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New Year’s Resolutions from a Believer in Promise

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Jonathan Barnes – one of the 100 Academics (or Marxist, ‘enemies of promise’) who dared publicly to criticise Govian education policy last year, contemplates a more conciliatory tone for the new year. He gained his PhD last year just after his 62nd birthday and this blog posting arises directly from it.

planting a seedMy New Year’s resolution is to resist my regular stroll down an educational ‘grumpy lane’.  It’s not going to be easy – as I look in any direction at current education policy I find demonisations, polarisations, over-reactions, over-reliance on the easily measurable, refusals to consider relevant evidence and closed-minded decisions potentially harmful to already disadvantaged children.  Anyone who, like me, looks back over a lifetime committed to children’s flourishing, is likely to be grouchy at doctrinaire politicians’ one-size-fits-all pronouncements on how to promote engagement, enjoyment and progress in young learners.  But stop…I have already turned down that lane….my resolution requires something more constructive.

2014 provides a rare chance to recalibrate. In this new primary curriculum year I want to rein-in my misgivings and join teachers in building pedagogies and curricula that really work for children.  Indeed the government encourages us to do this. A ministerial rhetoric offering more control, choice and freedom to schools has consistently run alongside the (sometimes contradictory) mass of pronouncements, guidance and legislation.  Teachers should grasp these chances of greater influence over curriculum and pedagogy and protect them.  It should be for teachers to decide how the new curriculum will feel and be presented.  Teacher educators too must be ready with research and practical answers to work with schools and teachers in building learning experiences that are positive for all children. Offering any universal benefit is a serious matter, however.  If we are to aim at positivity for all in schools, serious and school-by-school discussion on values and ethos must precede all other decisions. We should not duck the big questions:  ‘what is life for?’; ‘What is childhood for?’; ‘How can schools contribute towards the life we aim at?’; ‘What is our ethos?’

Like it or not, every school has an ethos.  Good or bad, a school’s values inform and shape its curriculum, teaching styles, relationships and organisation.  Pressures to make that ethos one of compliance, competition and risk-aversion have been great over past years; but more sustainable principles are on offer.  My research, at the end of a long teaching career, involved asking what made my years in education and those of nine other colleagues, fulfilling.  I also asked if answers to my research question might have any resonance for young teachers just entering the profession.  Ten years of self-analysis, interviews, conversations, discussions, reading, thought and practical application lead me to identify three fundamental attributes – common to all humanity – that sustained a good life in education. I found that we thrived when the ethos of our various educational institutions supported and encouraged the development of:

  • shared values
  • positive relationships and
  • personal creativity

When they didn’t, we withered. Positive experience of friendship and the creative drive, plus working environments that supported us in living private and public lives in line with our core beliefs, ensured high degrees of job satisfaction.  This discovery using just ten subjects led me to form the hypothesis that these things may be important for other teachers’ resilience. I tested the proposition in a series of 40 staff development sessions throughout England and abroad.  Evaluations have given me confidence to claim that frequent opportunities to discuss and share values, deepen friendships and nurture various manifestations of creativity should frame staff development practice, school relationships, organisational and curriculum decisions.   Transforming schools into joyful, productive and flourishing places for both children and adults may be as simple as turning our attention to such humanising activities.

Our lives are directed by values.  Cultures small and large establish their identity through shared values. Described as ‘…fundamental guides and prompts to action’ values affect all our decisions (Booth, 2010).  They provide meaning to individuals of all age groups and across cultural and economic spectra.  My autoethnographic and ethnographic study suggested that when fundamental beliefs were contradicted, compromised, belittled or lost, teachers described themselves as unhappy.  When they were able to live and work, ‘in the direction of their values’ (Whitehead, 1989) they spoke of fulfilment or job satisfaction.  Values differ, but my staff development sessions carried out between 2002 and 2012 generated a remarkably consistent set of overlapping beliefs in family, friendship, health/well-being, communication, inclusion, love, kindness, beauty, joy, respect, faith, honesty, justice. In deeper discussion individual differences in understandings of these terms emerged, but mutual agreements as to their application in schools were mostly easy to achieve.  Externally imposed targets, competition, compliance or risk avoidance were entirely missing from our discussions – few teachers entered the profession to do these things with children.

The values discussion itself was highly regarded whatever the outcome.  The most common comment regarding these conversations concerned their rarity in the normal school context. Yes, each school had its values statement, but values were not often discussed, consultations were rarely held about changing them, whether they truly informed academic, pedagogic and organisational decisions or if they needed to be better communicated.  As teacher retention becomes a greater issue perhaps what they are teaching for needs discussing more.

