What are we teaching our children for?

20 April 2011 -

In the last post ‘Killing our imagination’ below, I ended saying something about a longitudinal survey carried out on 1,500 children to test their divergent thinking skills. I set the challenge to guess what percentage at different aged scored at genius level. Here are the results:

3 to 5 year olds 98%

They retested again 5 years later

8 to 10 year olds 32%

You can possibly already see a trend here can’t you?

13 to 15 year olds 10%

They finally tested 20,000 adults, just once as a control.

25 year olds and over 2%

One would expect, or at least have some hope that we’d start not being very good and you get better as we get older. So it appears we are all born with the ability to think divergently and it mostly deteriorates. A lot has happened to these children as they’ve grown up; and one of the most important things that have happened to them is they have become educated.

To a large extent, this decline in divergent thinking has to be because children spend and great proportion of their schooling being told that there’s only one answer. The answer may well be at the back of the book, but you can’t look, that’s cheating; paradoxically in the real world it’s called research and ‘copying’ is called collaboration.

I sense a huge dissatisfaction in a great many schools and some schools are in crisis. The problem is that the present education system doesn’t suit the contemporary world or the needs of children. This isn’t because teachers want it this way, it’s because it just is this way; it’s in the gene pool of education. Teachers are forced to teach within a system with inappropriate assumptions conceived during and for the industrial age. Public Education at the time was a revolutionary idea, never before had there been education paid for by taxation, compulsory for all and free at the point of delivery. However there were many cynics in positions of authority who thought it was a waste of time and money and doubted that working class children were capable of learning how to read and write. So the education system had built into it all kinds of assumptions about social capability. It was also designed for purpose, which is why, by the early 20th century, we ended up with a very broad base of elementary education, which everyone went to, followed by a secondary education which some people went to, and a university education that a very tiny minority went to. It was modelled on the industrial and economic needs of the age when we needed a broad base of people to do manual work, who would only need a rough basics of English and Maths; a smaller group of administrators, that’s what grammar schools were for; and an even smaller group to run the country and they were the ones who went to universities. That’s simplified but it’s basically what shaped the education system we still live with now.

By the time children reach the age of twelve their education is not only based on the interest of industrialisation their schools are based on factory lines: ringing bells, separated facilities, specialisation in separate subjects, educating children in batches. Why do we insist they go through the system by age category I can’t see that the most important thing we have in common is our age. Surely our most defining feature isn’t our date of manufacture. Some children are much better at certain things than others twice their age. Some individuals are also better at certain things at different times of the day, or more efficient in smaller groups, or function better at other activities alone. If we are interested in educating the individual, you can’t start with a production line mentality.

There remains the over-riding assumption that real intelligence is an aptitude for deductive reasoning, knowledge of the classics, in short academic ability. And so our education is driven by the perception that there are two types of people, academic and the non-academic, and if you’re academic you are by definition, smarter. The consequence of this is that many brilliant people think they are not because they are being judged against this particular view of intelligence. Whilst this educational model favours some people it has created distress in the lives of many more. I think it’s a massive problem.

If the industrial age, when our present education system was conceived, was a time of revolutionary change it is as nothing to what is happening now. The changes taking place globally now are without precedent in the history of the world. Technology is moving faster than any of us can imagine. In 1949 a headline article was published in an American magazine called popular mechanics made the astonishing prediction that future computers might weigh less than 1½ tons. Who then would have 30 years ago that we would have mobile phones with computing powers greater than that used to manage the Apollo space mission? Much of what the world will be like for our children in fifty years time is unimaginable but the impact on culture promises to be extraordinary.

We can take a stab at envisaging the world in thirty, fifty, sixty years by looking at some trends. Take work for instance. My Grandfather had a job for life, my father had two jobs in his lifetime, I’m one of the baby boomers and we will have had on average 3 or 4 jobs in our career by retirement age. When children who are starting school now reach retirement it’s predicted they will have worked in 18 – 25 different organisations. Soon companies will no longer be looking for committed people to train and manage for life, they will be looking to secure more and more people on short term contracts, working to expand key areas of their development planning then moving on as the company’s plans need change. It’s also worth flagging up that the number of graduates in 2009 still looking for jobs at the start of 2010 was just over 30% and that blue chip companies are increasingly saying that a first class degree is no longer a major criterion for employment selection. These changes alone means we can be certain of one thing, the world of our children will be even more uncertain than our own.

