We have to remember to go against our learned instincts.
My learned instinct is to hold my children back. We’re walking along a footpath in Cheshire, in the UK, beautiful fresh stream rushing across ancient stones. Children utterly excited to be there… and they want to run ahead, and my learned instinct, my new instinct that I’ve got from life, somehow, by mistake, is to hold them back. My first response is “no… we’re not here to run”.
Well, guess what, Daddy… you’re wrong.
These kids are here to run. And there’s no reason to hold them back.
It’s a lot like learning. We’ve just got to let them go, just run. And, I’m standing here now watching them. It’s raining, they’re full of zest. They’re excited by the space, the freedom, the flowers and by the fact that they can just run.
Yes, they make a few mistakes, get stung by nettles, make their shoes filthy in mud. But they are learning, first hand, from and about the environment. They will not forget nettles. They will identify the squelchy, marshy patches of land and – maybe – avoid them next time!
I created this context – in my role as “teacher” – by bringing them to this place. I knew it was important, special and rich with opportunities to discover. But then I have to let them be free within the context, only that way will genuine questions emerge from them, and they did:
“Why is the water and the rocks orange?”
“Why are the cows lying down?”
“Where does the water come from?”
“Why is there wool on the branches of that fallen tree?”
“Who does this land belong to?”
“Why are people allowed to walk through here?”
“Where does that path go?”
“What is making that sound?”
“Who made that rope swing over the river?”
And then, of course, many attempts at holding on to the piece of wood hanging from a tree and swinging out over the water until they had all had many successful goes!
Instead of being a controlled walk, with adults determining the path and pointing out the things they thought should be of interest or worthy of learning about (i.e. the ones we had the answers to!), it becomes a child-driven walk, a haphazard route, endless questions – many unanswered – unpredicted experiences, private thoughts and moments of personal growth and self-actualization that we – the parents – are not even aware of.
The best teachers are always on the lookout for their students.
I don’t mean in a pastoral way, or a supervisory way.
I mean, in a way that shows an innate curiosity about what their students are doing, what their students are saying, how their students are reacting or responding to particular situations, the kind of questions their students are asking, the kind of prejudices their students have, the kind of misgivings their students have, the kind of biases their students have, the kind of misunderstandings their students have, the misconceptions, the relationships, their interests, their tendencies.
To be aware of, and fascinated and motivated by these things is… the work of the Teacher.
This is a wonderful talk and a timely reminder that we – adults – have to stop putting an unrealistic vision of perfection out of children’s reach.
As Emma Marris eloquently teaches us, we keep referring to an idea of a perfect, untarnished nature that simply doesn’t exist. We say there is no nature in or around the schools we work in, but there is… there’s lots of it. We have just lost the ability to see it and, more dangerously, we are failing to help young people see it, touch it, be in awe of it and want to see more of it.
We may be in danger of doing the same thing to peace. Do we present an idealistic vision of a perfect peace in which everything is sweetness and light, and therefore keep it out of reach of young people? If we do, then we need to refine what we believe peace is, or could be.
Yesterday, as I walked to work, I passed an empty plot of land. It was full of overgrowth and teeming with insect life. I had walked past it more than 200 times before and failed to consider it to be “nature”.
If we are capable of becoming so jaded, so blind and so susceptible to the false dichotomies the media provides us with, what hope have we of helping young people evolve with more sophistication?
There is a misconception in life, and particularly in schools, that “speaking my mind” – or honesty – is a euphemism for being a bit of an arse. Either I don’t “speak my mind”, which must mean that I bottle everything up, conceal my true thoughts and never share what I genuinely think or believe, or, I feel like I can just go around being rude to people and make “speaking my mind” a kind of license to make all interactions highly personal and confrontational.
Both of these dichotomous positions are damaging to a school culture, and people who adopt them can be equally toxic in different ways.
Person A, the type who never “speaks their mind”, usually makes it clear to everyone that they have made a conscious decision never to “speak their mind”. With this constant declaration of self-censorship comes an implicit declaration of disapproval, judgment and criticism. It translates, basically, as “if I could speak my my mind it would be negative and I would tell you how useless this, that and they are”. The dangers of people like this are:
- They do actually “speak their minds” in small circles of people, sharing their bottled up negativity with those people they have decided they can confide in, and forming little clots of people in the organisational flow. These clots, like real clots, cause all kinds of awful things to happen – others become wary or paranoid of them, good ideas or initiatives get blocked or people who excel at their jobs have their confidence chipped away at until they leave but the clot remains.
