How often have we all sat through those frustrating meetings where someone from head office or a university articulates with such commitment the first lie – if you can’t measure it then it’s not worth doing. This quantification of education based on an economically rational approach started in the sixties. This was the dawn of outcomes-based learning.
As a young teacher I remember how excited we were expected to be. So much easier, set the curriculum in such a way that we could ‘measure’ just how successful our students were and it soon followed that our quality as a teacher or a school could also be determined.
The culmination of this approach is our current addiction to standardized tests such as PISA or more locally NAPLAN. Now we have those clever statisticians comparing different nations, different schools and even different teachers. Of course, they consider a whole range of checks and balances, these are not stupid people they know how to read data.
Now there has always been a group that rejects the importance of such tests but for the academics and bureaucrats, ‘it just makes sense’, we can make judgements and more importantly politicians can understand its simplicity.
There is a problem, it seems that our children are falling behind, not reaching their ‘milestones’ so we must try harder, re-design curriculum, get better teachers, set stronger goals – we never question the value of the outcome and that is the first lie – we know what is best for the children, after all we are the adults!
The second lie is to place the blame for failure on the kids – ‘all kids can succeed they just have to try hard enough, have ‘true grit’! This belief that you can think yourself to success has been around for years. Those of you who are of my vintage remember Norman Vincent Peale’s best-selling book ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’. This book informed a whole generation that, on the words of the little tug boat, ‘I think I can – I know I can’.
Now I understand that professional educators don’t buy into these mantras, we’re too clever. However, we have evidence that tells us that with a ‘growth mind-set’ we can succeed. This approach was first formalized by Carol Dweek from the University of California who demonstrated that children who make more of an effort were more successful than those who thought they had a set amount of intelligence. More success with more effort, sounds familiar!
Since the original publication of this work questions have emerged, there has been little success in confirmation studies. In the UK a study of 36 schools who professed to promote a growth mindset could find no correlation, a US meta-analysis conducted in 2018 showed no validation of this approach. To her credit Dweek has never claimed this to be ‘the answer’ to student improvement but those who long for ‘the answer’ to student learning have been attracted to this approach; if only it was that easy – we can think ourselves to success!
The final lie is that of meritocracy – that in our society, those who have made the best effort will reach the top of their field. How often do we hear our politicians, the leaders in commerce and industry proclaim our society is a form of meritocracy! Of course, they state case after case where an individual has overcome amazing obstacles to reach the top of their field. The thing is these individuals who do excel are the exception not the norm. Have a look at the board rooms of our top companies, how many come from disadvantage, how many attended a local public school – the numbers are miniscule, and I’ll wager in some companies no board members came from a public school! Everywhere there are positions of power and/or wealth meritocratic membership is the exception not the norm.
The purveyors of this lie are quite quick to point out examples of success. Blaise Joseph from the right wing think tank The Centre for Independent Studies recently published an independent study where they investigated 18 schools from low socio-economic areas that were highly achieving in the NAPLAN tests. A few points:
Naplan is a discredited test that can be manipulated by teaching to the test or ensuring poor performing students absent themselves from the test. This is easy and unfortunately not uncommon
The sample of 18 schools I assume is from 6,616 public schools. This means the sample size is about 0.003% of the population. Hardly a significant sample!
The message is that if all schools followed the specific criteria outlined they would succeed and not require the extra funding these schools are demanding. I could find no statement from Blaise about the massive savings for the government if they reduced the funding to the top private schools to the same levels of their public cousins.
However, the lie of meritocracy continues, everyone at the top ‘level’ claims they are there because of their ‘merit’! If they really believed in meritocracy there would be no private schools, no tutoring businesses everyone would go their local public school that was equally funded and staffed! If they believed in meritocracy there would be no inheritance, every child would have to make their way in the world based on their ‘merit’.
And now for what psychiatrist Scott Alexander calls ‘the noble lie’ – if the above conditions are true, that is if a growth mindset works, if outcomes-based learning works and if meritocracy works then children from poor communities are not trying! Therefore, it’s their fault they fail, at school and later in life! The rich and powerful love this lie, it allows them to sleep well at night because they are successful because they earned that success and those poor people only have themselves to blame!