Whether this depresses you or not, whether you like it or not, or however desperately you may wish or hope for a reversal in these trends, the reality is it won’t happen. In many ways the reason the future feels so stark is that we are not prepared for it, it’s a world we would feel uncomfortable in. What’s crucial though is that it is a world in which our children need to feel comfortable and prepared for and whatever it holds there are certain skills they’ll need that aren’t being addressed fully right now. Above all the future is call to be flexible, adaptable to change. They will need to have huge amounts of confidence, and will need to hold onto and develop their natural creativity and inborn capacity for divergent thinking. Increasingly they will need to be emotionally self-aware have consummate social skills, be capable of building relationships quickly and effectively both face to face and ‘virtually’. The spirit of entrepreneurship will be vital, so they will need to be open to taking risks, embrace failure as a vital part of learning, know their strengths and weakness and how to utilize both

Government after government tinker and tweak the education system to respond to voter’s hopes for their children. One problem is they are trying to reform education to make it better version of what it was or is. In other words the challenge seems to be to do whatever it’s doing better to raise standards. And they say we have to raise standards as if it was some kind of break through. Yes really we should – because I haven’t come across an argument that persuades me we should lower them. But to transform education we have to think differently about human capacity. We have to get over this old concept of academic/non-academic and see it for what it is – a myth.

I am a huge advocate of working with groups. Collaboration is the stuff of groups and learning is a natural outcome of collaborating. The education system force schools to atomise people and separate them and judge them separately, and when we do that we form a disjunction between them and natural learning; it’s deeply embedded in the culture of our institutions. Why are we so hung up on a system that disconnects people when we are naturally and essentially social beings? There are a growing number of people who are pushing for an education built on different principles but it means a shift from an industrial metaphor of education to an organic one. Education shouldn’t be about uniformity but diversity. We should customise learning institutions for the individual not systematically for all, value utility but respect living vitality and its potential to be transformative. Whist there is a place for linear thinking we should give greater worth to creative multi optional thinking. Learning should be a fabulous adventure.

What are we teaching our children forWhen Arnold Wesker researched for Beortell’s Hill he discovered that the children of Basildon went to Stanstead airport with bunches of flowers to give to Asian families exiled from Uganda by Ida Amin. It was an apology for their council and parents who had refused to take any of these homeless families into their community. Why do we present children as our hope for the future yet ignore even their better instincts?


5 Responses to What are we teaching our children for?

  1. Pingback: The Individual and the Group « Claque Theatre

  2. Jon Oram says:

    Thank you Geoff for your further comments on ‘what are we educating children for? I came to Community Plays via Froebel, teaching at Primary level then becoming an educational drama advisor. Froebel training advocates child centred learning through play so employing improvisational drama to teach was a natural development. I left full time teaching well over thirty years ago, though I continue to employ and develop teaching methods and the principles that led me then even though I’m working in a different context.
    Like you I find when I’m busy ‘doing’ it is difficult to stand back. The time consuming obstacles I face are the perpetual funding applications requiring first a proposal of what we want to do, then a mid-project report on what we are doing and a finally an assessment report on what we’ve done. Multiply that annually by ten with each funding body demanding we meet different criteria and measure success and failure by different targets, and there’s little time left to do the real work, never mind reflect on it. I am trying to adjust that balance now. I certainly believe that reflection is something we should all be encouraged to do, theatre does that and the central purpose behind the process of finding plays is getting communities to reflect and debate about where they, where they are coming from and where they hope to be. What I do now is not dissimilar from what I tried to do as a teacher, but hearing children is not commonly regarded as educational, telling them is clearly seen as as more productive than listening to them.
    Choosing to use drama as a method of teaching was certainly a reaction against a terrible personal education, which involved going to thirteen different schools. The typical teacher then showed less interest in us children as individuals, but rather as something to be standardised. I felt I was being manufactured for purpose rather that educated for me; and for the most part I was given the very clear message that failed the quality test, I was not fit for purpose, whatever that purpose was. I meet many teachers now who clearly much more aware of the individuality of children but they remain tethered to a system, rules and expectations that, all too often, forces them to teach in ways they wouldn’t naturally chose.
    Sybil Levy was the first teacher I ever met that showed an interest in me as an individual teacher I was twenty and she taught drama. The first thing that struck me was she led drama asking ‘real’ questions, meaning she didn’t already have an answer we had to guess. She was genuinely inquisitive and interested in what we thought, and what we thought was always what we were allowed to explore. She let practically define our own curriculum. It was extraordinary, the confidence it gave us, and a hunger to learn. We were young adults but it was implicit in her teaching that her methods applied as much to children. Children need the experience of making and taking responsibility for their own choices; this seems to be what you are advocating and is at the heart of drama.
    Towards the end of your last comment you ask the question “what is our most prized characteristic?” It’s a great question. My immediate response was ‘empathy’ but I quickly realised that actually you can’t empathise without imagination, you need to imagine being the other person in order to form any semblance of understanding about where they are coming from, and that of course is drama.
    This is why I think Drama should be central to our education across the curriculum, but it’s relegated to the lowest level of the lower division in curriculum subjects; this is either because it’s mistakenly taken for a subject rather than a teaching technique, or if it’s understood as a method of teaching, the concept scares the hell out of teachers. Implicit in drama is the teacher relinquishing autonomy to the children; teachers using improvisational drama, almost by definition have to hand to the students the ‘mantle of the expert’. There are other reasons of course, such as a total distain for anything that smacks of soft liberalism, but that’s based on a misconception about what drama does because it can be very demanding and requires extraordinary discipline. Listen to children experienced in improvisational drama, sadly there’s not many of them, and you will be struck by their intuition, empathy, enthusiasm for learning, maturity, knowledge and yes, wisdom.

