all the parties concerned are looking for. The parents want an answer for why their child is how they are (and why they’re different to other children) and the educators often want the child to comply more with norms so that educating in the classroom is made more consistent). In these circumstances, to explore causes means to unpick and expose all sorts of issues about the family, how they live, the patterns of their days and their interpersonal relationships, their communication, their routines (or lack of), their habits, their diet. Often, this is not what sits comfortably with the parents – with all the implications that they might have to take some responsibility for what’s happening with their child. Inadvertently, or otherwise, their actions may be at the root of their child’s problems. And who wants to be the professional taking parents down that route when the alternative is to tell them their child has a condition, common in their environment, and that it can be dealt with with an appropriate pharmacological solution.

We see in the article that Kagan has already come under attack for daring to speak out, and has been forced on to the defensive. The power of big pharma and entrenched attitudes are powerful indeed. His request that ‘we search a little deeper’ before diagnosing children is a perfectly reasonable one. However, I’m left feeling that as it’s not in the best interests of those concerned – the parents or the professionals, it’s not likely to change any time soon.

Changing Our Approach to Work

After the business barons got out of hand exploiting their workers with unhealthily long work shifts in awful conditions, the 8-hour shift came as good news and was almost luxurious for many. It went on to become embedded in the mentality of working people having been fought for and hard won. There was a slogan used by the campaigners that went, “Eight Hours for Work, Eight Hours for Rest, Eight Hours for What We Will!”

It’s held firm for a long time now, and been exported to every corner of the world. But, in so many ways it just plain doesn’t work any more. Here, this informative and entertaining article from Forbes highlights just some of those reasons – and suggests what could work so much more effectively for us.

Forbes – Why The 8-Hour Workday Doesn’t Work

While reading this I became aware of my own personal hangups that don’t make such changes easy. Early in my professional working life, it was the late 1980’s and i was working in a bank where there were a lot of very traditional and ‘set in their ways’ people. I had had many part time jobs during my student days and always worked hard. Here, suddenly, I was faced with an environment within which it was more important to be seen working and ‘busy’ than to actually get work done or achieve outcomes.

One of my biggest shocks was when i watched a senior gentleman who had just returned from his annual vacation labour for two whole days making lists of all the correspondence and work that had arrived on his desk during the two weeks he was away before he wrote a single letter in response or made a single phone call. It even troubled me that, in his absence, all work related to his clients was simply added to a growing pile on his desk. there was no comprehension that our responsibility was to meet needs of clients/ customers (and that a person’s holiday was an inadequate reason for them to go without service!)

There were time clocks in the office where each employee had to insert a plastic key that would then cause it to show how much time you had worked over the month. Some of the laziest and most unproductive people in the office used to show the highest numbers of hours at the end of every month! Figure that one out. There were all sorts of games and scams people could play. I really didn’t want to join in. In fact, far from playing the game, I got in to trouble after i’d been there about 6 months and to be spoken to sternly by the union representative. He informed me that it had been brought to his attention that I had been taking on ‘extra projects’ for managers and taking work home in the evenings and at weekends. This was to stop immediately!

I ignored the union rep and reminded him a few years later when I had been promoted a number of times and he still sat doing the same job as before. Nevertheless, the seeds had been sown at that time for my decision to strike out from my home country and head to the East, where attitudes to work and time tend to be rather different. i haven’t looked back really – in fact, this year I’ve moved further East!

I still suffer from guilt. We are all well aware of the ability for office workers to ‘guilt’ those who seem to be slacking if they have a personal or casual conversation in the workplace, or come a little later than others, regardless of work done, output achieved etc. I’ll even guilt myself for walking in half an hour after others, even though I know that I sat down and did two or three hours of great quality work that I’m proud of the evening before at home.

There’s one area where I do disagree with the advice in the Forbes article. I think when one is in the state of ‘Flow’ identified by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi the need for breaks every hour melts away. Certainly, for me personally, the clock stops mattering when i’m in my groove like that. To force myself to take a break would actually be an annoyance, would break the flow and make me less productive. That doesn’t seem to make much sense to me.