Frew Consultants Group is dedicated to helping teachers giving every child the best chance at life and of course our focus is on those who come with the greatest disadvantage. Because of this, we have spent our professional life trying to understand how we can best help students learn. So far - no definitive answer but a few things have become obvious.
The first is that success, students being the best they can be is directly linked to self-perception. A child’s sense of themselves is the best predictor of their achievements. Students who see themselves as failures will fail and those who see themselves as worthwhile will participate. At first look this mind set approach appears to be just another form of positive thinking. The subtle difference is the positive thinking is a top-down action, the students are told to be positive however, an approach to learning based on the child’s sense of self, a bottom-up approach is a true reflection of the child’s core sense of themselves. In their book ‘Effective Teaching’ Muijs and Reynolds point out that ‘at the end of the day, the research shows that achievement on self-concept is stronger than the effect of self-concept based on achievement’. In other words, if you build the child’s self-concept the achievements will follow.
Consequently, the best we can do for our students is to build a positive sense of self - but how? The answer is, as in all things about education is the relationship between the student and the teacher. This is why effective teaching defies rational analysis and quantification, good teachers know how to foster such relationships but struggle to explicitly explain what they do. As Michael Polanyi explained way back in 1958, we can know more than we can tell!
Children build their sense of self through the interactions with significant adults, generally their parents. We have seen the damage done to children when those significant others provide an abusive or neglectful environment. It is these children, as well as all children but I could say more than others, rely on their teacher to be that significant other. Your role is to provide the correct amount of support according to the child’s current ability to meet their needs independently. You must be able to assess each individual’s developmental status at the time remembering that each will be coming from a different background.
In simple terms you must provide them with a structured environment where you provide them with what they need, not what they want and what they need is to develop a strong sense of a positive self, the ability to think independently, to relate with others in a responsible way and to have a purpose in their life. This what good teachers do!
The recent imprisonment of George Pell has focused our attention on the evil abuse suffered at the hands of those whom children should trust. The atrocious revelations, uncovered by Julia Gillard’s Royal Commission and reported across the globe, confirms the magnitude of this appalling cruelty. Unfortunately, the numbers of children damaged by a range of secular and non-secular organisations is most likely to be exceeded by those children who are abused those who they are programed to trust - their families and friends of those families.
Any attempt to quantify the numbers is at best an estimation as so many of the victims never disclose their history. Although estimates of the numbers differ it seems to be between 15% to 43% of children will experience a traumatic event and up to 15% will develop PTSD. This is an increase on the general view that, from 1% to 9% of the population suffer from PTSD.
The accuracy of these records is not relevant to this paper, they are just presented to give a sense of the magnitude of the numbers of kids who carry the wounds of their abuse or neglect. These statistics indicate that in a school of 1000 students you could expect 10 – 90 students suffering PTSD. So, in a class of 30 students you could expect between three to nine students who suffer from the injuries inflicted on them through abuse or neglect.
Also, PTSD is not equally distributed across the landscape; in resource-poor suburbs up to 23% suffer PTSD (in the school mentioned above you would have 230 students with PTSD). These figures are reflected in behavioural indicators in school systems. The numbers of suspensions positively correlate with the socio-economic profile of a school as does the number of children referred to child protection agencies.
The high levels of stress suffered during these abusive episodes, if systematically repeated will damage the child’s brain leaving them with a permanent cognitive disability. This includes:
Amygdala is increased in size – resulting in a hyper sensitivity to real or perceived danger
Hippocampus reported to have a 12% reduction in size – this is the area where memories are first created.
Prefrontal lobes are 20% smaller and have lesions on the surface – this is our executive part of the brain where all the considered decisions are made.
Cerebellum is reduced in size – this is an area of the brain that is intimately involved in all the coordination of thoughts and imagined outcomes for given situations.
They have also learned to behave in ways that may well have saved them in their dysfunctional environment, things like exaggerated anger, bullying or unhealthy compliance.
