That’ll do, chimps.

This week I heard two wonderful things on the radio that had me punching the air (to the consternation of those behind me at the traffic light) and nodding vigorously in agreement.

The first was on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on Wednesday. Angela Duckworth, Professor of Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, talked about her research into the traits of high achievers, her analysis of ‘grit’ and her book ‘Grit; the power of passion and perseverance.’

The conclusion of her work is that true success comes from a combination of determination, discipline and direction; a commitment to following a particular path with focus rather than dissipating efforts on disparate projects. She spoke about the need for constancy and direction; Isaac Newton kept going and returning to with certain challenges that were hard when others had got bored and abandoned them long before, for example. According to Angela, herself a former middle and high school teacher, grit can be learnt and taught and modelled.

She believes that there are four key aspects in developing grit:

  • Have a deep interest in something; find nuance in what you do, as opposed to novelty;
  • Practice something that you can get better at on a daily basis;
  • Cultivate a sense of purpose and a sense that what you are doing matters to other people;
  • Cultivate hope and learn to be an optimistic person. (She acknowledged that this is quite American!)

 

Angela went on to explain her belief that teaching can change people. In the week, children spend more of their waking hours in school than with their families on so teachers can clearly have influence; in that classroom when you close the door, you create a culture and an environment where there are the two things that encourage grit: support and challenge.

These final messages resonated hugely with the ideas that I have presented recently in training and conversations with teachers and about which I have written in my blog. True, teachers can’t do it all. We are not there to replace parents, social workers or other supports. But we can do a lot in the space that we control.

Teachers modelling grit and providing support and challenge are therefore key. Although the role of family cannot be discounted as an enormously important influence on children, there is something that we as teachers CAN do, even if it is not a complete solution.

(The full interview can be heard here: for another 20 days, at around 2 hours 23 minutes in: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07bzdjy)

The second programme I heard and was inspired by was this week’s Radio 4 ‘All in the Mind’.

The key messages here also chimed with much of my own thinking about the purpose of education, the pressures created by assessment in schools and the need to focus on wellbeing in schools

The programme included a discussion around tests and exams and the mental health of children which involved Lord Layard from The London School of Economics, Dr Berry Billingsley, Associate Professor of Science Education and Reading University and her colleague Tim Williams who is a clinical and educational psychologist.

Berry acknowledged that it is hard to find data about whether exams are leading to increased stress in children and young people but said that there is a clear increase in stress levels generally caused by increased pressure on them; this is evidenced by increased referrals to psychologists due to childhood stress and an increase in calls to Childline relating to the issue. Anecdotal evidence from teachers also suggests that tests and exams play a large role.

Tim Williams added that, if schools themselves become stressed as a result of exams then children will pick up on the stress of their teachers; it is important to note and study levels of stress in schools at different parts of the year.

Recent World Health Organisation statistics show that, at age 11, the UK does not fare much differently to other nations in terms of stress but that at older ages, Scotland and England were suddenly in the top 5 for pressure so that 80% of girls in Scotland say they feel pressurised by school work at the age of 15, compared with 35%v in Germany and 36% in France.

Parental pressure and a long build up towards end of year exams were seen as key factor in contributing towards this.

Lord Richard Layard who directs the Wellbeing Programme at the London School of Economics then spoke about a project called ‘Healthy Minds’ which is working with 30 schools around London to try and get data in relation to this issue.

Hs opening statement:

“We are trying to help people learn how to live and not just how to pass exams.”

He spoke of the Healthy Minds curriculum covering the first four year of secondary school with an hour each week focusing on:

  • Understanding your emotions and managing them;
  • Understanding other people and learning how to care for them
  • Thinking about what kind of person you want to be and what kind of parent you might want to be when the time comes;
  • How to interpret mental health problems;
  • How to practice mindfulness.

The programme promotes the development of skills that enable people to focus on achieving a purposeful, positive approach to life, rather than telling them what not to do; telling them how to live fully and completely.

His message to every teacher listening –“what we know from all of these experiments is if you have programmes which help children with their mental health and their general values system, it is not a waste of time, actually they do better at exams. That hour is better spent becoming a decent person than swotting away yet more on your exams.”

Tim Williams agreed that there is too much focus on teaching for testing, rather than teaching for the future and developing as a person.

It was agreed that there needs to be some element of testing in schools but that there is too much emphasis on testing (of schools and children) at present and, as Berry Billingsley said, it overtakes children’s lives and all the other sorts of learning.

Lord Layard went on:

“We should learn, mainly, so that we can make a contribution to society which is a different motivation from learning to pass exams; we should want our children to learn for two reasons only, really; one, because it is interesting…and second because it is useful and will enable them to make a contribution to society. And we have really, by just concentrating on exams, completely misled children as to why we actually want them to be educated….”

He said that we can reverse the ‘stupid tide’ which is about everything in life about being about achieving personal success which puts a strain on individuals and is isolating.

Instead of promoting being ‘successful’, we need to teach that life is about making a contribution to others and getting some pleasure out of that.

Lord Layard feels that the pledge of the group ‘Action for happiness’ has a lot to offer children:

“I will try to lead my life so as to create as much happiness in the world as I can and as little misery.”

Berry Billingsley added that ‘success’ is difficult to define and quantify where children may have strengths in one area but weaknesses in others. She said that studies have shown that self-efficacy is key; children’s belief and confidence in their own talent is crucial in enabling them to succeed. Also, children who feel in control of their own pace and assessment and understand the assessment system do better than those who don’t.

Tim Williams concluded that schools and psychologists need to work together to tackle these issues and that school leadership has a key role to play in improving the situation in schools by recognising wider contributions beyond exam results.

And Lord Layard’s final word: emotional health has to be a specific objective our educational system.

Amen.

The full ‘All in the Mind Episode’ can be found here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07bzdjy

So, am I scouring the TES for a job in one of the Healthy Minds pilot schools? Will I spend my days dreaming about getting a secondment to the LSE and working with likeminded people (as if!)?

Actually, no. Because in Scotland we have Health and Wellbeing within Curriculum for Excellence that back up the sort of approach advocated by Healthy Minds. We want Successful Learners, Effective Contributors, Responsible Citizens and Confident Individuals. We have a framework for developing Skills for Learning Life and Work that promotes resilience, self-discipline, employability and empathy. AND WE NEED TO FIGHT FOR THESE IN THE FACE OF PROPOSED STANDARDISED TESTS AND MORE ‘RIGIOUR’. Let’s check that bathwater very carefully for a baby.

I return to school this week after my secondment, as Depute Head Pupil Support with a teaching remit. The chimps in my head are having a field day. “You can’t teach any more! You’ve been out so long you don’t have a job to go back to! You can talk the talk but you won’t be able to walk the walk!”

But I have spoken to them. I have told them that I will be meeting around 120 new pupils in my classroom this week and possibly another 200 or so in assemblies and other settings. And my mantra will be this:

I will meet them without prejudgement and fear and offer them support and challenge in a nurturing safe space. I will savour the opportunity to help them develop self-efficacy and resilience and to grow from children into successful young adults and contributors to society. And I will aim to create as much happiness and as little misery as I can.

That’ll do, chimps. That’ll do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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