- At times, opportunities arise for Person A to express themselves with anonymity, and this is like a dream-come-true for them. They feel liberated to “speak their mind” and unleash their thoughts onto people with no fear of having to take responsibility for their words or actually talk about or think it through with another human being.
- Person A may often also just go about their business, interacting only rarely with other people, but still walking around with their dark cloud hanging over them. People avoid them for fear of being caught in the storm – dragged into a negative conversation that has the potential to ruin their day or forced to listen to toxic gossip. This sort of isolation does nobody any good… particularly as Person A is responsible for the education of young people.
Then, there’s Person Z, the one who has taken it upon themselves to educate everyone else by just being an a$#@%$#e. They shoot people down, they belittle people, they interrupt, they opt out of conversations that need to be had, they refuse to take part in any positive initiatives, they make the discussion of ideas personal, they see things only from their perspective, they struggle to focus on student needs rather than their own, they talk when people are trying to address a group, they criticize meetings or workshops that don’t quite live up to their high standards (which are rarely reflected in the way they teach!), they have stopped learning, they get angry about things that don’t really matter, they write people off and give them no chance of redemption… the list goes on.
Fortunately, schools are also full of People C, D, E, F, G, H… the people who occupy the grey areas. These people:
- understand the value of exchanging thoughts, opinions and ideas
- are able to discuss things without making it personal
- are able to remain free of judgment
- value open and positive relationships
- are conscious of the effect of their attitude on others
- can see the big picture by “zooming out” of situations
- feel uncomfortable in gossipy situations
- try to get along with everyone in a way that is not artificial, because they know it matters
- give people the benefit of the doubt
- are respectful listeners
- are open-minded and ready to learn from any source
- don’t sulk
I know these are all generalisations, so please don’t comment and tell me that! Instead, please think about whether Person A and Person Z exist where you work, how they affect your school culture and how we can move beyond such polarised behaviours. Until that happens, the potential for the evolution of schools may well remain in their hands.
Leadership involves – or at least should involve – a certain amount of inspiration. People who grow into leadership positions are usually inspirational in one sense or another. Some might be recognized for their inspiring practice, others for their ability to generate creative ideas, their ability to bond with students, their depth of knowledge, their talents or their aptitude for getting the best out of people.
But, this capacity for inspiration does not come from an infinite source – it could, at any time, dry up. It may disappear temporarily for different periods of time or, worse, it may dry up completely.
You see, inspiration cannot exist in isolation. It may do so for a while, but eventually its going to need something – or someone – else to feed off. Inspirational people need to surround themselves with other people who are capable of inspiring them, they need to be constantly challenged and to have their thinking re-arranged. This does not mean being surrounded by people who see things the same way, although that – to a certain extent – is not a bad thing. Instead, it means having people around who surprise you, shock you, challenge you, excite you, influence you, motivate you, impress you and invigorate you.
In the context of schools, this is particularly true. Pedagogical leaders end up being promoted away from kids and out of the classroom – the sources of inspiration. For a while, referring back to their own practices may serve a purpose, but they will eventually fade into memories. A good leader knows that and seeks to redress the balance by finding and hiring talented individuals who can serve as their inspiration and then set out to create an atmosphere – a “culture of permission” that allows them the scope to express themselves.
A problem with this, though, is that many teachers struggle with the concept of self-actualization and taking control of their own growth. It is amazing how often you will hear people saying they wish they had more freedom in one breath, but then complain about not being told what to do in the next! Leaders genuinely appreciate those people who seek them out with ideas, with alternative approaches, with innovative suggestions or even just to talk through something they’re thinking about. People like that are energizing and – whether they know it or not – are inevitably a source of inspiration for people in leadership positions.
All of this should leave us asking several questions:
Leaders should be asking themselves what type of people inspire them, whether they are surrounded by that type of people and how they can make sure they are!
Teachers should be asking themselves what kind of energy they give off – are they the type that is capable of exciting, of invigorating and inspiring? If not, how can they be more like that?
I once worked for a school principal who, when about to give me a telling off for my latest perceived crimes, would start the conversation with “I’ve heard through the grapevine that you…”
Which basically means… “I listen to gossip, I’ve heard some about you and I am allowing it to shape my behaviour towards you.”
Gossip is rife in schools as, I suppose, it is in many workplaces. But does that mean we have to accept it? Schools are the places in which the future is shaped. The people who work in schools should – technically – be modelling the type of behaviours that will guide young people to a better future.
A better future is not created in a culture of gossip. Cliques of people who spend their time annihilating, judging and stabbing people in the back are not really going to pave the way for humankind, are they? The funny thing is… it’s really hard to talk about those gossipy people – and we all know who they are – without becoming a gossip yourself!
