This journal entry was written as part of the first #blogsync, an initiative in the synchronisation of online journals by UK Educational professionals. The first shared topic was “The Universal Panacea? The number one shift in UK education I wish to see in my lifetime.” You can read all the contributions here: http://blogsync.edutronic.net/
In searching for an adequate contribution to the, frankly, stunning array of blogs and contributions to the inaugural blogsync my mind has walked down many paths. Having selected the topic, I have felt a weight of expectation – surely I must have something to say on the matter? However, it wasn’t until this evening, the day of my birth and the deadline for publication of the January blogsync that my thoughts finally coalesced.
I live my life by some very simple tenets. The clarity of which has been hard-won. One of these can be summarised by this quotation from diplomat Carlo Dossi: “The best way to be more free is to grant more freedom to others.” In pursuit of a life of freedom, I wish to grant freedom to my students, as freedom is not only conferred by people in power or characterised by the greatest degree of choice, but it is also upheld by people who have the ability to govern themselves. This, surely, is the greatest educational prize of all.
Freedom to take risks
To refer to an exhortation that I have carried with me for my entire adult life, Katherine Mansfield’s “Risk, risk anything! Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth.” has been, for me, an imperative to live by. On the most basic level, our students will learn nothing if they avoid risk. Our job as teachers, and the part of the change I wish to effect in my lifetime is to generate an educational environment for young people that embraces risk. I want to expunge from the UK educational landscape such phrases as a “safe C grade”. What is ‘safe’ about a C? The more we operate our schools to avoid risk, the less our students are going to gain from their time in our hands. Our focus must shift from protecting ourselves from criticism to providing our students with the courage to risk success.
Moreover, I want our system to tell the truth to our students. Telling someone who gains a “D” grade that they have failed is not the truth. Neither is telling them an “A*” will lead to a life of happiness and fulfilment. What we should be offering our students is a clear evaluation of whatever standard they have reached and signalling a clear path to their improvement. We should also tell them if the Fisher Family Trust has determined the probability of their getting an A to be 1% – and we should tell them to be that 1%.
Let’s face the truth, the fact that we assess every child in the country in June of their 15th year against a set of arbitrary standards is not a result of a reasoned educational strategy. Those tests exist for the purpose of accountability and classification. They are there to make schools and administrators and politicians accountable. Does anyone genuinely believe that a “D” grade GCSE student will thereafter have lesser rights to fulfilment in UK society? If not, why pretend otherwise? We all have to submit to this system, we all know they are hurdles that must be cleared – but no-one has to pretend they mean anything more than they do.
So if a student wants to make a stage prop rather than rote learn a Shakespearian essay because making is what makes their heart sing, who are we to deny them the right to take that risk? If they are free to try a new essay writing method. To publish their own blog to the world. To try out for the A team. To attempt swim 5km. To take the ‘higher paper’ even though they have dyslexia. To eat snails in a french restaurant. To cross-dress in the school play. To read aloud in front of the class with their lisp or stutter – then we are encouraging their willingness to strive to exceed themselves. Then we are demonstrating that we believe that for them, anything is possible.
As Katherine Mansfield said, “do the hardest thing on earth for you“
Freedom to fail
Life’s greatest lessons are learned in the face of, and as a consequence of, failure. In our risk-averse culture with arbitrary high-stakes testing and the attendant draconian consequences for teachers and schools, our students are denied the opportunity to fail, and to learn from it. While it is often said, usually with a hint of envy, that a given person who experienced ‘easy success’ that “they landed on their feet”, it is not often so easily acknowledged that in order to do so they had to jump. They had to take a leap of faith.
How can our students possibly learn from their failures if every time they come within a whiff of failing, there is an ‘intervention’ and all their autonomy is taken from them as they are corralled into a boot camp designed to ensure failure is not an option. What do they gain from this experience? Instead of this we should be allowing young people to experience failure while they are in our care, where we can show them how to develop resilience, put it into context and learn from the disappointment. Their esteem and sense of competence should not be derived from their pursuit of external affirmation. It should come from an internally sourced sense of competence – one that is developed through the slow process of learning how to grow from failure, how to manage disappointment.
Freedom to be
The most important thing of all, and having been a gay school student myself in a society which, at the time, classified such a thing as criminal – I know what I’m talking about here – is that we must grant our students the right to be themselves. We must embrace, celebrate and respect their unique individuality, their spectacular cultural diversity and their unending originality. To allow our young people to succeed in our society we must show that we love them for who they are. We must act to support them to be who they are. In return for this we get to live in a society where we too, have the freedom to be who we are – to thrive and also to be loved.
So, the change that I want to see in education in my lifetime is simple. I want to see the education system place every student (and not only their numerical achievement) in the centre of their mission. I want students to learn in a system that is truly more focussed on their success than any other thing. I want to see students afforded the same degree of respect and dignity that we hope for as their teachers. Moreover, I want their experience of learning to be as thrilling as my experience of teaching. My daily professional life is vital and optimistic because I afford myself the freedom to pursue my passions, to take risks, to feel the adrenaline rush of success and the gut-wrenching despair of failure – and because I demand the right to be myself. This is what I believe we should offer our students – and we should accompany them as they learn from their own experiences and form the resilience, self-confidence and most of all – the liberty of self-governance that they need to thrive in the lives they will lead.