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The state of education is in a maelstrom, and children, educators and families with it.
Not only the terminologies, but the organisation, habits and environments are also shaped by this discourse. England has one of the poorest minimal standards for educational environments in Europe – if knowledge transfer is the chief definer of desirable education then smaller spaces are adequate – children need to be uniform, passive, obedient and receptive. Programmes of rote-learning are commercial and are pushed as 'effective' and 'efficient.' The situation is diagnosed by many – Professor Peter Moss, Sir Ken Robinson and increasingly parents who have withdrawn their children from school.
We know that learners are not passive receptors. Children are born lively, curious, dynamic, sociable, expectant, creative – in Professor Colwyn Trevarthen's words 'humans (children) are born seeking relationship.' It follows that the education we construct, with the tools of time, organisation, space, professionalism should support this basic human zest, not constrain from the narrowing external concerns about 'upskilling tomorrow's workforce.' But it is a construct – and the lived reality of schools and early childhood centres is of course very nuanced, with many heads, staff groups, managers, committed to 'getting it right'. But it remains a muddle, and it is draining the natural energies of children, and of educators, and is a worry to many parents.
- What are ways in which we can resource and support children in enlivening their curiosity, confidence, daringness, absorption, questioning, exhilaration?
- What are ways we can find to bring these children together to discuss, agree and disagree? To engage in significant learning groups, delving into important ideas, experience and construction of knowledge?
- What are ways in which we can enable their sociable autonomy and rightful importance as citizens?
This is the aim of our summer series 'Learning to Live Well Together' of six internationally-renowned contributors, which begins on 6th July (we also have a complementary introductory session on the 29th June.)
What are our policymakers interested in?
As evidenced here, it seems to be still more tallying-up, rather than actual attention to children's broad potential. Dr. Chris Merrick, early years educator, advisor, consultant, and Wendy Scott , ex-headteacher, Surestart national officer give their perspectives following recent UK government announcements on 'children's catch-up.'
The pandemic has created huge turbulence and uncertainty in the world. Whilst responding to the impact that this has had on children, early years settings are being asked to implement a new statutory document from September 2021. At a time like this we should be taking time to make sure our systems and ways of supporting children and their parents are conducive to better lives, rather than defining new curricular goals. Instead the focus seems to be on measuring and intervening – a deficit model, rectifying notional deficiency.
Just how early the government's focus on assessment and testing begins was brought home to me last week.
For the last few months, we have had our grandson and his parents staying with us. During this time he turned two, and his parents were sent questionnaires to fill in for his two-year-old's assessment. There were two questionnaires, one for 24 months, the other for 27 months. A quick look through seemed to us to indicate he was doing fine for his age, but there needed to be answers to the 31 questions for 24months and 41 questions for 27 months, so we found ourselves in conversation with him counting the length of his sentences so that we could record examples, asking him to jump and watching closely to see whether he moved forward three inches when he performed etc etc. It was a real-life example of what assessments based on observation against pre-determined criteria can do:decontextualising learning - we were testing our two-year-old!
In the new Early Years Foundation Stage and the supporting material that has sprung up around it, there is a move away from tick lists towards 'professional knowledge of children'; however, this professional knowledge is still rooted in a developmental paradigm and is based on a 'clear understanding of children's developmental trajectories.' It is not universallyconsidered 'clear' at all; the concept and details are highly contestable in their truthfulness and usefulness to supporting children's learning. Nevertheless, policy seems wedded to the concept of measuring children against age-related criteria and expectations. For instance, the new Development Matters (2020) divides what children should be learning into three stages and suggests 'checkpoints' which 'can help you to notice whether a child is in danger of falling behind.' Information about milestones rooted in a 'progression curriculum' built around curricular goals is readily available, whilst the new Birth to Five Matters document resolutely retains the ages and stages model of the original document – albeit now tracked against six levels.
Measuring children has become an obsession and to make matters worse, in the pandemic, discussions of 'lost learning' abound. We are bombarded by the need for 'catch-up' interventions such as the Nuffield Early Language Intervention programme (NELI) supported by government funding. Indications are that this adds three months to the language performance of children taking part in the interventions. Introduced in Reception in 2020 this is being offered for roll-out nursery during 2021 to address the deficits identified in children who have missed out on provision during the pandemic. Whilst the benefits may be tangible, is it what children need at this time?An article by Georgina Trevor and Amanda Ince in the Spring 2021 Early Education Journal highlights some of the issues: 'in order to navigate the coronavirus pandemic, and its effect on young children, the desire to revert to measurable outcomes to fill so-called gaps in children's knowledge must be avoided.' They argue that, especially in the current context, it is essential that children have access to a 'creative curriculum with freedom and support to play without limitations of an imposed curriculum.' They refer to Carlina Rinaldi's view of education as a constant relational reciprocity between those who educate and those who are educated (Rinaldi, 2006) and I am reminded of a comment made by Carlina at a conference, in which she told us to trust the children.