It’s not just the time issue that needs major rethinking in our approaches to work. it’s also how we behave in our offices, how we organise them and how we make them places where people can actually get work of real quality done. These problems are well brought out in this TED talk;

Going back to my early working life, eventually i became a manager after a few years, in charge of an office with about 14 people working (or, I worried, too often not working), interrupting each other continuously. When i brought this up as an issue, people were shocked. I suggested a plan whereby anyone could put up a little flag at the front of their desk (we were entirely open plan). This flag meant, don’t interrupt this person. You couldn’t keep the flag for more than an hour at a time or for more than 2 hours in a single day. People didn’t like this. When the next ‘upward appraisal’ session came around they gave me a bad mark and complained i was making myself inaccessible. The truth was, it was vitally important to them to maintain the status quo. Concentrated, uninterrupted work time would mean we’d have to show some good work. Worse, it meant that you couldn’t impulsively go and stretch your legs whilst dumping some ‘upward delegation’ on your boss.

I’m writing this in the evening, sitting in my home with beautiful classical music playing in the background – Bach, if anyone’s interested. I worked at home all day today and didn’t even leave the house. I got real work done. Work that was important and matters. And, I probably achieved more in my work today than I had in the last week. i didn’t watch TV or waste my time. I did do some exercises and take a shower in the afternoon when I felt my work flagging. That left me ‘good to go’ for a few more hours afterwards.

So, why do i feel guilty?

 

Problem Based Learning

You don’t have to wait to grow up before you can apply your mind to real-world problems and challenges. Will students in such an environment lack motivation or question the relevance of what they’re learning?

This is development of real world skills in a real world context, whilst as a by-product the children just happen to acquire masses of knowledge (which they retain better because of the high levels of motivation, the relevance, the emotional engagement and the connectedness of what they're learning.

For teachers who want to start thinking about how to build more problem based learning in to their repertoire, here's a starting point from Edutopia;

Edutopia - Solving Real-World Issues Through Problem Based Learning

Learning From The Olympics

Ryan Lochte

It saddens me when educators believe they are so hidebound by the syllabus that they don’t have the time or momentum to open up the enormous learning that can come out of real life events and the things which are capturing the imagination of children in the world around them.

Most decent schools today espouse desire to educate the whole child, to provide holistic education and to inculcate the habits and mindset of lifelong learners. However, sometimes we need to hold up a harsh mirror to ourselves and ask if our actions match the words – are we walking the talk?

The Olympics come around only every four years. However, for two weeks i find that they provide one of the most mesmerising and powerful sets of stories that are laden with massive learning opportunities (way more powerful and valuable than vast amounts of the standard schools’ syllabus!) This time, even in the run up to the games there were fascinating issues around drug use, performance enhancement and questions of whether those who receive bans should be allowed back in to competition. This time around there was even the possibility that an entire nation would be banned from the Games. Ultimately, Russia were allowed to compete in most sports, but almost all their athletics participants were barred from competition and they have been banned from the Paralympics due to start in a couple of weeks time.

This raises fascinating moral issues, but also the grey areas about what is or isn’t a legitimate action to seek to enhance performance to out-compete others. When is ‘win at all cost’ legitimate?

There are also fascinating issues for discussion with even quite young children about sponsorship and the involvement in a festival of physical prowess such as the Olympics from companies who sell junk food and carbonated drinks. Children can engage in thoughtful debate about how they respond and react to the messages they are receiving through the media.

Then, in the Olympics that just got over there were the issues of sport and politics that came to the fore when one country’s athlete in Judo refused to shake hands with his competitor at the end of a bout, reflecting long term animosity between their countries.

And then, the most challenging of the negative stories coming out of this Olympics – the Ryan Lochte and the US swimming team story about ‘what happened at the petrol station, the effects of lying and all sorts of other questions. There have been fascinating conflicting views and stories like this give children wonderful opportunities to debate and explore issues that are far from black and white, but contain subtle nuances where they may need to see multiple sides to an issue to arrive at a viewpoint. They may even wonder about whether the case is seen differently because he was a high profile multiple medal winning athlete as opposed to a lower acxhiever.

For those not so familiar, here’s the story from the BBC about the aftermath of the whole saga:

BBC – Ryan Lochte Sponsors Withdraw Support

How many children will really get the guided, structured opportunities to explore these kinds of issues flowing out of a major news story related to this massive sporting event? I fear, not enough.

Resilience

Resilience is a critical attribute for any person to grow up to be a fully healthy, self-actualizing person. However, until recently, really relatively little was known about resilience – how important it is, what increases a person’s ability to grow up with a healthy level, what are the impacts of childhood trauma and stress on it?