Furthermore, by refusing to take part in gossip, you can end up isolating yourself from your colleagues. In the same school as the one I mentioned before, my wife refused to enter into a conversation in which one particularly gossipy person was verbally assassinating a mutual acquaintance. Within weeks, she was a social pariah… the forked tongues wagging away until their work was done. Meanwhile, the gossipy person came out smelling of roses – much like the little prisoner in the comic strip above who becomes Caesar’s secret gossipy weapon and whose effect can be seen as people’s words become more and more green!
A school without gossip would be a school with a better chance of avoiding misunderstandings, petty conflicts, resentments, misconceptions, jealousy, loneliness, paranoia, judgment, assumptions, depression, toxicity, cliques, divisiveness and so on… all of which are extremely destructive human behaviours.
Its not like we’d be trying to pretend gossip didn’t exist in the real world, but instead acknowledging that it does exist, that it is poisonous and that we won’t stand for it.
So, teachers, some advice for you:
- don’t allow yourself to get sucked into talking badly about other people
- make it clear to gossipy people that you have no interest in it
- discuss gossipy habits with students and work with them to grow above it
And, people in leadership positions, some advice for you:
- make it clear you have a zero-tolerance policy on gossip
- don’t allow the evolution of a culture of people coming to see you to complain about other people
- make it very clear that you shape your own perspectives about people
- when you become aware that you have some toxic gossip happening, knock it on the head straight away
- when you have observed patterns of toxic gossip amongst certain people, deal with them directly
You know how people often say “school is their real world” when you start talking about “out there in the real world”? Its not true, school isn’t our students’ real world. It is a social construct, designed and managed by adults. It isn’t their real world, but it is their existence.
Schools and the real world are leagues apart. Schools are bubbles. So when we say it is “their real world” we are actually talking about a sanitised, protected, censored, authoritarian enclave that they inhabit for the first 18 years of their lives.
There’s so many angles that this posting could take at this point. However, today I want to write about how we protect our students from reality in the belief that this is what is best for them, and how we might be able to change that.
If we are honest, the real world is not a very nice place. Sure, there’s lots of positive stories and wonderful people. But, in general, the world is not a very nice place. This is reflected in the fact that most school mission statements give themselves and their students the unenviable task of making the world a “better”, “happier”, “peaceful” or “harmonious” place for future generations. We wouldn’t be saying we need to do that if the world was wonderful now, would we?
But, can we honestly say that our students are emerging as people with a conviction and a determination or even an awareness of how things need to change? Are we bringing the harsh realities of the world into our curriculum and provoking our students to think critically, cynically, divergently and alternatively? Correct me if I’m wrong, but probably not.
For example, how many schools are using the war in Syria and the huge exodus – and rejection – of people as a way to develop empathy or to learn about the evil acts mankind is capable of? If not, how can we possibly believe that history won’t continue to repeat itself? What stops us from doing that? Is it the sheer quantity of other stuff that “must be covered”? Is it the fear of taking a stance that may offend someone or other? Is it a desire to be so impartial that we end up standing for nothing at all?
I wonder how many genuine learning opportunities happen out there in the real world that could be deeply explored, that would evoke genuine emotional responses and provoke progressive thinking in our students?
Imagine a curriculum that is shaped by what is happening in the real world. Imagine a school that allows its curriculum to be shaped by what is happening in the real world.
Its not that complex, really. As we all know, learning is at its most powerful when it moves from facts to knowledge to conceptual understanding. Well, those initial facts and areas of knowledge can easily be determined by what is going on in the real world – whether its the horrific and the heart-breaking or the uplifting and the awe-inspiring. Connections can be made with other events in time or space that can lead to real understanding… so your starting point is flexible. Flexible enough to be topical, real, emotive and empowering.
I work in a PYP school and we are coming up to our annual curriculum review. One of the lenses I will ask teachers to scrutinise our curriculum through will be “The Real World”. Are there real-world starting points for each of our units of inquiry? Are students able to apply what they learn to real-world situations?
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting we burden our young people with the onerous task of righting all our wrongs and saving the planet! I am, however, asking if we should be making sure as much learning as possible is centred on things that are really happening.
Going to school should be about much more than getting into a university. It should be the way to access a multitude of pathways for your future… university is just one of them.
School should be a place in which you can explore what motivates you, what makes you curious, what puts you into a “state of flow” and what makes you genuinely want to learn.
It should be a place for self-exploration and self-determination. It should be a place where talents are revealed and nurtured.