However, the result of this cognitive damage and their dysfunctional behaviours have created a group of students who:
Have significant brain damage
Are vulnerable to elevated levels of threat
Have entrenched behaviours that repulse and threaten others
Have behaviours that push well-meaning people away
Have behaviours that damage the physical and psychological wellbeing of other members of their community
Having seen what abuse does to the child’s development it is no surprise that childhood PTSD is linked to almost every behavioural illness in the diagnostic manual (the DSM) used to diagnose psychiatric illnesses. These include disorders whose symptoms create the difficulties for teachers:
I can’t emphasise enough these children do not easily attract the compassion from society that those kids who become disabled through a developmental mishap or an accident attract, yet their ‘injuries’ have been inflicted on them through the malevolent assaults of adults. They are victims, not of ‘bad luck’ but a cruelty that has never been really identified or accepted by society.
The really difficult issue in dealing with these victims is to foster and maintain an empathetic relationship with these kids. Beneath their severely dysfunctional behaviour is a child who is precious, special and unique. When we accept this, we recognise them as victims of such cruelty. Understanding this sustains our dedication when we are subjected to the very repellent behaviours we might face, particularly when we first encounter them in our classrooms.
Right now, the media is addressing the issue of child sexual abuse and appropriately there is an outcry about the abhorrent nature of this abuse and sympathy for the victims. Unfortunately, the media will move on and this compassion for the victims will fade and we will return to the consistent position that these bad children should be punished. The connection between the bad behaviour and the abusive history is forgotten. But we are a professional teacher and we understand that these kids are victims and so we have a right to help them:
Achieve their sense of value
Exercise their right to take a place of equity in their communities
Access all opportunities that are available to others
It is tempting to make the case that these kids are more deserving of special support but that would be plain wrong; all our kids need all they need. But, I would argue that these children whose dysfunctional behaviour that has been inflicted on them by adults do not receive the same support as other children with a disability. This is a task that requires specialist training, resources to support teachers dealing with these children and a professional recognition of the special skills required. Despite the difficulty in providing the appropriate programs there is promise that, with the proper interventions these children can make significant progress on overcoming their failings, an outcome not always available to children with more acknowledged disabilities.
This is a challenge for all of society but a professional responsibility for us teachers; it’s hard, it’s not fair but addressing the needs of these ‘unpleasant’ children allows us to display those very qualities that make teaching the profession I am proud to be associated with.
A recent publication from the New York Academy of Science (2017) has examined the literature that reviews the connection between socioeconomic disadvantage and the development of attention, learning, and resilience. They considered the evidence of over a century particularly with tests that measured cognitive functions, language development, and attention and this has shown a difference between children of low and high socioeconomic status (SES). The children from families with high SES consistently scored better than those from underprivileged families.
Studies in neuroscience also identify the link between the stress related to poverty and the neurological development of these children's cognitive landscape particularly in the limbic system, that area that modulates reactions to threats, the formation of memories and access to the executive functions of the brain, the prefrontal, and frontal cortex.
The following characteristics of a low SES community that create these adverse conditions are:
Growing up in poverty has commonly been associated with conditions that trigger elevated even chronic levels of stress. Low SES families are more likely to live in chaotic households where living arrangements are haphazard; the home discipline is unpredictable, there is a lack of routine and access to healthy diets.
Research has shown increased levels of stress-related chemicals associated with the physiological adaption of the body in response to threat including surges in the erosive chemicals catecholamine and cortisol. Continued exposure of these conditions increases the size of the amygdala, which makes the child vulnerable to stress and reductions in other significant parts of the brain including the hippocampus, the frontal lobes, the corpus colossus and the cerebellum.
2. Social Isolation and Deprivation
Children from low SES have fewer or even lack social interactions. They are less likely to attend preschool and miss that important opportunity to develop the skills to relate to their peers. This social isolation has been strongly associated with long-term health issues such as cardiovascular problems and sleep deprivation.
Experiencing abuse in childhood can occur in all SES but research shows that abuse is much more likely to occur in the low SES areas. This variance indicates that the SES of the neighborhood can explain 10% of the child’s health and adolescent outcomes.
The Gonski Review revealed that schools in low SES areas reflect the conditions of neglect in these homes. These schools, despite herculean efforts of the teachers are often chaotic because of the characteristics of the children who attend. The accompanying lack of resources because of government neglect and the absence of wealthy P&C’s exacerbates efforts to improve conditions. There is a further concentration of these undesirable conditions through the exodus of children from higher SES households who send their children from the local school to either private schools or the ‘so-called' selective school, many of which are no more than a weak excuse from the government sector to combat the drift to the private sector.