We need now to step back, trust the children and see their competencies and capabilities, give them time, and work with them and their families to find their way through current pressures. The last thing children need is for educational centres to revert to intensive intervention and measurement, pandemic or no pandemic!
Trevor, G.and Ince, A., Early Education Journal, Spring 2021, "The need for a transformative and contextual early years curriculum"
DfE, (2020) Development Matters
Birth to Five Matters (2021)
Carla Rinaldi (2006) In Dialogue with Reggio Emilia, Routledge
The resignation last week of Sir Kevan Collins from his role as Education Recovery Commissioner in the light of the inadequate level of additional funding for schools and early years settings offered by the Treasury reminds me of the statement made by Anne Longfield, when she retired as Children's Commissioner earlier this year. She expressed her frustration that this government is just not interested in the kind of joined-up thinking that is so desperately needed: "during the past ten years, governments have focussed on school improvement targets without noticing that the outcomes for children attending these schools are, overall, getting worse. The Treasury … uses siloed thinking to count the costs and the benefits, which I believe consistently discriminates against children and families. What all this shows is an institutional bias against children."
Ministers talk glibly about levelling up, but do not understand the vital necessity of support for families, and the investment in children's welfare and wellbeing as well as their schooling, that will result in long term savings in grief and frustration in addition to money. It will be a tragedy if the opportunity is missed for a radical re-think on meaningful levelling up, and a commitment to improve the life chances of all children.
For Anne Longford this implies "a year of opportunity … enabling every child, from whatever background, not just to learn in the classroom, but also to develop their own interests at weekends and in the holidays. Finding joy in finding out, with confidence and resilience by forging their own paths. [We need to become] passionate about making sure that we don't define children by what's happened during this year: we define ourselves by what we offer to children. [We need] a "Covid covenant" from us to our children that takes children out of boxes marked 'problem' and to consider the opportunities they each have."
We define ourselves by what we offer to children. Words to act on.
Anne Longfield, in her parting statement as Children's Commissioner, says that the Prime Minister and officials should be taking the lead. Sadly the evidence continues to be that they cannot and willnot. Educators, parents, and all advocates for children's rights, wellbeing and potential, however can - despite Westminster discouragements. And there are politicians who also care more, and want to help create a different and open-minded environment for children's learning.
In preparing for our summer 2021 discussion series for educators and parents 'Learning to Live Well Together' I am hugely encouraged by statements from educator panel participants such as "Our school motto is 'Explore Dream Discover', and 'in our centres we have bolted the doors against conveyor-belt learning.'
We need to boldly go where Westminster declines to tread.
This year we are highlighting how the ethics of relationship can prove a foundation for shaping education.
We begin with a fantastic opportunity to find out more about a most remarkable educator of the 20C – whom many western educators will probably be unfamiliar but who has lots to share. We have an online presentation on Saturday October 2nd at 9.30 UK time (you can find out more and sign up via the link.) We think that this is a first opportunity for a UK audience to find out about Sukhomlinsky's work.
Here is an article to whet your interest, from our presenter, Dr. Alan Cockerill.
Vasily Sukhomlinsky was a Ukrainian school teacher.
From 1948 to 1970 he was the principal of a combined primary and secondary school in the rural settlement of Pavlysh. His school was made famous through his many books and articles, which have been read by millions. Thousands of educators, from the length and breadth of the Soviet Union and beyond, travelled to see his school with their own eyes, and millions of educators around the world have been inspired by his example. His love for children. His writings are imbued with the optimism that he believed to be the essence of childhood. Working in very difficult circumstances, he created a model school, and a holistic educational theory to support it. Despite taking on a heavy work load as a teacher and principal, running a preschool group, and organising parenting classes for all the parents at his school, he found time in the early hours of the morning to write dozens of books, hundreds of articles, and over 1200 little stories for children.
The development of science and technology has given humanity great power over its environment, but it has also created serious problems, including climate change and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The future of humanity will depend on the qualities we educate in successive generations: not just on their knowledge, but on their attitudes, values and strength of character.
Sukhomlinsky's approach to education addressed children's emotional, moral and aesthetic development, as well as their physical, intellectual and vocational development. Figuratively speaking, we may say that Sukhomlinsky's approach engaged children's hearts, heads and hands, through the development of empathy, curiosity and creativity. Sukhomlinsky engaged children's hearts by helping them to develop empathy for all living creatures, including family members, classmates, elderly members of the community, animals, birds and plants. He also taught them to appreciate the beauty in nature, in art and music, in human relationships and in work. Sukhomlinsky engaged children's heads through their emotions, through a sense of wonder and curiosity about the phenomena of nature, and a sense of admiration for human knowledge, skill and heroism. Sukhomlinsky engaged children's hands through constant involvement in work and creativity, in the orchards and fields around his school, in greenhouses and workshops, in technical clubs and laboratories, in art rooms and in other creative pursuits such as music, literature and puppetry.
