Character as a Differentiator

As a young person, you want to stand out from the crowd? Is an extra 0.1 on your grade point average going to achieve that? Will one additional extra curricular activity on your biodata make the difference? In this day, it’s all pretty unlikely that your academic and other activities are going to make you significantly discernible from the mass of students applying for University places, or later for internships or jobs?

No, but as this well-written New York Times article makes clear, what will always make a young person stand out from the crowd is character.

New York Times – Check This Box If You’re A Good Person

It’s vitally important that our response, or that of our children, shouldn’t be to carry out altruistic acts for show or to tick boxes/ have others perceive us as empathic, kind and sensitive. It has to come from a genuine desire to help others, to treat others with respect and equality.

One question that will inevitably come to mind – can we teach this? How can we increase the likelihood of empathy in our children? This is a highly relevant and important debate in our schools as “compassion” is one of the values highlighted within the mission of the Tenby Schools, along with integrity. High empathy, caring and kindness won’t happen just because we tell our children that it’s right or the appropriate way to think and be towards others.

Firstly, I believe the likelihood is increased significantly when we, the adults, model empathy – in other words we show ourselves to be warm, kind, caring and compassionate to others – especially where there is difference. We need to show our children the mental processes of being understanding, thoughtful of others/ other-centric.

Over the last 15-20 years we went through a situation where, in education and in parenting there was so much emphasis placed upon building self-esteem. This led to adults stressing specialness, uniqueness and feeling good about oneself. Regrettably, as the children impacted move in to adulthood we’re seeing massive shifts towards narcissism and away from empathy, caring and compassion. The child brought up in the high self esteem environment is more likely to be seeking verification of themselves, endorsement of their feelings of self-worth. However, the child brought up to see being empathic to others will, more likely, find their self actualisation in acts of kindness and positivity towards others.

In schools, I believe there’s been a lot of good and positive work in this direction that can help us to move further. One example is the scope for using tools like Jenny Moseley’s Quality Circle Time with children of all ages. These processes allow children to be more reflective of the effect of their actions and behaviours on others and how they feel according to how others act. In this way, the children learn for themselves and guide each other to be more understanding of what others need and expect from them.

It’s positive that we’re seeing more interest in schools putting a focus on social and emotional development. I’m particularly hopeful for programmes like the Ashoka Foundation’s “Start Empathy” Changemaker schools. It’s vitally important, though, to not treat empathy as just another subject area in school, to be packaged as a set of lessons or even just parceled as part of PSHE to be ‘delivered’ to children. Rather, it has to be built in to the ethos of the school, an integral part of everything from discipline policies to approaches to sports, learning and play time.

There is much work to be done. We have to do more for these children. Schools and education systems or societies that turn out predominantly narcissistic, self-absorbed children are going to find that they haven’t served them well to live their lives most effectively. They certainly won’t have prepared them well to be leaders of others in their lives. All this will, increasingly, make it likely that their university selection chances will be less.

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Social and Emotional Learning

When the UNESCO Delors Committee identified the various types of learning that are important during a child’s school life, one that they saw as critical was ‘Learning to Be’. At times it can seem that there’s so much pressure to focus upon ‘Learning to Know’ and ‘Learning to Do’ that this critical area gets squeezed out, or is treated as merely an add-on activity (especially with outliers where there are discernible behavioural challenges which are making the teacher’s job harder.

A few thoughts come to mind. Firstly, if we’re not giving due attention to SEL skills and competencies, can we really say that education today is child-centric or learner-centric? Aren’t we still in a situation where we’re treating the “stuff” to be learned as more important than the learners? Aren’t we then still processing children through and array of knowledge, content and material, testing to see who it stuck to and simply operating an adapted model of the factory based approach to education?

When a young person has low levels of social and emotional skills, how effective can they ever really be as learners? Further, how effective will they be in the wider world after school? If we ‘don’t have time’ to address these needs, are we setting them up for likely failure in pretty much everything else they do? Should we still be debating whether or not it’s appropriate to endeavour to ‘teach the whole child’?

Then, I start to wonder – are there a lot of teachers who shy away from SEL because it’s uncomfortable ground for them personally? Especially when we’re confronted with the kind of evidence highlighted in the headline of the following article – research that suggests SEL skills levels are a better predictor of future success than IQ.

Virgin – Unite – Ashoka – Why Teachers Need Social and Emotional Learning Too

I can understand the reservations of teachers when it’s suggested that the solution to developing higher levels of SEL for pupils is ‘bolt on’ programmes touted by independent companies. I believe that these skills are far better developed through integrated, organically developed efforts within a school, unique to the needs of the pupils, not attempting to administer an add-on programme as another block of learning.