There was a time when the prevailing ideas were that all stress was inherently bad and that children should go unburdened in every way possible. Far more importance was placed on boosting self image, by telling children positive things about themselves, praising them endlessly and avoiding talking about weaknesses or shortcomings. Today, many believe that the prevalent views of the self image movement has resulted in a generation of young people who struggle to handle feedback, who can’t take strain or stress and who believe that they should be praised for every little thing they do. These young people all too often come across as needy, overly dependent on extraneous motivation and incapable of handling pressure effectively.

In more recent times a new word has become a strong force in education, especially in the USA. That word is ‘Grit’, which to me is another name for resilience. Much of the work, received with mixed feelings by others in the education field, has come from writer and academic, Angela Duckworth. Here’s a TED talk in which she explains her viewpoint on the role of Grit. One of my favourite lines – “Grit is living life like a marathon, not a sprint.”

This concept is also tied to issues of perseverance and also Carol Dweck’s concept of Growth Mindset (see earlier writing on this blog). I believe that the more we acknowledge this, the more we realise how much education has been failing children when it asked nothing of them, failed to stretch them and didn’t make sure they followed through adequately. These are young people now moving in to the world of work believing that life should be easy, rewards should come to us simply for showing up and that failure is a reason to immediately back off/ give up or take the path of least resistance.

Somehow, persistence, sticking at things through difficult or challenging times, went out of fashion. There was some kind of notion that really smart people didn’t need to break a sweat – that sweating the tough stuff was for the plodders. The self esteem movement positively railed against anything that looked or felt like hard work in schools, claiming that this was harmful to the vulnerable developing child. Instead, they wanted us to praise every effort, however small. Out of this came many things including primary school sports days where nobody should be a winner or a loser, everyone got a medal and the key was turning up and participating, mass handing out of classroom stickers for everything and a reluctance to ask children to stretch.

For those of us right now enjoying the four yearly feast that is the Olympics, the question is simple – would any of those athletes even be there, let alone be winning without grit, perseverance, resilience or a growth mindset? I think the answer to that one is pretty clear.

There is an interesting additional aspect to this question. Some children, sadly, are subjected to levels of challenge, strife or stress inducing trauma or tragedy in their young lives that we may wish would not afflict any child. In the past, conventional wisdom suggested that it was almost inevitable that such children receiving an excess of challenges beyond all reasonable levels of grit, perseverance or resilience will almost inevitably carry scars and negative impacts. However, we always knew that despite this – there were individual cases of children who appeared to have shown enormous levels of grit to rise above the circumstances and to flourish later as adults. So, I was very interested to see that there’s been recent research in this area seeking to understand better individual levels of resilience and how some children appear to ride out levels of trauma that would be beyond the capacity of the vast majority.

Quartz – Children Need Some Stress in Their Lives

Reading this article, I’m left with the feeling that research still has a long way to go. However, we do appear to be at least a step or two closer to understanding how to help children achieve optimum levels of stress in their lives so that they are capable of building grit and resilience and also how to help children whose young lives are impacted by extreme negative events or trauma so that they have a better chance of riding them out and maintaining functional ability to fulfil their potential.

This is going to be a fascinating area to follow.

Toxic Staffrooms and The Courage To Lead

Great educators are by their nature reflective. They take time to ‘look inwards’, to reflect on their actions, their words and their impact on others. At times this can lead them to be quite ‘confessional’. However, such occasions do sometimes provide opportunities for introspection for their fellow educators.

Here’s an article from an American teacher that is almost confessional in nature, but that touches on something that too many teachers and leaders in schools all over the world have experienced – the potential toxicity of staffrooms. She also makes the valid point that it’s not limited or confined to a particular place or room, but manifests anywhere in a school where talk is overly negative, cynical or crosses the line to become gossip-laden.