  3. Geoff Marshall says:

    Dear Jon

    From what you say, I think we understand one another, though with slightly different perspectives because my background is in the early years. Since I’ve retired I’ve written a lot, reflecting upon what we did at school and why we did it, in part because at the time we were too busy ‘doing’ with little time to stand back. So it has cleared my mind and when all is said and done the obstacles put in the way by government, the complexities of trying to do the right thing by children, the problems constantly presented can be resolved into a few quite simple propositions, most of which you allude to.

    1. What goes on in schools is, sadly, not ‘education’ but training for a future role in the economy.

    2. In brief, ‘training’ is devised by outsiders for their own purposes. They decide what it is to be successful and the motivation is the award of a prize which they determine. It shows little concern for childhood or the individual but concentrates upon programmes which will mould the child into an acceptable form for the purposes of the institution.

    3. Education begins by studying childhood and what it means to be a child. It then requires that teachers and parents care about each child and its particular characteristics. It expects that individual provision is made for each child. It is about fostering growth in abundance particularly as a confident learner. Education is a process of deriving understanding by abstracting meaning from concrete experience and it can only take place as a result of individual initiative where choices are made and responsibility acknowledged. Each child/person has to make choices and by doing so confers ownership. Without choice there can be no ownership and without ownership there can be no responsibility. In a helpful setting children are ravenous learners and have no problem with taking the initiative. Making choices, becoming independent and taking responsibility cannot be taught and can only be learnt by being permitted to practise in appropriate settings.

    4. The teacher’s responsibility is to ensure that the choices made are within the child’s capacity to make them.

    5. It is the child’s competence in the process of making wise choices which matters. Inevitably, the traditional disciplines will be employed because they are the ways we understand and interpret what we know, but what the child learns as a result of the process is subsidiary to its confidence as a learner.

    6. In effect the child creates its own curriculum which widens and becomes more sophisticated as it develops. Of course there is no possibility of comparing or standardising, which makes it a non-starter for governments, though there is plenty of evidence that it is the most effective way to bring children to the disciplines of learning.

    7. None of the above discounts shared activities where appropriate, and they will be more effective for being undertaken with an understanding that to join together is the only way a particular situation can be exploited, but nevertheless the essential element of making choices and taking responsibility will still be present and, in fact, will be more effective where children are familiar with it.

    8. As you make clear, the future economies will need flexible learners able to adapt and think in unfamiliar ways. In fact the highest paid are those who have to make the most demanding decisions: that’s what they are paid for or so it’s said! But our children only learn what is put before them and to do what they’re told.

    9. In the end we have to ask: What is the most prized human characteristic? I would put ‘imagination’ first and that is precisely what making choices is all about because to choose is to imagine consequences and to take responsibility for the choice you make. But the Government is not interested because it’s not interested in education for everyone, only for those who are born to choose and decide on our behalf. So the differences are essentially political, not theoretical or philosophical.

    I could go on but you can have enough of a good thing! Thank you for reminding me of some first principles.

    Geoff Marshall

  4. Jon Oram says:

    Thank you for your comments Geoff. I was a drama advisor in Norfolk so don’t know your West Country friends. Sure Starts are now under threat by cuts of course, what kind of crazy thinking goes into decisions like that? Those creative initiatives you introduced into school are all so positive, so important, so vital, yet most people would see them as luxuries – things to cut when the financial climates bad

    I agree I feel the same duality of depression and encouragement. I am cheered by the fact that there are millions of people who agree with the basic premise that our education system is no longer fit for purpose. These ideas that are not new and I can’t lay claim to their origins, in fact these ideas are everywhere.

