A funny thing happened in the Park the other day…

My sons live up in London, and as is the custom amongst families, we went to Sunday lunch with one the other week. Maidenhead to North London has its many traffic moments to enjoy, and what with Bristol City playing Walsall at Wembley, we chose to take the rail and tube (Beaconsfield to Highbury and Islington) and walk up through Highbury Fields to their home. Spring was up, the trains ran well, and time was on our side. Along side some of the Tennis courts there (all bustling with weekend testosterone, grunts and competitive edge appropriate to the location). I spied the Park refreshment kisok. “Coffee?” I enquired.

Waiting in the queue, a small group of 40+ mums came alongside, deep in conversation. Teachers of all ages become really adept at listening to abuse of their profession; this could perhaps be used as a new form of military software by the way, but I digress. “The trouble I got into” said Brown hair, loosely brushed “is that by the time I had chosen to put some behaviour expectations around my daughter, she was up out and away.  Hopeless!” Harmony Blond retorted “What is about teachers that makes them so good at setting boundaries?  What I don’t get is why we don’t listen to them when we are younger – it is as if we are inoculated at school (by bitter experience) to ignore what teachers say, so once we are adults becoming parents, the last thing we will do is follow their advice.” Brown hair retorted “They make it look so easy, and it so is not”.

My concentration was broken for the demand of £3 (good value for an americano and white coffee), so I picked up my crockery and moved away back into the real world. Their conversation wafted in and out of the breeze, and drifted away from the feckless nature of their children as gently as indeed we did from the kiosk once our coffee had been imbibed. Just a gentle soundbyte lost in the wind. Yet I captured it and have thought over it some more over the last 4 days. Perhaps as teachers we could do a little better? As the experts in child development, is it not a little too late to interact with us when children actually commence in our schools?

Not so fast, Wilding. Teachers are not ‘experts’ in child development and they are certainly not experts in individual children before they meet them. As the Bard would have it “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (Hamlet). What’s worse, we have so many examples over the last 20 years where educational ‘expertise’ has been deployed for no good purpose, not least the industrialising of assessment at 7,11 and 14 in English, Maths and Science. It’s not just the research from across the world that fits my narrative – and caused the DfE to withdraw its national curriculum levels last year, but so much else besides. Witness the ‘noise’ from any of the politicians currently on the stomp about the lack of Mathematicians, Scientists, Engineers and Computer programmers. Maths and the Sciences are compulsory in schools to the age of 16 for all children ever since when, so it’s not that we have not planned teaching and learning ‘space’ in the curriculum. The current decision to make Maths harder and tougher, and similar muscularity about the revision ‘upwards’ of standards in the Sciences might imply English Education standards will move nearer those of 16 year olds in the Asian Tiger economies, but I predict that the government of the day will be disappointed that its newly deployed strategies won’t work as expected some time down the track.

Experts in Child and Adolescent development are recognised by Professorships, and in this field none are better thought of than Sarah-Jane Blakemore, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London. Until recently, it was thought that human brain development was all over by early childhood but research in the last decade has shown that the adolescent brain is still changing into early adulthood. Sarah-Jayne  has led much of the research which shows that our brains continue to develop throughout the teenage years, and is as easy to understand as any – here’s a recent radio broadcast of hers from ‘A life Scientific’ on Radio 4 –  “She discusses why teenagers take risks and are so susceptible to influence from their peers as well as her childhood growing up with the constant threat of attacks from animal rights groups”.

Coming from an entirely separate direction is the relatively new discipline known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, more colloquially known as Mindfulness. Wikipedia covers the ground quite well here. Developed since the 1980s, it is now being rolled out across the western world as an alternative to other more traditional behaviour therapies such as ‘stick and carrot’, with the latest (2015) research suggesting it has much to offer. We have a significant course programme for teaching and admin staff ourselves rolling out after hours in the Summer term.

If you bring both neuro and behaviour sciences together, it is genuinely easy to understand why we don’t have floods of geeky-teenagers breaking through the doors of universities and employers. During the transitional teenage years the neuroplasticity of the pre-frontal cortex (there, I can use long words) arises because up to 35% of the neural connections dissolve and are repurposed. Whilst this is happening, the brain’s reward system skips ahead of the ‘conscience’ and promotes the kind of activities that bring pleasure and a sense of well-being. By example, how many teenagers do you see trying to solve the cryptic crossword. Move up a couple of decades and a goodly number are seen on the train, skip a generation and you are the odd wo/man out if you don’t have a go at least once a week. What motivates and inspires adolescents are activities that offer more immediate reward, often when working with others, and often when the outcomes are less predictable. It is amazing how much fun children have in the school minecraft club, completing activities that could be described using code and formulae, which they would simply not do that way.

How do you bring enjoyable practical problem solving down to the teenage years, such that Maths, the Sciences and technologies become sought-after disciplines? Most adults know the answer – make the activity relevant, purposeful and meeting a need and you’ll be home and dry. The Western hemisphere has an obsession with including written wordy problems as the harder-to-solve larger mark questions on Maths Exam papers. Such problems do not explore the child’s mathematics and practical abilities, but test rather too fully their understanding of vocabulary and syntax, grammar and semantics. They look at such problems, recognise that someone knows how to do them and thus decide they do not need to! What our old polytechnics understood so well is that less committed students needed more practical teaching time. What old style employers understood is that baby accountants needed time to learn their trade before plying it. Drill the skill, don’t test it too early nor make it count too much. The whole point of double entry book keeping was designed around the fallibility of the human operator to get things right first time.

I’ve been lucky enough to see some amazing shows and plays this week in school, from boys and girls, young and old. Why they have gone really well is that in every case, the children have had a degree of autonomy about their selection of activity. Not only have they chosen their starting point, they have spent hours (beyond any I can count) rehearsing and practising their talent before seen by the crowd until they have Mastery. Their purpose has been pretty selfish really, to prove to themselves they can do something really well and beyond any reasonable expectation of others. And I think that’s one of the big lessons we teachers pass over to children; we might say ‘you can only do your best’ when it’s something we have encountered for the first time. Longer term, that’s not what we intend, much more like “failure is not an option” or even ‘to the victor the spoils” . The Human purpose  is to be mindful of life’s possibilities, and to set out without fear or favour. As another Professor, Stephen Hawking says ” “I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first.”

Back to the Park then, to an imaginary follow-up to the conversation I overheard. What would I say back to Brown and Blond? I’d ask about the child’s schooling, the who, what, where stuff. I’d ask whether the parents took the children to all those things that builds an education that’s not what happens in school. I’d talk about the listening to the young child reading out loud, for more than 20 minutes each day to an adult with whom they felt secure. I’d wonder out loud whether digital devices are switched off gone 8pm, whether the life blood of family time together was allowed to flow, impeded or otherwise by the idiot’s lantern flickering in the corner of the room or palm of the hand. I’d talk about conversation, laughter, jokes and communication, again within the context of children working with adults with whom they shared close things, perhaps even secrets. You see, the only way to ensure we build resilient children is to ensure that the prefrontal cortex is securely attached to the limbic system, so that what we see and understand consciously together with the people we trust is intimately connected with our feelings about ourselves and them. If actions, emotions and decisions are as hard-wired in as we can make them, when we put them under pressure, they are unlikely to fail, and if they do, we won’t mind. It’s called Learning.

I try to make sure I share the same intimacy with the Americano, hand, eye and mouth. As my wife or sons will attest, in those terms, I am still learning. Where’s my bib?

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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