One of the keys, in my view, is teachers who are attuned to the learnable moments for SEL as they arise throughout the school day. When positive or negative incidents and events happen in children’s interrelations the opportunities arise to address them, reflect on them and to capture the learning.

There is much to ponder on …..

(Incidentally, there’s a link in the article that seems to be broken – for The Collaborative for Reaching and Teaching the Whole Child. I found an alternative link here that has some links to videos and other resources:
The Collaborative for Reaching and Teaching the Whole Child

There are also lots of resources in the ASCD ‘Whole Child’ Initiative Section of the ASCD website:
ASCD – Whole Child

Great School Leadership

Repeatedly, surveys and research have demonstrated that leadership is a more important defining factor between average and great schools than between average and great companies. I believe this is partly due to the fact that, unlike a company, there’s a far more significant element of ‘community’ about a school.

There isn’t a single template for what makes great school leaders. They come in all sizes, shapes and genders; introverts and extroverts and having taken all sorts of different paths to reach their roles.

Here’s a short post from Edutopia in which a blogger identifies what she believes are the key attributes:

Edutopia – What Makes a Great School Leader?

I can’t fault the three things she highlights; vision, community building and EQ. However, nobody should underestimate the point that comes through her personal experience in the last section so strongly – great school leaders care passionately about children.

What Really Causes Addiction?

This is a fascinating story that has got me really thinking about all the implications. It has enormous ramifications at the level of governments and nations, towns and cities, families, but also in terms of how people can be helped to avoid addictions in the first place, thereby having the potential to live far more meaningful and high quality lives. It has implications for how architects design buildings, how planners develop neighbourhoods and cities and

Huffington Post – The Real Cause of Addiction

I think it even has implications for those of us working in education. if it proves to be correct, then we will need to begin to ask ourselves questions about how we can bring children up to be more ‘connected’, to feel more of a tie with their fellow pupils and to deal sensitively with isolation that afflicts some pupils. Such isolation isn’t always obvious – there are always those people who may appear on the surface to be gregarious, social beings, but who really are insular and cut off from others at all but the most superficial levels. If true, then in education we’re going to have to give far more importance to emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, development of empathy and emphasise bonding over competition.

This is really fascinating – so much so that I’m a little mystified that these findings haven’t been making more waves.

Educating the Whole Child

The article linked below says a great deal about where we are in education today and, I believe, what still remains so very wrong in the system (regardless of which country you’re looking at).

The article sets out to share some research that suggests that an emphasis on empathy skills, emotional intelligence, approaches to social skills and understanding one’s own learning process are required in the higher classes in schools, as well as Kindergarten and primary – as though these findings are a big shock!

KQED News – Mindshift Blog Article

I’ve seen this and how it manifests for myself. It represents a kind of schizophrenia in school education. Even many highly regarded educators will reconcile themselves to espousing ‘whole child’ education, holistic education and a nurturing, child-centric approach whilst children are in KG and lower classes. But then, somewhere when the children reach middle school those same supposedly child-centric educators will snatch back the learning ‘power’ from the children and take over, shunning child-centricity for a hard nosed, syllabus based approach where the educators will drive and the children are expected to compliantly accept. So, this begs the question – did we ever really believe in child-centricity and holistic learning, or did we just go along with it because everyone else was talking in those terms? Or, does it come down to a lack of faith in the teenage child to do the right things for themselves? If we leave them to their own devices, let them make choices etc., they might make the wrong ones! better that we take over and drive the learning!

To my mind, among teachers who teach in higher classes in schools there is way too much interest in their subject, the facts and knowledge contained within it and themselves as jugs to fill empty glasses. There is one way in which this is understandable – the secondary teacher who teaches children ‘the stuff’ meticulously, has them memorize the stuff faithfully and reproduce the stuff in an examination gets the simple endorsement and validation represented by their students’ examination scores. (Ironically, of course, all the evidence is we don’t really know what “stuff” will be important in the lives of these children)

To focus on equipping a young person with the skills for life, the emotional intelligence, social and inter-personal skills can’t necessarily be measured and that makes it less comfortable for the educators. Ironically, it’s also less comfortable for the parents and for those in government who want/ need to believe that they can drive education as a driver for economic progress. So, all parties collude in ‘the game’. And all the time they continue to swear allegiance to holistic learning, developing the whole child whilst reliant upon the elementary classroom for the evidence and proof of that commitment.

My belief – plain and simple, educating the whole child and maintaining a focus as much on process as learning outcomes is as right with the 15 year old as it was with the 5 year old.

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