However, this exposure to adversity does not condemn a child. Some do acquire a natural resilience that helps their development, but for others it is only through the experience of social cohesion and supportive relationships found at school that children can ameliorate the potential damage carried out in their home.
It is in the schools where the healing can take place, and it is up to society to provide the resources for schools that 'service' these areas. The real cost of continually ignoring the needs of these communities comes later when society is forced to deal with the unemployment, the mental health issues, the addictions and the continuation of the poverty spiral.
The rewards for effort in this area is not only for the children but also the long-term health and wealth of our society.
At a recent retired principal's luncheon, I listened to the guest presenter discuss the outlook of the economy and how schools need to prepare their students for that future. In particular, the impact computerised production and artificial intelligence will have on work practices will be at the heart of this new revolution. The claim was made that by 2050 only 10% of the population would be in employment.
The focus of the presentation was on how would we deliver the skills required for our students to participate in this new world of work? His view was that we would need a range of skills such as critical thinking, collaboration and the usual assembly of abilities that signify the position that we just don't know.
Nonetheless, education systems have not been slow to consider the future and with regular announcements we are informed about what we should be teaching! Recently this has included coding, and then we must continue to emphasize STEM, next week who knows maybe we need to concentrate on numeracy and literacy? Recently the CSIRO presented a paper in the Conversation estimated that 40% of current jobs would be taken over by robots. But they also announced that the most significant skill set needed in the future would be in communications and people skills.
There has always been a sense of doom when new technologies emerge, and in the past, the occupations lost to technology have been replaced by other jobs. The difference this time is the computers have moved from the ‘production line’ and they now dominate many of the service industries. Where a predictable environment exists AI will become the most efficient and cheapest choice for industry. Even professions such as accountancy and the law are under enormous threat. One frightening statistic that confirms this trend is that since 2000 only 0.5% of American workers are employed in industries that have emerged (The Economist June 2017).
While I was digesting the prediction that only 10% of the population would have work I could not help considering ‘what about the 90% unemployed’. And further, I wondered about the wisdom of providing this expected economic/production focused curriculum to the 100% so that we get the 10%?
I make the following points:
If the employment level is going to be 10%, the unemployment level will be 90%
It will be very likely that the ‘best and brightest’ will gain that employment and these will in a sense ‘self-select’ for those positions
That leaves the vast majority with ‘nothing to do.'
John Maynard Keynes, the great economist, pointed out in 1933; that the focus on the economy and solving that problem is not addressing the long-term permanent problem of the human race and that is to live a purposeful life. What he meant was the economy had become the purpose not the servant of society. I fear that modern education has also become the servant of the economy and those who are surplus to requirement are discarded. If you look at the unemployed of today, you see just how much we care about the surplus!
I have been working on my next book that focuses on the most damaged children, the ones who are most likely to be in this unemployed category, and in the process of doing this I have had to consider what kind of education I would like to develop. At the heart of my deliberations is the aim of developing a sense that they can take their proper place in society.
I have come to the following four characteristics I believe underpin a fulfilling life and would be the underpinning tenets of the curriculum. These are:
A Sense of Self – We all need to have a sense of worth, value, and importance. This affirmation is not always 'a given' across the population, and in the event of massive unemployment, a positive sense of worth will be extremely hard to maintain especially if the only focus our curriculum is on preparing everyone for work!
The other component of a strong sense of self is how we relate to the community. It is important that we feel positive about ourselves, but it is critical that we have the sense that our companions also value us. These days I would contend the levels of unemployed youth and the social issues they face and create, are an indication of the future unless we prepare our children for their future reality.
Relatedness – As we are social beings we need to live in a society that we can contribute to and receive support. This requires the skills to cooperate, to share and to support each other. There will also be a challenge in regards to the sharing of resources, and so ethics will be required. We won't survive with a competitive approach.
Aspirations – A sense of purpose is also vital for a healthy lifestyle. We need something to get up for every morning. For the vast majority, our vocation has been that purpose, and when our work matches our aspirations, we have a fulfilling life. If we assume that there are no work prospects we need to develop a sense of purpose in our students.
