An open letter to education policy makers.

I experience feelings of enormous doubt about our education system on a fairly regular basis. I doubt that the education system caters to the needs of all students equally. Worse than that, I think it is actually failing many students. At the younger end of the age spectrum we can gloss over the extent of this problem easily enough. But as the children get older, and become more independent of spirit and mind, that gets increasingly difficult to do. I also doubt that the system is preparing them for the potential impact that new technologies will have on ‘disappearing’ jobs. Equally, I doubt that it is preparing them to tackle the environmental and social problems that, like the proverbial can, we keep on kicking down the road. D-Day is fast approaching and technology is not going to be enough to get us out of the mess, if we decide to address it at all.

I don’t know any teachers who are not also concerned about these issues in at least some part. We are well intentioned. We are an earnest bunch who have real desire to make a difference. We go to courses. We create vision statements. We write goals. We really endeavour to be better teachers and deliver ‘better learning outcomes’ for the children. But there is also a disconnect. And it is that disconnect that troubles me. It’s where I start to feel doubt about the education system and its ability to address these issues. It all feels like the stuff we are encouraged to do to is merely tinkering at the edges of a largely cumbersome and ineffective system. And I need to be crystal clear once again, this is not a criticism of teachers but rather, a critique of a system, of human nature and of human fallibility. Teachers like myself, are simply part of a an amorphous blob who are simply responding appropriately to the cues and prompts that society delivers to us, at this present moment in time. We operate as a flock does.

I have come to appreciate that teachers are teachers because they fit the system. They think in the way that the system requires them to. They have navigated the system, so they now get the privilege to perpetuate it. Unfortunately, the system is a pretty very narrow paradigm to work within. It is not a reflection of the real world by any means. Nor is it a particularly inviting environment for children or teachers who think differently. Invitations to teachers or children for innovation and creativity are merely platitudes. Things need to fit within the framework. And the framework is the 3 R’s, still. It’s always going to be difficult to change a system that on the one hand is so rigid but at the same time presents itself as the opposite; flexible and responsive. Of course, teachers are educated and they know what is best for the children. They have been to university for at least three years. Expert knowledge has been passed on to them. I suggest that that these facts may need to be taken at face value.

Working within this narrow framework is a frustrating experience. It’s frustrating for me, it’s frustrating for the children. It prompted me to start playing around with the idea of ‘engagement’. Of course I still wanted to create ‘better learning outcomes’ but I started to realise that I was being hampered from making that happen. I started to ask a different question. “How can I create ‘better learning outcomes’ if the children are not engaged with the learning to start with?” That question started me off on a new learning journey. It taught me that my number one priority is to have all my students engaged in, and enjoying their learning.

If children are not actively curious, then I need to address that. If children are not engaged with their learning, or responding appropriately to my questions, then I try to ask better questions. And when I say I need to have all my students engaged with their learning, I really mean all. I’ve got to get it right for all of them. If I don’t, not only am I failing that child, but all the other children (and society) as well. A ‘disengaged learner’ is a potential disruption to the learning culture of the whole class. From changing that question, from changing my focus, and being determined to find an honest and genuine answer to that question, it has contributed to the big shift in my approach, and dare I say, contribution to teaching. It really feels like I am no longer simply tinkering around the edges; that I am addressing the fundamental flaws of the education system.

The point of engagement is the ‘sweet spot’. Once that point has been achieved, you know the learning is going to be taking place. And here is the time to be critical of the system again. The learning that will engage a young learner is not always what is currently being offered. They are being offered a narrowed curriculum that is more often than not, delivered in an abstract, paper based way. It speaks only to the head and neglects the heart. It’s a type of learning that does not reflect the real (and quickly changing) world. Sure, it suits many. The compliant and linear learners. At least they survive. Some may even thrive. But not the rest. The blame tends to fall on the rest; for not being engaged or for not trying hard enough or for learning to be lazy or for not being resilient enough or for not doing homework, or for having bad parents or for being poor. Can anyone else see here a reflection of how our society works? I’m telling you, if children are not engaged in their learning, it is the system that needs to change.

So for a brief moment, let’s imagine that all teachers and policy makers agreed with my view of the current state of the education system. That we are approaching education in the wrong way and that it’s not catering for all students adequately or equally in a time of an uncertain future. Is there is a better way? Where to from here? At some stage, a ‘leap of faith’ is going to be needed. We are going to need to create an education system (and social system) that supports and empowers people to be their best and one that will address the big environmental and social issues facing us.

We need leaders with the ability to dream. To trust the children, to trust the adults entrusted with the task of educating the children. Teachers need to become empowerers rather than just gatekeepers. And my word, that’s a tricky proposition. It flies in the face of convention. I can hear the chorus of naysayers as I write. That’s not to say our educators shouldn’t be competent in academic and management terms, but we need teachers who have the freedom to be dreamers and visionaries. We need educators who can achieve the National Standards goals and still provide the fun and engagement that children need and deserve. We need educators who give more credence to the voice of the children in their classroom rather than some invisible policy maker’s visionary nightmare called ‘National Standards’. We need teachers that will encourage the kind of learning that will help make the world a better place and help move us to resolving some of the enormous problems that society is facing.

Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.– William Bruce Cameron

I have already highlighted in previous posts the critical role of playing, making, creating, singing and dancing at getting children actively engaged. I have since learnt that there is also another activity that can guarantee all young children will be actively engaged in learning. It’s reading – the teacher reading a story to the children. This should come as no surprise. I have come to appreciate the value of play based activities as an effective way of understanding life. I now will add reading fictional stories to that list.

As an adult, I love science and the role science plays in advancing the world. (I say ‘as an adult’ because when I was at school I always believed that I was not good at it). However, I also think there is a risk that we promote the role of science (and rationality) at the cost of ignoring the role of fiction. Facts and rationality have value but we are at risk of missing the bigger ideas if we rely solely on them. Stories, like ‘playing’, allows us to explore complex questions in a broader way. Children need to be encouraged to think with their hearts – or at least, not lose that innate ability to do so. Stories and play allow us to see life beyond the literal. To see in colour; beyond black and white. To dream. Actively engaged children will always generate talk and discussion. They will amaze you with their enthusiasm and their ability to understand and process complex ideas. Through the power of the narrative.

Yann Martel, the author of ‘Life of Pi’ has this to say about fictional stories,
“By imaginatively engaging with characters who we may not meet in real life, or by considering scenarios we may never actually find ourselves in, we can practice empathising with others and seeing from another point of view. We can learn from fictions in this way by being open to new experiences that we see in our mind’s eye. Narratives can teach us something new and encourage open heartedness. In reading we dream, and our dreams define how we live our lives.”

I read a book to the class the other day that still has me reeling. The book was recommended as a great introduction to science for young children. I am embarrassed to say that the book is 25 years old, and I had never heard of it. It’s called ‘Dear Greenpeace’.  It’s a narrative. A young girl character exchanges a series of letters with Greenpeace in response to finding a whale in the pond in her backyard. It’s hilarious and captivating. It captures the essence of ‘the power of stories as a tool to affect complex and broad learning’ very succinctly.

Let’s hope our policy boffins are getting plenty of time to play, time to read and, time to dream. Because it really does feel like to me that National Standards are the symptom of a policy boffin’s nightmare.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

One thought on “An open letter to education policy makers.

  1. Pingback: I’ve seen a learning environment that lifts underachievement and benefits all students | Ease Education

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