Moving up by slowing down

I had a wonderful slow holiday. Lots of reading, even more sleeping, some baking (when it’s not been too hot), an appropriate amount of exercise, inappropriate amounts of food, watching cricket (the unadulterated 5 day test match sort, not the WHAM BAM variety) and of course plenty of coffee. It was quite similar to my last Christmas holiday actually, I found this old tweet from a year ago.Holiday tweet

It seems a long time ago and I fear that I am already relying on too much caffeine than can be good for me.  One of my favourite haunts to put the mocha back in my Java is nearby Café Bloom.  Its coffee is decent, but more importantly the philosophy of life it serves up and embodies is appetising. Café Bloom espouses the notion of slow food.  Not slow service necessarily, but rather taking the time to do things properly. This means simply that there are no short cuts in food preparation, the organically grown food is sourced locally (often right outside the door) and served seasonally. It is essentially cuisine that is the very opposite of fast food.

I don’t get much time to visit in the term time and (ironically) I am usually rushing if I am there at all. Mostly back to work for a class, or a meeting, or a coaching session, or assembly or an appointment or (very) occasionally to do some marking. A cappuccino ‘to go’ is my drink of choice. It was no surprise then that Mick, the owner questioned why I almost always ask for a take away as opposed to taking a table. Reflecting on his observation I was reminded of the pace that we move at through life. This is true in our schools as a microcosm of society, as much as it is in the wider world.

Denise Clark Pope argues in her book ‘Doing School’, that as a society we are ‘…creating a generation of stressed out, materialistic, and miseducated students’. In many of our schools there are strong expectations placed on performance and achievement; these in turn seem to create a fast paced life-style. My question is just how corrosive is this success driven focus and is it really in the best interests of education and the students themselves?

It would seem not. Astonishingly the United Nations estimates that fully one in five people have suffered from a mental health disorder by the time they are 18. In the United Kingdom the government used to survey the mental health of its teenage population, they stopped this in 2004 and the cynics would say this is because they did not want to see the results. Guardian writer, George Monbiot’s excellent article on the dangers of aspirational parenting considers the fact that in the UK, hospital beds for teenage mental health patients have increased 50% since 1999 and they still can’t cope with demand. It also appears that eating disorders have doubled in the last 3 years and self-harm has increased by 68% over the last 10.Doing school book

If this is the case, what is it about society and how young people are schooled (in the broadest sense) that has contributed to this epidemic. There are varied pressures on young people, lack of appropriate parental involvement (for whatever reasons) is one, but there are also concerns around the influence of technology and commercial pressures. Is it right for example that children in the  Western world view up to 40,000 adverts in a year? Or that they cram 8.5 hours of screen time into 6.5 hours through the phenomenon of ‘two screening’? What interests me in particular however is how young people feel under increasing pressure at school and from an early age. In the sense that schools reflect society, there is little need to make a case that much pressure comes from the need to get ahead and make a success of yourself. Parent and schools expect it. Universities and the job market demand it.

As a school counsellor I often see what I believe are the results of this pressure, as I know my colleagues do around the country. Across the nation depression and, in particular, anxiety are no strangers to the school campus. This academic non-stop merry go round where students deal with the twin anxieties of trying to keep up and simultaneously deal with the resulting threat of almost continuous judgement can take its toll on many. In his thoughtful book ‘What’s the point of school?’ author Guy Claxton says, “In a nutshell, young people are stressed. Psychologists tells us that stress is what happens when the demands made on you exceed the resources you have to meet them…getting drunk, depressed or aggressive are increasingly desperate attempts to avoid the self-criticism that comes from not feeling up to dealing with life’s problems”.

In almost all schools, testing and assessment seems to play a large part in this. Almost endless assessment makes, “Children feel under endless pressure from endless testing, they do not feel that have the time to enjoy themselves” according to Sir Al Aynsley-Green, the Children’s Commissioner for England.  Even as far back as 1856 testing was viewed by Joseph Payne as “…continually pulling up the plants to see the condition of the roots, the consequence of which was that all good natural growth was stopped.” Imagine what Joseph would have said today.  I spoke to one English teacher in South Africa who conservatively estimated that at least 40% of the time in a Grade 12 IEB English class was spent doing assessment. I read with horror that in the United Kingdom the government plans to introduce formal testing for 4 year olds! Have we all gone quite mad?