Autonomy – Finally we need to have a sense of control over our lives. This sense of independence allows us to participate in society from a position of individuality so important for our ability to participate in the democratic process. I would contend that the current worldwide disenchantment with the political process is that individuals have no real sense of control or meaningful contribution.
I remember a past leader of the High-Performance Unit who claimed that if the solution is not simple, it is wrong. This statement is an overused platitude I find most disturbing. I have always thought that simple answers are appealing to simple minds.
The 'simple' answer our current education leaders make is to react to the latest ‘idea,'. This results our leaders lurching from one ‘new idea' to the next and always to prepare the students for work. I return to the point Keynes made; this complete focus on the economy blinds us to any alternate view. What if we just enjoyed and shared the wealth AI provided, what if we could pursue more humanistic endeavours, what if we became satisfied with what we have?
John Lennon ‘imagined a world’ that could be achievable with a change in focus.
Maybe we will have to let go of competition and growth and ‘live our lives in peace’!
A recent paper ‘National Corruption Breeds Personal Dishonesty’ by Simon Makin (March 2017) recognises that the nature of our society shapes the behaviour of our individuals. Over recent years our students have been exposed to what seems to be a never-ending stream of reports about the corrupt actions of sports men and women, businesses, religious leaders, entertainers and politicians. These are their role models and unless formal educators, parents and teachers counter the influence of these corrupt actions, our students are in danger of either adopting the model of corruption or losing faith in the wellness of society.
Further to this, in a report on the ‘soul’ of education by the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts (RSA) one of the authors, Angie Kotler pointed out that “We (schools) are working in a system that mainly reflects and transmits the overt values of capitalism and individuality, with a nod to the niceties of being ‘good citizens’”.
Putting the ‘competitive’ market at the centre of our ethical practice has introduced direct competition between individuals and schools. The driving force is to be successful - I must beat my opponents. This approach has seen politicians and their bureaucrats encourage competition between neighbouring schools and this has led to the immoral fight around the funding of schools. The concept of ‘love thy neighbour’ has been replaced by exploit you neighbour, not only their funding but their ‘best and brightest’ students.
So what are the implications for the teacher and their approach to ethics and morality in their classroom and more importantly on their pedagogy? A true educator has at the heart of their practice the teaching of character. This involves the understanding of how their behaviour impacts on others and accepts the responsibility of the consequences of their actions. Of course there is an expectation that parents should be the primary moral educators but morals are very personalized and the ethics of one family may well clash with their neighbours. It is in the classroom that the children of these neighbours can resolve their differences. It is also abundantly clear in a small population of students that they have lacked any moral or ethical development in their homes.
The need for teachers to become directly involved in the teaching of ethics is supported by none other than international experts like Michael Fullan (2014) and Michael Barber (2012). These outstanding educators have always been advocates for the traditional approach to pedagogy and outcomes but now support the need to find ways for young people to learn in more challenging environments, which develop character, resilience and leadership as well as lead to academic results.
Of course in an era where the prescribed curriculum is overcrowded formal teaching of ethics and morals is not possible but frequently a lesson leads to a situation, or a dispute between two or more classmates which will provide the ‘teaching moment’ when it is the moral and ethical thing to have a such a lesson.
The following is a guideline for teachers while delivering ethically based lessons:
Do no harm to the students or the school
Teach and model the acceptance of the responsibility for personal actions and the consequences of those actions
Always care for your students
Teach the students they have the right for personal determination
Insist on the truth first
Be honest, trustworthy and reliable
Treat others as you want to be treated yourself
It is the last point that best sums-up teaching morals and ethics.
We have all had a student, or two, or more whose behaviour was so outrageous we questioned why were we teaching? These kids are the most difficult to connect with and they don’t seem to want to learn and they destroy the learning of their classmates! But we do carry on because once we get past the frustration we accept that they are that way because others made them that way. And so they are worth that extra effort but where do we focus that ‘effort’?
Having spent a good deal of my career teaching in schools specifically set up for these type of children a question that has occupied me is ‘what right do I have to modifying their behaviour’ and when I have resolved this question a second challenge is how do I want them to behave? I am happy to accept the need for change - for their sake and that of their classmates but the change is in their very sense of self and where does it say this is my job and where are the tools to teach for that change?
