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What are the real questions that educationalists and parents should be asking themselves?

As the education sector goes into exam results overdrive, are we doing enough to ensure children enjoy their childhoods and thrive in doing so?

 

“Umbuntu – literally meaning: how goes it with the children?”

 

I love being a parent. It is the most enormous privilege and responsibility I have ever experienced in my time on this Earth. I also find that every day I learn something new myself as I am reacquainted with the wonders of childhood through the eyes of my daughter. My little girl’s natural inquisitiveness, her own sense of wonder at the most everyday of things (when do we stop starring so intently at the progress of tractors or ants?), and her lack of fear, all tell of an age when the mind is unconfined by assumption or the expectations of others. It is these same interactions that I am so sure makes teaching the greatest job in the world for so many people.

Childhood is a natural process, which – like pregnancy, adolescence or ageing – must be allowed to take its natural course. It is a time for exploration, for developing one’s sense of the world and of nature, and for the forging of character. The human baby is born with a very premature brain and two thirds of brain development takes place after birth right up until adolescence. The stewardship of this hugely important period is the great responsibility of teachers and parents, yet we live in precarious times – distracted as we all are by the increasing pace, demands and new dynamics of the modern world around us that threaten to harm this process. In the midst of all of this we seem to be losing touch with the whole point of childhood and how best we serve children.

“The human baby is born with a very premature brain and two thirds of brain development takes place after birth right up until adolescence. The stewardship of this hugely important period is the great responsibility of teachers and parents, yet we live in precarious times”

My greatest fear is that – in today’s society – we are seeing the very essence of childhood eroded by technology, materialism and our need to satisfy a system of accountability that doesn’t understand the nature of childhood or the challenges and opportunities of the future. Whilst the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ have until now been defined by poverty and academic achievement, I believe we will increasingly be defining them by the quality of their experience of childhood in its purest sense. The facts are alarming:

Children are spending far less time outside. A recent study found that three quarters of children spend less time outside than prison inmates. A fifth of the children did not play outside at all on an average day. Less than one in 10 children regularly played in wild spaces compared to half of children a generation ago. As one headteacher who is hugely passionate about outdoor learning recently said to me: “children are increasingly spending their time in boxes, looking at boxes. If we are not careful they will not be able to think outside of boxes.” We are increasingly substituting the arena of childhood – the outdoors – with boxes.

To spend time outside is to find time for the imagination to run freely, for the senses to be awoken, to collaborate, to take risks, to be creative, for the body to be exercised, and for us to muse on the wonders of nature – yet too many children are not outside enough. As John Abbot says: “The outside world is the brain’s food – the richer the diet (experienced by the child through sound, vision, smell, touch and taste) the more the brain rapidly develops. This is particularly true for language development.” Michael Rosen expands on this when he says “In activity of any kind, we get our minds and bodies to go through actions. The way this involves our minds seems to involve such things as memory, recall, observation, response, reflection, interpretation, and evaluation, as well as a synthesis of these.” We learn and develop so much through play yet our modern world of busyness, obsession with technology, narrow curricula, and – yes – health and safety – is stifling the role of outdoor play and learning in childhood. A lack of time spent outdoors is the first tragedy of modern childhood.

Alongside this we are indeed seeing a marked rise in the use of smartphones and other electronic devices – with the average age of first-time mobile phone ownership now being seven years old! Technology can be a force for good – it opens up unlimited resources and opportunities for learning new world – yet on a daily basis children are too often the passive recipients of junk content that has been shown to be addictive. Yet, rather than teaching and supporting children to become masters of technology, as a society we are letting them loose on a ‘wild west’ of content and social interaction that we would never allow in the ‘real world’. If it’s not the messages of self-promotion and insatiable search for self-validation generated by sites such as instagram, it’s the ever-present messages of how gratification can be achieved instantly through the purchasing of material goods.

Yet, rather than teaching and supporting children to become masters of technology, as a society we are letting them loose on a ‘wild west’ of content and social interaction that we would never allow in the ‘real world’.

Indeed, used poorly and without careful guidance, technology is having a toxic effect on learning and specifically the crucial early development of speech and language skills (which – unsurprisingly – are declining on entry to school). This is at its most evident when devices are used ‘to keep children entertained’ or where parents are driven to distraction by their own devices and social media at the expense of listening to or having meaningful conversations with their children. The latter issue is not apparently confined to certain socio-economic classes, yet both our instincts and the research tells us that the more dialogue a child is exposed to and involved in the greater the likelihood of them living happy and successful adult lives.