It should be a place where students develop their understanding of what it means to be happy, not what it means to be stressed.
School should be the place – well, one of them – where you learn to be a good person who does no harm.
It would be a very bold move for schools to redefine their mission, and be very clear about what has changed. Imagine a school that proudly proclaimed to the community that it wasn’t all about academic results and university entrance… that those were not acceptable measures of success for their school.
Imagine a school that had no hierarchy of pathways, but placed equal value and energy into a variety of ways for students to “graduate”.
Imagine a school where you didn’t have to wait to fail before you could figure out what you really want to do.
That’s the school I want my kids to go to.
I am soon going to start a series of blog posts with suggestions for how schools and education can change in order to begin to have a positive effect on our (human) way of life. Let’s remind ourselves of some of the problems first:
- The desired outcome of school is the chance to pursue a degree, yet massive amounts of money are wasted on university degrees that are never used.
- Millions of students begin their careers horribly in debt.
- Apart from the process of learning to learn, much of the content of education has little or no lasting significance.
- Many of the highest income earners, those who are most in demand or those with most job satisfaction – are people who were deemed to be “failures” at school. For example, those people who have a trade.
- Many young people’s talents go unnoticed, only – in a miniscule amount of cases – to surface again by accident or through some stroke of luck or serendipity.
- Young people who have a need – or the ability – to specialize rather than be all-rounders are stigmatized by formal education.
- Education has become almost entirely cerebral, marginalizing those young people who think with the rest of their bodies… and simultaneously ignoring the fact that the world needs those people just as much, and maybe more.
- Schools are, in many cases, training centers for compliance:
“The child in a classroom generally finds herself in a situation where she may not move, speak, laugh, sing, eat, drink, read, think her own thoughts or even use the toilet without explicit permission from an authority figure.” (Carol Black)
- People typically have to wait until long after they have got through their education to discover the positive emotions that really motivate them – interest, joy, awe – and help them – if its not too late – figure out the direction they hope their lives will take.
- The idea of “success” perpetrated by society – and therefore by schools – is extremely narrow, very financially-focused, devoid of any emotional consideration and couched in western cultural ideals.
- Structures exist in schools that exist nowhere else in society – such as only being able to collaborate with people almost exactly the same age as you.
- Many young people emerge from their education with little knowledge or understanding of how to take care of themselves – cooking, money management, relationships, ethics, common sense, repairing things and so on. This creates cohort after cohort of people who have been prepared to work, but rely on others for their basic needs or who have to find out through trial and error.
- Students are squeezed through a finite number of career-based doors in pursuit of the traditionally accepted good, lucrative careers – law, medicine, engineering – while, in reality, good lucrative careers are way more diverse, interesting, weird and wonderful than that. Many of these careers are also significantly less destructive and/or beneficial to the world.
Any more to add?
A few days ago, the Dalai Lama tweeted this:
The Dalai Lama has hit the nail on the head. As educators, we are caught in an endless cycle of change as we perpetually seek to “make education better”. However, unless that is part of a higher purpose (or at least one that could have some visible manifestation for us to see the fruits of our labour) – being endlessly in the pursuit of the vague idea of “better” is pretty demoralizing and exhausting. It is also quite pointless as we never stop to think about why we are educating, what school is really for and what the long-term effects are of being educated.
We do need to “change our way of life”, lets face it. Take a good look around you… and beyond. Can we honestly say that humanity is doing a good job at the moment? Can we honestly say that we are part of something positive? Can we put our hands on our hearts and say we are creating a better world for our children, and their children?
Even more worryingly, can we honestly say we – in our schools – are creating better children for our world?
There are all sorts of positive stories out there about people doing wonderful things. But they are a tiny fraction compared to the stories of greed, destruction, waste, pollution, violence, hatred, racism, misogyny and stupidity. Those positive stories frequently come about despite how people are educated. They are often the result of those people who are challenging the systems that education is a part of. They are often perpetuated by the outliers, failures and rejects of formal education or the people who had to wait until their education was over before they could do something they really believed in.
In some cases, however, they are the direct result of education… a single school with a clear mission, a solitary teacher who makes a lasting impact, a student who emerges as a true leader, a project that gathers real momentum. We must start to gather these examples and commit ourselves to creating the conditions for them to happen more. Much more. So much so that they become our purpose – not creating employees, not getting kids into universities, not guaranteeing high incomes.
So… I call upon all teachers to ask yourselves…
“are you changing our way of life through education?”
If so, what are the conditions that allow you to do that?
If not, what holds you back?
Artwork by Igor Morsky. For more information about him and his work, click here.