Those of us fortunate to hear this week’s talk by James Shone, ‘I Can and I Am’, could not help but be impressed by his moving story of personal struggle after being diagnosed with a brain tumour, and the life lessons he has drawn from such a traumatic experience. There was much to take away and think about further, from his encouragement to look upwards, forwards and outwards (UFO) to the idea that we should all be ‘soldiers of hope’ for our children.
The talk was the latest in our series of parent seminars and I joked with people afterwards that in theory we should all now be experts at dealing with our children, having been exposed to so much wisdom and common sense in recent weeks. The truth, of course, is rather more complicated and there are very few, if any, silver bullets in such circumstances. There are, however, some key themes that emerge consistently from a range of speakers and experts, which increasingly lead me to believe we need to change the game and do something constructive about the development of different intelligences.
There is always a danger in such circumstances that we hear something that resonates, resolve to do something about it, make a note on our phone and then get hopelessly distracted by the realities of our daily lives, thereby doing nothing more with the information we have received. Apparently, we usually need to be told something at least twelve times before it sinks in and we have to write it down to help us make sense of it. As I often say to my classes, usually in response to a question about whether a key point needs to be added to notes, there is a Chinese proverb: ‘The faintest ink is more powerful than the strongest memory.’
Too much of the current education system seems to be dominated by fear rather than hope – fear of failure, low self-esteem, bullying, exams, competition, discipline or unrealistic expectations. This too often results in a risk-averse and overly defensive culture, where the temptation is to say ‘no’ in order to protect both the children and the adults from making mistakes. How much more interesting it would be if we were prepared to take risks and embrace uncertainty, trying to develop a more open-ended way of operating that lets pupils live with ambiguity and learn to deal with both failure and success.
When children are very young, we tell them they can do anything; but when they become teenagers, we tell them what they cannot do. It is estimated, for example, that 90% of comments from adults to teenagers are negative or critical. The upshot of this is another estimate that 18% of young people in the USA are too scared to set up their own business, while the corresponding figure in the UK is 36%, which does not bode well for the years ahead, particularly with the current political and economic uncertainty.
I was never a great fan of the ‘education, education, education’ mantra, thinking that ‘motivation, motivation, motivation’ might be a more practical approach. Although it may not flow in quite the same way, I have now reached the point where my preferred mantra would be ‘enrichment, enrichment, enrichment’. This highlights the need to find embedded, lasting and tangible ways to enhance what our pupils learn, both in the classroom and outside, to help them develop the softer, transferrable skills for which the world seems to be crying out. This would give the children better chances of dealing with the realities of life when they strike, and I am sure it would be genuinely interesting for the teachers to play their part in a broader and more relevant education programme. We will find out if I am right when we start our planning processes for how we might implement such a curriculum at our next staff training day in January!