    I went to Froebel Institute in the late 1960’s to train as a teacher. It would feel nobler if my decision to become a teacher had been a reaction to the bad experiences I’d had of school. I would so like to say that I felt charged with a responsibility to do something about changing the status quo; but I can’t honestly say teaching was something I decided to do – it seemed, at the time, the best of a few options – it kind of just happened. It was only at Froebel and meeting Sybil Levy, an inspiring teacher, that I began to question the school experience and recognise that things could be different. The assumptions we have about education and pretty much everything else are so ingrained we don’t question them. That’s the terrible nature of assumptions of course; they are hard to turn on their head. Sybil released in me a confidence to question, simply that. She was really the first teacher who gave me permission to think. Now isn’t that a terrible inditement? Sybil taught Drama so I was soon under the influence of the drama pioneers of the day such as Peter Slade and Brian Way. They were already suggesting that drama wasn’t a subject at all but a teaching method that could be used to teach everything. I have held the conviction ever since that Drama should be at the centre of the curriculum, that it has the power and potential to radically change the way we educateour children, and that teachers should be systematically taught how to use it.

    So I come to community theatre from an educational background and conviction. I’m no longer a teacher in school because the timetable doesn’t allow drama to work its magic and schools are so tied down by wretched systems that they can’t give it space. Fear is a great factor too. Drama is further marginalised. bt teachers who are frightened of Drama. Drama empowers children, and there is a myth going round that empowered children would be out of control. But what we have in many schools now are children out of control because they are feeling disempowered. I led a drama class in a school a year or so ago where the children simply refused to do anything – the lack of discipline of these ‘hooligans’, as a member of staff described them, was rife throughout the school. I have to admit, that trying to teach them was a horrible experience, I felt so stressed out, I can understand the helplessness so many teachers feel. These children had become consummate blockers – they knew exactly what buttons to push, how to stop absolutely anything from happening. It struck me, though, in hindsight that these children were resisting, not because they were bad kids, but because they were tired of being exposed as failures. What better way of protecting themselves than resisting situations where they would be exposed in that way. If you are a child in school today everything you do must feel like a test. By showing total disinterest they lower the stakes of being tested and failing, because it really doesn’t matter. “I aren’t bovvered” has become a cultural catch phrase. I heard this week that there is something like 79 tests we submit our preschool nursery children to. Why? They’re five years old for God’s sake. What are we doing?

    We could get depressed, though I’m more angry than depressed, and on the positive side there is a growing chorus of disapproval. More exciting still is that there are ideas not only about identifying and naming specifically what’s wrong but concrete ideas about what can be done about it.


  5. Geoff Marshall says:

    Dear Jon

    You have no idea how encouraging and yet at the same time dispiriting it is for me to read your blog. Uplifting because I’ve read someone who seems to be saying much of what I would say but at the same time demoralising because there are so few of us. It is so depressing to be reminded of the power of the press and politicians to lead people into believing and behaving against their own interests. Perhaps the greatest of your achievements is to show people that they can recover control over their decisions and enact the sort of beliefs you put forward in your blog. I would like to respond to that more directly at another time because this, I think, will be all you will want to read from me in one sitting!

    1. John mentioned that you were at one time a teacher of drama somewhere in the west, perhaps Devon, Cornwall, Somerset etc. I’m wondering if you came across someone called Whalley. He is the brother of a young teacher I appointed to our school (in 1972) who is now an O.B.E and famous as the leader of the Penn Sure Start Centre at Corby. She was a Drama graduate and with her guidance we had begun to develop a way to put on school plays. At her invitation he came to lead a workshop on improvisation and movement which was the beginning for us. I understood him to be Head of Drama at a school somehwere out in the west or perhaps a lecturer in Drama. Did you know him?

    2. The way we developed was in the first years to take a story well known to the children like the Iron Man or the Green Giant and invite anyone who was interested to come to auditions for any of the parts. When these were decided the actors were given a scene and with help from a teacher would improvise the situation until the language and the movement developed. In time these would become more or less defined and determined. At the same time any others were included in groups creating movement and dance to accompany and commentate upon the drama. The children designed the progamme and designed and made the scenery and the lighting came from Sandown Court who operated it for us as well.

    3. In later years we made up a story with the children and then they went away and wrote their version of what it would be. We then chose the most likely and drafted it into scenes and then proceeded as before.

    4. On one occasion we invited the National Theatre Outreach Group to join us and that was wonderful because they took us behind the stage to see the wigmaker and the set maker etc and then they came down to school and worked with the children over several weeks making trial sets and then the real one to the children’s design, practising movement and dance, designing the costumes with them and generally giving the children an insight into how a professional company go about it- not very different from what we had been doing.

    The great thing about this way of doing it was, as you say, that they had made the play, it was theirs, there was no sense of having to learn because it had become part of their being and of course they were acting but only enhancing their adopted character not performing outside themselves.

    As I said, I would like to take up your E. Mail more directly soon. But thank you for that.

    Best wishes,

    Geoff Marshall

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