I’m a teacher not the child’s parent and I’m not a professional health care worker. I’m more than happy to step aside and let the parents deal with the behaviours and even more willing to defer to the child psychiatrist or psychologist. But in those classrooms and in those special settings there is no effective psychological or psychiatric support and the reality is that the parents are so often the creators of the disability and/or are no longer available or willing to help. So I am left in class to either wipe my hands of the problem or do something to help the student and protect the classroom.
We are ‘teachers’ and we have a calling that brings us to the classroom. If we thought it was just a job and we were contracted to do our work it would be easy more so now than at any time I can recall. All we would have to do is teach for the NAPLAN Test! Fortunately, we teach the whole child and teach them the full set of skills that allow them to successfully function in society.
To understand what skills I need to teach these children I have distilled the goals I have for all my students into being the best they can be and support others while they are doing the same.
The question is how do I define a person’s best? To answer this I turned to the philosophers who have long asked the same question.
In a western tradition any philosophical question will invariably lead us back to the big three, Socrates, Plato and the holy-ghost, Aristotle. When it came to the question what is it to be an optimal human, Aristotle integrated his colleagues’ work into the study of eudaimonia - a life of excellence, living with ethical wisdom and virtue. He made the case to achieve a happy life by studying philosophy and having an involvement in the community through political activity.
In more contemporary times the leaders in this field include Carl Rogers, who describes the characteristics of a fully functional person, Abraham Maslow whose famous pyramid of needs culminates in the self-actualized person and Erich Fromm’s work on personal growth through ‘being’ instead of doing; all these philosophers plus many others have addressed the question I ask of myself.
Positive Psychology rose from attempts to aggregate and rationalize the factors all these studies identified as leading to a life of satisfaction. Using empirical data Positive Psychology studied how our activities impacted on our lives at all levels, physical, psycho/social or intellectual. The common conclusion in the field is that to experience the ‘good life’ you must be engaged in meaningful activities. I saw this aggregation as an opportunity to get some clarification about what characteristics would be suitable to develop in these students.
The American Psychologist Ken Sheldon carried out further analysis on what makes the ‘optimal’ human by examining our evolutionary journey, our personalities and traits, the construction of our identity, social relations and cultural membership. His categorization, like all works in Positive Psychology has a heavy focus on the future and is particularly focused on goal setting. They are as follows:
Strive to Balance Basic Needs – This includes autonomy, competence, relatedness, security and self-esteem
Set and Make Efficient Progress Towards Self-Concordant Goals – These goals are those that have an intrinsic quality and support the person’s self-concept reflecting Winnicott’s idea of ‘true self’
Choose Your Goals and Social Roles Wisely - Goals that are driven by or rely on external factors such as fame, popularity or wealth do nothing to contribute to a person’s positive identity. The goals must advance personal growth and positive relationships at both the intimate and community level
Strive Towards Personal Integration – The goals must be compatible with each other and support our basic needs. They must also combine with our fundamental personality
Work Towards Modifying Problematic Aspects of Yourself and the World – Have the ability to identify your weaknesses and problems within the world and include these in your goals. Build on your character strengths and learn to self-evaluate your strategies for change.
Take Responsibility for Goals and Choices – Take an intentional attitude towards life. Align your desired sense of self with your goals and refer to this affiliation when making important decisions about your future.
Listen to Your Organismic Valuing Process (OVP) and be Prepared to Change if Necessary – The OVP comes from the work of Carl Rogers where the goals are selected based on our sense of self. We are to take an internalized attitude towards life. If we do this we increase our trust in our ability to know what is good for us and abandon those that work against our true self.
Transcend Yourself – The more we forget about our selves and give our energy to a valued cause or another person the more human, self actualized we become.
This examination probably hasn’t helped, it has been a hard journey but I have some conclusions I would share.
The purpose of your teaching is really to empower your students to value their worth in society, take control of their future and become a real part of their community. This is not in any curriculum or text and there is only one way to teach character and that is through the organization of your classroom and you model the traits you wish to see in your students. That’s why real teaching is hard and why teachers matter!
The principals of the company have had long careers in education with a combined total of eighty-one years service. After starting as mainstream teachers they both moved into careers in providing support for students with severe behaviours.