There are some important considerations here for schools, not only around how we support children to interact wisely with technology, but also in how we engage them in their learning generally so that they break or avoid the habit of being mere recipients of information. We must encourage their natural inquisitiveness in a world that seems to stifle it. I have been fascinated by recent case studies we’ve put together in Lincolnshire based on EEF research into making best use of teaching assistants – where a scaffolding framework has been used to encourage TAs and teachers to move away from merely transmitting information and modelling answers for children to instead putting an emphasis on entering into meaningful interactions through clueing and self-scaffolding. This shift is helping to engage children in thought and discussion around their learning in order for them to discover that natural curiosity within themselves and in doing so develop the independent learning skills that are so important for their futures. Children are more confident and motivated learners as a result – yet so much of our technology driven world is pushing them away from entering into meaningful interactions and instead creating very dependent, passive receptive learners. Reflecting on how we engage our children in conversation and enabling them to reflect on and put into practice the knowledge they’ve acquired is so important. A lack of immediate social interaction and time to talk (often brought about by too much passive interaction with technology and being mere recipients of information) is another tragedy of modern childhood.

These pressures on childhood are exacerbated rather than mitigated by our politicians and their definitions of children’s educational success. Their insatiable appetite for allowing our education system to be defined by quantifiable measures and outputs which look good on election literature and in the press has meant the slow ebbing away of enriching learning experiences within the timetable – despite many headteachers’ protestations – and a focus on teaching and preparing children for tests that actually play a minimal role in preparing them to thrive as young adults and citizens. The answers are already set – you are either right or you are wrong. For too many children there is no room for further interpretation or any continuation of the learning journey beyond the confines of the curriculum’s parameters. Children have become the unwitting victims of a game played out by politicians which sees them become pawns in a competition between schools to see which succeeds best at getting their children through tests. Sadly this become the ‘be all and end all’ for those leaders who have come to see winning this game as the purpose of their existence and a source of huge frustration and despair for those school leaders and teachers who wish to focus on building the foundation’s of children’s success – academic or otherwise.  The pressures placed on children by tests and exams at such an early age and the resulting limitations that the existence of such tests place on so many children’s learning experiences is another tragedy of modern childhood.

Again, we’re back to being confined by boxes defined by people who have given little thought to the skills and traits that will be so important to today’s children as they forge their lives in the century ahead (See my previous blog: MAT Development: MAT visions must serve children, not the system! ) I’m encouraged that some schools and academy trusts are pushing back with their own definitions of success and what children’s learning experiences should look like. They cannot change everything but they can help to set the tone for their communities and families they serve.

Again, we’re back to being confined by boxes defined by people who have given little thought to the skills and traits that will be so important to today’s children as they forge their lives in the century ahead

It is no surprise that children are becoming unhappier – and in 2016 England ranked 13th out of 16 countries when it came to children’s life satisfaction. Dissatisfaction with school performance enjoyment of outdoor areas, their own bodies and the way they look ranked particularly badly. This is especially true for girls, with 1 in 7 (14%) 10 to 15 year old girls unhappy with their lives as a whole – up from 11% over a five year period . More than one third (34%) of girls are unhappy with their appearance – up from 30% over five years. This isn’t a surprise to me when so many young adults are increasingly judging themselves by the instagram accounts they are following.

What we are doing as adults is creating a society and – indeed – a context for childhood that is harmful and to a degree wholly unnatural. The happy irony, however, is that if we seek to redress the balance and preserve the essence of childhood – not least through play, exploration, risk-taking, and healthy and frequent ‘real world’ social interaction – we go some way to helping our children to develop the traits, characteristics and resilience that will see them thrive as adults in a changeable and uncertain world. Teaching and supporting children to be discerning consumers and users of technology is also essential.

What we do not need is new initiatives, policies or intervention from politicians. We need courage amongst parents and schools to push back against the erosion of childhood and to provide a better context for childhood than the – quite frankly – rather scary and depressing version that is evolving around us. I currently see very little in the visions of many of our multi-academy trusts, schools and educationalists that aims to redress this balance and provide something fresh and wholly child-focused to redress the balance. There are exceptions and I intend to celebrate and share these in the coming academic year through blogs, interviews and at the conferences I’m speaking at. I am particularly inspired by some of those trusts we have worked with who are developing pledges to their children that go far beyond the confines of the accountability system and seek to foster rich, diverse, deep and relevant learning and yes – childhood – experiences.

However, for most, the system and the dynamics of society seem to be too forceful. It requires courage, vision and foresight – not simply ‘effective leadership’ – to change this. In an era where too many ‘effective’ leaders, schools and parents – however reluctantly – define their success by the narrow parameters that society is currently setting for us, pushing back and seeking to preserve the very essence of childhood is in fact the true leadership calling of our times. The question is, what will you do during this coming year to make this a reality in your context?

Michael Pain works with multi-academy trusts and schools to develop their vision and to encourage future-thinkings in order to best serve children for their lives ahead: MAT development resources

August 23, 2017