The bell driven schedule that drives students through their day to day existence is exhausting. Most older teenager seem chronically short of sleep.  Jonathan Jansen talks of how young people see school as irrelevant because it is just not linked to the real world. Instead you just keep jumping through hoops. It is no wonder that young people complain of being tired and bored with school. I know of some boys who have downloaded an app that sounds exactly like our school bell. At a strategic time in a lesson they then play the sound of the bell sound safe in the knowledge that the teacher’s Pavlovian conditioning will kick in and unintentionally release them to enjoy an extra few minutes of freedom. I am told this works best if you can also manage to adjust the classroom clock on the wall.

One might be forgiven for thinking of course that after 6 hours of fairly intensive concentration and effort (at least in theory), that this means the day is done. But of course it doesn’t. It is quite likely that an hour or two of intensive sport coaching remain, possibly more if students do more than one sport. For most children, for most of the time, sport is a fun and relaxing way to ease the pressure of the academic day. For others however sport adds to the pressure. In the competitive sporting landscape that many schools find themselves in there is strong pressure to perform. This can create a quasi-professional environment that is not always conducive to a healthy educational approach. And it’s not necessarily even good for sports. Evidence to suggest that over coaching has reduced performance and the development of skills. As Carl Honore says  “…who is going to risk a Christian Ronaldo step over or a Gareth Bale dribble when you are judged for making a mistake.”

John Cartwright, a football coach in England believes that young players today are less skilfull that previous generations because they have spent more time being coached and less time kicking a ball around in the streets or the park with their mates. I always enjoy seeing some of the boys at the school where I work playing ‘Quad’ soccer. Played on uneven ground, preferably in the rain to enhance slide tackling, with trees and a pond as additional obstacles to be negotiated around, it is pure fun all away from the watchful eye of teachers and coaches. All too often this is the exception. In the USA 70% of children quit sports by the time they are 13, blaming exhaustion, burnout and the pressure cooker atmosphere created by coaches and parents says Carl Honore.

If it’s not pre-season rugby training and the like, it could just as well be play practice, music lessons, ballet classes and any number of other extra-curricular activities or clubs. It would seem we have managed to professionalise play if such a thing were possible and not an oxymoron. This crazy scheduling often means families are endlessly ferrying their children from one appointment to the next. In the United States, the demographic group that were most often guilty of running a red light were the ‘soccer mums’ as they rushed their children from one activity to another. That’s just plain moronic, oxy or otherwise.

At least at the end of all that you would think there would be time to put your feet up, enjoy the evening and relax. Not so, the usual dinner time fare is spelling, projects, reading, research, math, essays, the list goes on. Take your pick depending on the age and stage of your child. Homework is often more of a 5 course meal as opposed to a quick bite to eat and for older teenagers can run late into the night.  Although it is hard to get a clear picture as to the value or otherwise of homework, what is certain is that up until the age of 11 there are no clear benefits to doing homework. Could it be that all it really does for younger children is ruin family time and eat into the necessary mental health buffer that is downtime? Even for older children the evidence that homework helps is mixed. A survey by Harvard University looked at National Merit scholarship winners in the US to see what factors made them academically successful. The conclusion? Sitting down to a meal together as a family was the single biggest predictor of success.

Cafe Bloom

It would appear that there are numerous benefits of slowing down in an educational setting. It can be argued that physical health, mental well-being and academic performance can all be enhanced from a ‘less is more’ approach. So how do we go about this, where do we start? Well given that we are talking about going slowly I’ll leave that till my next blog. If you have time before then won’t you just complete the poll below and let us know if you think children today are too busy. In the meantime I am going to take up Mick’s suggestion and sit down with a few friends for a coffee.


Much of the research mentioned in this article comes from the book ‘Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children From The Culture Of Hyper-Parenting: Putting the Child Back into Childhood’ by Carl Honore  It is well worth the read.

If you are interested in more details on the sources for any of the statistics or research quoted in the blog please let me know in the comments section and I will provide you with them.