To develop empathy, Sukhomlinsky taught children how to read facial expressions, paying particular attention to the eyes. He put children in situations where they had the opportunity to care for plants, animals, family members, friends, and other members of the community. He told children stories, and shared his own compassionate perception of life. In 100 Pieces of advice for teachers he wrote:
'Our work addresses subtle aspects of the spiritual life of the developing personality—the intelligence, feeling, will, conviction, self-consciousness. One may influence these spheres only through like action, through intelligence, feeling, will, conviction, self-consciousness. The most important means for influencing the spiritual world of a pupil are the teacher's words, the beauty of the surrounding world and of art, and the creation of circumstances in which feelings find their most striking expression—human relationships covering the whole emotional gamut.'
To develop curiosity, Sukhomlinsky took children on frequent excursions into natural environments and to local work places, and exposed them to natural phenomena that aroused feelings of wonder and amazement. He encouraged them to ask questions about what they observed, and to seek answers to their ques-tions through reflection and reading.
Sukhomlinsky wrote about the importance of curiosity, and how to awaken it, in Kak vospitat' nastoyashchego chelokeka (How to educate a genuine human being):
In the very notion of curiosity is hidden a deep meaning: it is a growing, ever intensifying need to know, to find out, to explain. The more actively people interact with the surrounding world, the more they see connections between things, facts, nuances, characteristics and the peculiar features of things, facts and phenomena, and the more they are filled with wonder and amazement. They discover many incomprehensible things, thousands of riddles that they must solve, no matter what. In this appearance of riddles and their solution is the essence of curiosity. Our task is to ensure that in early childhood all children become little thinkers, that their activity should lead to an irresistible avalanche of discovery. The only way to achieve this is through work, in the broadest sense of the word. Children's work does not mean giving them a shovel and letting them dig till they are exhausted. Curiosity is a very delicate personal quality, and it is very easy to destroy it, awakening an aversion to work, if that work is beyond a child's strength or is too monotonous. I am talking about the work of a thinker. Children's work is an active vision of the world, a vision through which children become active participants in natural processes, and custodians of nature.
For two years before they join the compulsory school program, I work with little children in a preparatory group. I would call this period a school in curiosity. This is first and foremost an educator making contact with a child's brain, which is so plastic and responsive during the preschool years. The main method employed in making this contact is to inspire children with wonder and amazement. The main instrument is a teacher's words, and the main form of activity is excursions to the source of thought and language, in the midst of the inexhaustible richness of nature. My aim is that a growing curiosity should become an autonomous force, governing the interests and aspirations of children. If I manage to establish curiosity as an inextinguishable flame, I know that children will never lack ability.
In the twenty-first century, we can easily fall into the trap of thinking that all the knowledge we require is available via search engines like Google, and accept whatever information we find online without question. A curious, questioning mind will not be satisfied with pre-digested knowledge, but will seek to incorporate new information into a meaningful world view.
Sukhomlinsky understood that in the second half of the twentieth century (and this is even more true in the twenty-first century) learning must be a life-long pursuit. He knew that a self-motivated learner, driven by curiosity, will make far greater progress at school than one who is forced to learn through a system of rewards and punishments. He also believed that every student's mind is unique, and that each child views the world through a unique pair of eyes, drawn to different aspects of the world that surrounds them.
To develop creativity Sukhomlinsky employed teachers with diverse interests and work skills, and established a program of extracurricular activities that provided children with many opportunities to discover their talents and creative abilities.
Sukhomlinsky took great pride in the diversity of extracurricular activities at his school. A key feature of these clubs was the way younger children worked alongside older children and learnt from them:
The first thing that catches the eye of a child who enters our school in grade one is the array of interesting things that all, without exception, are busy with. Each pupil has a favourite workplace, a favourite hobby, and an older friend whose work serves as a model. The overwhelming majority of pupils are not only learning something, mastering something, but passing on their acquired skills and knowledge to their friends. A person is being truly educated only when they pass their knowledge, experience and mastery on to someone else. One only begins to sense one's creative powers and abilities when one enters into moral relations with another person, becomes concerned about increasing their spiritual wealth. This is how a vocation is born and how self-education occurs. In the work process moral relations between personalities arise from the moment when one begins to see in another their own virtues, when the other person becomes as a mirror to them. It is on these moral relationships in the collective that vocational self-education is built.
The clubs that operated after school were an integral part of the educational experience at Pavlysh, having a great influence on the general atmosphere of the school and on children's interest in and success at their studies. They also provided a key avenue for pastoral care. The diversity of extracurricular activities ensured that every child could find some activity in which they could develop their creativity.
Empathy, curiosity and creativity are valuable attributes in any human being, especially in the 21st century, and Sukhomlinsky's insights into how to educate such qualities are still relevant today.
Dr. Alan Cockerill