Having had yet another conversation with teachers about the state of education, schools and teaching in this country, I thought I’d try and clarify my thinking around the issues.
Education, especially secondary, has become so pressured and goal orientated that it seems to be almost self-destructing at the moment. League tables and Ofsted inspections and government interference all in the pursuit of “evidenced” outcomes have created a culture of ‘manic doing’ and a chronic lack of trust. Most importantly creativity has been completely squashed out of the system and especially for the teachers who feel ridiculously over pressured, monitored and judged.
But what is all this activity about? To the cynic in me it looks like an attempt to boost children’s academic ability in the hope that they will become more ‘efficient economic units’ that will help rescue the country from the financial mess that privately educated academic high achievers (bankers!) have made of it.
It is as though the education system is a gigantic psychotic monster out of touch with human needs and aspirations pursuing meaningless goals in a manic, out of control, obsessive compulsive way. The obsession is with a goal that is stuck in in a time warp from the middle of the twentieth century. The curriculum ’God’ is so narrow and constrained that it is relatively meaningless to staff and pupils alike, with most of it being gleefully forgotten within months of leaving school, especially for those at the less academically able end of the spectrum. The archaic and redundant goals are being pursued via a dictatorial system of management more reminiscent of the nineteenth century and one that any modern business would recognise as out of date and counter-productive. It is no wonder that teachers are feeling driven to distraction. Mad goals being pursued by insane means, and if the latest inter-national league tables are to be believed, all pretty much to no avail as well.
As part of a movement away from this outdated modernist obsession with science and the deification of evidence based results, surely the emphasis needs to shift towards a wider perspective of child development. One that is in tune with a more holistic postmodern (and post-postmodern) recognition that human development is not all about academic achievement and consumerism. Intellectual development is obviously important but even more important is our emotional development, it is from this that meaning, motivation, understanding and creativity all emerge as well as the ability to take responsibility for ourselves. As human beings our journeys are towards becoming more aware and loving, as well as being able to be self-supporting economic units.
Especially for those children who come from deprived and difficult backgrounds, schools have the possibility of being a sort of therapeutic community. Even now they function in this way to some extent in good schools, but they have real potential to provide better emotional support, along with the firm boundaries and challenges that any child needs, for their growth. This is in effect re-parenting, where that has been lacking. This has the enormous potential of being a force for good in social change, supporting the development of a saner, more meaningful and satisfying society. As well as being a part of creating a life enhancing and joyful experience for all involved. What a change that would be!
For this, one of first changes that needs to happen is for schools structure and management to be re-modelled. They need to transform from pressure cooker dictatorships to places of democracy that model the emotional maturity that their pupils need. At present schools model an authoritarian infantilism of teachers and pupils alike, with a “do as I say, not as I do” culture. The fear and pressure that teachers are under is being picked up by the pupils. For any change to happen there needs to be a shift in aim and culture towards one based on what we know and understand about human and child development. It is as though the present system is so desperately stuck in the past, totally ignoring what is understood by whole other section of society as being the healthy way to run organisations and treat people. Everybody seems to be colluding powerlessly in this blind madness.
Obviously the changes need to start from government with education ceasing to be the political football it has long been. Ministers are certainly not experts in education and child development, yet they behave as though they are. But what seems needed is a profound change in the culture that education is stuck in, into one that supports democracy, openness, trust, creativity and away from the fear, pressure, judgement and results orientation that dominates at present. We need new criteria for judging what is a ‘good’ school, not academically, but in terms of its culture and creativity and ability to support the neediest.
In Gestalt therapy we have the “paradoxical theory of change” which states that we change through increasing our self-awareness and using that to enhance our self-knowledge and understanding. From this change naturally flows as we integrate our fractured selves into a freer, more responsive, fluid, spontaneous and satisfying whole. Our ability to impose changes in our behaviour from intellectual decisions is tiny, change is a developmental process that has its own laws. We are a very complex whole and any real change requires the whole to be re-configured for which there is at times, unsurprisingly, resistance. Something has to be let go of, which is tough, especially when fear is holding it all together tightly.
This perspective obviously applies more to adults than children who have to keep themselves together through an inexorable sequence of profound changes in their rapid grow and develop. But the principle of change does still apply, force is counterproductive, it just re-enforces fear and resistance. Also with the constant changes of the rapidly developing child it is not surprising that there is so much unsettledness. If you add into this the enormous pressures from parents and schools to ‘succeed’, if not you ‘fail’ and if this is then compounded by emotional deficits and difficulties, then the full range of difficult teenage behaviours cannot be seen as surprising.
There is a huge battle that goes on in schools with children who actively don’t want to learn especially in lower ability schools in socially more deprived areas. Large amounts of time and energy are spent managing this minority group and even amongst the rest there are large sections who are not very interested. It is clear from above that you can’t force a child to want to learn, so it seems to me that a significant portion of a schools job is to face and attend to this motivational aspect of pupils lives. This is emotional work.
Michael Wilshire (head of Ofsted) has shown how it is possible to make a significant step up in pupil achievement by having high expectations and very tight boundaries creating a culture of achievement. But with his methods the cost is very high, in terms of fear and stress for pupils and absolutely frazzled teachers. I don’t think it has to be this way, I think that there must be a more creative and joyful way of harnessing pupils own energy and wish to learn, whist maintaining high expectations and robust boundaries.
Much can be learnt here from animal trainers. There was a wonderful film recently about a horse whisperer (Buck) who was able to tune into difficult animals, gain their trust and get them to do amazing things with no force whatsoever! Clear boundaries yes, but no violence, physical or emotional. I think it is exactly the same with children, if they feel understood and seen and cared for they become freer from the compensatory behaviours that their unmet needs leads to. Then, they can follow their interest with more enthusiasm and creativity, this is the natural state of human beings! Being bored, disruptive and anti-social, are reactive compensatory behaviours that emerge from deficit. No child is born “horrible”.
When a child is repeatedly told, either through force or through neglect, that they are not valued, they internalise the message and believe themselves to be ‘bad’. They then believe the world is the enemy as well. This is the root cause of all of our negative, destructive, angry, withdrawn, deeply indifferent, defeated, behaviour. Psychology is not rocket science. Psychology cannot be separated from the environment either and these behaviours that are bound to arise from within an authoritarian system.
Again I think the first step that’s needed is to create a saner more creative environment in schools by changing their organisational structure. We know that authoritarian structures do not work and as most modern businesses know, what is needed is to flatten any hierarchy as much as possible and engage people’s creativity. But in schools the barriers to democracy are even less than in business, there are no problem of ownership. Real democracy is not easy in our culture, it inevitably involves some chaos, some living with uncertainty and lots of taking responsibility, but as many have shown (e.g. Ricardo Semler’s work on business and schools) the results can be amazing, empowering and liberating for all involved. There are huge numbers of enormously talented teachers out there being squashed and trampled over in the present system, their creativity and good will just need encouraging and harnessing.
If schools can become places where teachers and pupils are respected as human beings, with their emotional as well as intellectual needs being given attention and developed, then they could become wonderfully creative, reparative and inspirational places. Places where learning is not suffered through, disregarded and forgotten, but where the joy of learning and community can help everyone’s futures. At present there is lots of lip service to these ‘softer’ aspirations and goals but the reality is hypocrisy and double standards.
With everybody worried their job it is hard to challenge the status quo. But as with the fall of Communism there comes a time when the insanity of the current system becomes so obvious that it collapses. I look forward to the time soon when teachers themselves force these changes on the structure of their schools by organising and using their collective power. Or maybe it will come from pupil power? Who knows? It just seems obvious that change must come.