Wragg’s riches

Gateway to learning: Start where you’re at

I noted recently that it was the 10th anniversary of the death of Professor Ted Wragg, director of the School of Education at Exeter University, my old Alma Mata. Prof Wragg was a legend in educational circles and I vividly remember his opening lecture during Freshers’ Week at the beautiful St Luke’s campus. Using the lyrics of the Beatles song, ‘Lucy in the sky with diamonds’ he beautifully illustrated how children see and interpret the world around them through the filter of their schemata, their ever evolving mental frameworks of how they understand their environment.

We all came out of the lecture inspired and ready to launch into our careers. As we enthused about what we had learnt I noticed one of my new friends was particularly quiet. I asked her why. She explained that just before the lecture she had seen an elderly gentleman looking a little bit lost in the quad and so she had gone up to him stated that he looked a bit bewildered and asked him if she could help in anyway. ‘No, no’, was the man’s reply, ‘I am fine thank you’. As the lecture begun it quickly dawned on her that the little old man she had attempted to assist was in fact standing in front of her giving the inaugural address and kick-starting our various educational careers.

The above story is really all I remember first-hand about Professor Wragg, but his influence persisted through our four years at Exeter and beyond. We didn’t realise it at the time, but we began slowly to realise as our time in Exeter went by, that Ted Wragg was a legend in educational circles. Not only did he have his own column in the Times Educational Supplement, but he was also heavily involved in raising standards in certain schools in the Exeter area. We were proud to say that he was our director of education. Looking back some 20 or so years later, I still am proud, although I am only now learning the lessons he tried to teach us.

His opening lecture on a child’s schema carefully and brilliantly explained how children themselves explain the world around them. Even if they don’t understand an event they will make up an explanation, or schema about how it works with whatever information they have to hand. The classic example is of the child seeing the trees blowing in the wind and feeling the wind in their face. If you ask a young child where the wind comes from, they will most likely say it is made by the trees moving. Given what they know about the world, and cause and effect, this is the explanation that makes most sense. Children do this in one way or another for everything.

Learning is an ongoing process of disruption and consolidation

The process of learning happens when their schemata no longer makes sense, when they notice something that doesn’t fit their current neurological scaffolding. If it is pointed out to a child that the wind is blowing even though there are no trees around, then they are forced to reconstruct their schema to make sense of this new information. This happens in more and more complex ways as children, teenagers and adults go through life. This learning stairway might slow down as we get older but it never really stops, unless of course you are one of the few to reach the stage of full enlightenment. A government minister or headmaster perhaps.

Professor Wragg and others like him taught us to understand that education is not the giving of information but rather the process of disruption that causes us to rethink what we believe about the world. When our world view no longer makes sense we are forced to re-consider our positions and viewpoint. A good teacher cannot ignore the schemata of their pupils and simply plough through curriculum delivery instead. Rather they must seek to upset, challenge and question their students to help them re-evaluate themselves and their world. According to the professor there is no higher calling.

I noted from some of his articles that Ted Wragg did not just advocate disrupting the schemata of children only, he was also a sharp and effective critic of government educational policy too. He certainly did more than his fair share of upsetting official schema and the policies that represented. In his writings he typically transcended politically charged debates, not allowing himself to be positioned in one politically correct camp or the other.

In the TES on November 4, 1988 he said, “I reflected on a class of seven-year-olds I had been teaching. Had I been traditional or progressive, or, for that matter, did anyone give a hang? I had told them things, which sounds trad enough, but we had done a fair bit of group work, so perhaps I am progressive. On the other hand, I had told some of the groups what to do, so I must be a traditional progressive, apart from when they are allowed to discuss the task I have set them with fellow pupils, because at these times I am a progressive traditional.”

For all of us as young students, he found a way for us to cut through the disabling clutter of educational jargon and discern through the noise of the latest and loudest buzz words, the still small voice of pedagogical quiet. He enabled us to hold onto, both then and now, the essence of education. For all you teachers out there, particularly if you have been in this game a while, here is some inspiration from the Prof for this New Year, “Remember also that teaching is a social gene. In the second half of your career, as in the first, you will spread knowledge and skills that have taken the human race thousands of years to acquire. There is no higher calling; without you – and others – society would slide back into primitive squalor.” Keep going.