Edweek – Why I Avoid The Teachers’ Lounge, And You Should Too

There are many factors that go in to making up the culture of a school. Among the most influential aspects that are all encompassed under ‘leadership’, I believe are;

a) Vision, Mission and values (V-M-V) that are clearly articulated, inspiring, exciting and it’s made clear that they are for every stakeholder in the organisation. It can be all too easy to see the articulation of V-M-V as a ‘one-off exercise’ – a quick inspiring talk to the staff at the beginning of the year and job done. V-M-V have to be made a living, dynamic part of every activity, every significant discussion and it has to be clear that they’re not a five minute wonder, but a fundamental part of the school for the longer term. It must also be very clear that they apply in all respects to all stakeholders; pupils, teachers, non-academic staff, parents and even outside vendors who support the school’s activities. They are not a menu to pick and choose from on a whim and, as adults, we have to be very clear that we are to model the values as consistently as we can for the children, holding ourselves accountable to the highest professional standards. We must walk our talk.

b) Accountability – In short, a leader can’t lack the courage or sense to lead and cannot be denied their right/ duty to do so. There can be times and occasions which are hard to deal with. Informal leaders can emerge who consciously or unconsciously espouse values and beliefs different to the organisation or who have bad habits (e.g. toxic gossiping) that are highly detrimental to the good of the institution. When the individual is a ‘good teacher’ in the classroom this can be especially tough. It is the leaders’ duty to guide and counsel the person, coach them, hold them accountable for the actions which are harming the organisation. Ultimately, despite the fact that they can deliver good work themselves, in the worst case scenario where they won’t or can’t change it can be right for the leaders to decide to part ways with the individual. Ultimately, permitting someone to exist in the organisation espousing or practicing incongruent values can be a worse failure of leadership than allowing someone who lacks skills or competence in their role.

When the leadership has given the individual every chance to change, there is no failure in taking ultimate responsibility. However, we need to be aware – toxic staffroom people can be popular people at a personal level, especially if they satisfy a personal need of staff members to have an outlet for negative feelings!

c) MBWA – this was a wonderful acronym I learned from the business writer, Tom Peters, many years ago. It stands for Management By Walking About. In essence, it’s simple and clear – as leaders we’ve got to put ourselves out there, even if that requires some very rigid and forceful diary management and the strength to say ‘No’ at the right times. In my view, this is probably a more critical factor in schools than in any other kind of organisation. Schools are all about people. As a leader, if we choose to allow it, there will always be more than enough people who can create situations that seem to justify us spending our entire work day in our offices. However, we must never forget that sitting in our offices we receive only the information from the outside environment that others choose to send us/ bring us or lead us towards. When it comes to ‘Teachers’ lounge’ tendencies, this can actually risk leaders becoming part of the very issue that threatens the culture of their school or department. Then, we become reliant on only the perspectives of others about people, mood and ground realities – instead of going out and really feeling things for ourselves, hearing what everyone has to say (not just those who choose to bring us information). School leaders must ensure they carve out time to see things for themselves, to hear people and genuinely listen to all stakeholders and to get their own feel for what is happening in all areas of their school.

I once joined an organisation where I discovered that there was an accepted norm/ practice that required the Principal to knock and virtually ask for permission to enter the staff room! To me this was symptomatic of some past MBWA breakdown. What could staff possibly be doing, in the staffroom, in school, that the Principal didn’t have the right to know? After a few weeks we learned a great example of what was going on in that staffroom. New teachers would get cornered by ‘old’ established teachers and mocked for their hard work, attempts to innovate and compliance with requests/ directions from the school leadership. There was a kind of mafia of cynicism in that room that plainly was not in the best interests of the school and certainly not in the interests of children and their learning. New staff were stressed and hurt by the conflicts they were experiencing between the positive and inspiring words of the school leadership and this localised negativity. Situations like this are tricky to deal with. If you confront those concerned directly they may turn against those who they believe have ‘grassed on them’. It could have left a new teacher very vulnerable. Ultimately, we were able to find out from loyal committed longer term staff that this had happened multiple times. As a result, when the individuals concerned were confronted they had no one person they could target. Some immediately distanced themselves from the problem by staying in their classrooms during free periods. Ultimately, two who might have been considered ringleaders left and went elsewhere (where word reached us that at least one was doing the same thing!)

When we step up to be leaders it shouldn’t be for money, or for status or personal prestige. It really has to be because we want to make a positive difference in the education field. Our best opportunities to do that flow out of the extent to which the ‘butterflies fly in formation’ and that comes out of both words and practice aligned to common understanding of V-M-V.

A final word for teachers – in this time of school break and the opportunity to reflect on our practice – if you think that maybe, like the writer of the article, you’ve been inadvertently sucked in to being part of staffroom issues, now is the time to commit and pledge yourself to rise above them, to strengthen your commitment to the V-M-V of your school (and I stress, I’m talking here to all teachers everywhere). We can decide to be part of the solution, instead of being part of the problem.