My first New Year suggestion: I advise schools and teacher educators therefore to hold values discussions frequently.  At least termly there should be whole staff opportunities to talk about the alignment of personal and institutional beliefs, the dominant values of the school, or if it actually lives them. Institutions should not only clarify their dominant values but should encourage parents, children and staff to judge their success as institutions against them.  Being open about values takes courage and good communication but the rewards are consistency, a clear and satisfying sense of purpose and direction for all involved.

My second New Year suggestion is that education institutions use staff development, curriculum and pedagogy to promote friendships and good relationships. In my initial research the theme of friendship dominated conversations about the sources of resilience. Friends (and for many this included family members) support us when our values are threatened, when the bad times come. Friends come to know us domestically and professionally and may have witnessed the trajectory of our lives over long periods.  They provide both the safety net that tightens as we fall and the honours when we triumph – and we reciprocate. My small sample of dedicated teachers saw kindred spirits as crucial to their ability to maintain the positive frame of mind necessary for confidence, creativity and commitment. Younger teachers in my staff development sessions also confirmed that the support of like-minded colleagues, with whom they had good social and work relationships, were vital to their survival. Yet situations where new friendships are born or deepened at school are threatened in atmospheres dominated by targets, performance and relentless pressure.

For children too, curriculum-based opportunities to make friends are often discouraged.  Like adults, children flourish within secure and positive relationships that promote their social and psychological health.  Schools are now in a position to shape the new curriculum and generate this central source of child well-being.  Take for example a teacher’s ability to organise and encourage authentic dialogue. Paired work, group work, fieldwork, collaborative projects, powerful joint experiences, real issues and work across the disciplines often produce conversations that deepen relationships.  The authenticity of such interactions frequently initiates the deep and informal learning highlighted by the Cambridge Primary Review (Alexander, 2010).  Schools might also be encouraged to ‘big up’ friendship: talking about it, highlighting social aspects in each curriculum subject and prizing examples of good social behaviour. Teachers and children surely benefit equally from such emphases.

My third and final New Year’s suggestion to schools as they prepare for the new curriculum is to consider: how to help every individual discover and develop their creative strengths.  Creativity is one of the defining characteristics of human behaviour. We know that recognising in ourselves the creativity of an action provokes a brain chemistry that produce feelings of satisfaction (Panksepp, 2004) and which make all kinds of link-making easier (Fredrickson, 2009).  When we define creativity as, ‘imaginative activity fashioned so as to produce outcomes that are both original and of value‘  (NACCCE, 1999, p.18) connections between people, ideas, objects, marks, materials, sounds, machines, movements, disciplines and cultures can be seen as creative. The joy of recognising in the self what Anna Craft (2001) calls ‘little c’ creativity, became a repeated theme in the lives of my ten fulfilled teachers. They consistently linked personal creativity with periods of intense job satisfaction.  For children it is similar. In the testimony of many other teachers it is during creative activities like games, art, music, science, history, language or maths investigations and chiefly in the playground, that children most frequently enter the fully engaged condition Csikszentmihalyi (2002) calls ‘flow’.

Flow, friendship and shared inclusive values motivate learning. They empower the learner, provide them with resilience and feedback and direct learning towards the common and personal good. If schools and teacher education view the new curriculum through these lenses there will be little ammunition left for grumpy old men like me.

References

Alexander, R. (2010) Children their world their education, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press

Booth, T. (2010, June11). ‘How Should we Live Together? Inclusion as a framework of values for educational development’, Keynote Lecture, Berlin, Dokumentation Internationale Fachtagung.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Flow: The Classic Work on How to Achieve Happiness, New York, NY: Ebury Press.

Craft, A. (2000) Creativity across the Primary Curriculum, London: Routledge.

Fredrickson, B. (2009) Positivity, New York, NY: Crown.

Pangsepp, J. (1998) Affective Neuroscience: the Origins of Animal & Human Emotions, New York: Oxford University Press

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2 Responses to New Year’s Resolutions from a Believer in Promise

  1. Catherine Carden
    Catherine Thursday, 16 January 2014 at 12:25 #

    Thank-you Jonathan. I have tweeted this Blog. So timely with the week of negatives from the media and Wilshaw.
    Your blog, as always, made me think. These ‘resolutions’ are not complex but simple. They simply require collaboration to succeed and be put into practice.
    I hope that others will be as inspired and will then take some of your advice.

  2. Jonathan Barnes Saturday, 18 January 2014 at 09:57 #

    Thank you Catherine, yes I believe it is the simplicity of these issues is one of the reasons they are ignored or dismissed so easily. When you think of it values, creativity and friendships are each deeply humanising attributes of any individual, we dismiss them at great risk to our health and the health of our communities.