Academic success appears to be the be-all and end-all in life, especially if you listen to our politicians. But could the way there be very different from the route they advocate?
We live in a high-stakes society where existential angst and fear of failing are rife. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the field of education. Fuelled by alarmist news about Britain under performing in international literacy and numeracy comparisons, top politicians urge us to pull up our socks and knuckle down. And the “us” to blame for the frightful situation we’re in (God forbid that our nation ought to be anywhere but at the top of every international comparison chart!) is… our children.
In 2015 education was top news. Backed by then education secretary Michael Gove , David Cameron declared war on “mediocrity in schools” as part of his election campaign. And I suppose some would call it progress that the debate has moved on from how best to teach to how to keep schools open – funding rows are now the order of the day.
“Children must work harder, have longer school days and shorter holidays” – Michael Gove, former education secretary, 2013
But the overall thinking of the powers that be towards learning is the same as three years ago, as I found out attending my six year-old’s Year 2 info evening. “More, sooner, harder” appears to be the mantra driving the non-educators that write the national curriculum and impose it on the real experts, those everyday superheros we call teachers. And it filters through, insidiously, into preschools and nurseries (learning to spell before they’re out of nappies) and families (hushed playground conversations about “painful” homework). A friend once recited to me her 16 year-old’s weekly schedule. It made me dizzy to listen to her list all the extracurricular activities, instrument lessons, volunteering etc that kept this young lady busy well into the evening on most days. And while this sort of lifestyle may be ok for a select few, mental health problems are on the rise amongst children and teenagers, with a significant proportion experiencing burn-out!
So, what’s the solution? Are we to abandon standards, leave it up to our kids how they want to spend the day, cut school hours by half and let them do as they like the rest of the time?
While that approach may work in Finland (not the lack of standards, mind – they do have standards, just different and more sensible than ours) – and it appears to work there very well indeed – as a society, we need to prepare the ground. Here’s what I think:
In life, often the things we want the most are the more elusive the harder we try – think of sleep, happiness, fulfilment and – yes – academic success. If we aim for them directly, no matter how hard we try, we shall fail, because they are by-products, perks that show us that our lives are on track, that the right conditions exist in which these things can flourish.
Ever tried to “put a baby to sleep”? Or to “calm one down”? Some will humour you and let you think that you did, others will waste no time in welcoming you to the real world! As a mum of three I know that all I can do is create the right conditions for each of my individual children to calm themselves down or to fall asleep (how do I know? Trial and error).
It’s a similar story with fulfilment and purpose in life – there’s an old Jewish adage that goes something like this:
“I tried to find myself – to no avail I tried to find God – to no avail
I tried to find my neighbour – and found all three.”
But what is the soil in which academic success will grow effortlessly, as a byproduct?
The answer, in my view is fascination.
Dictionary definition: fas·ci·na·tion – the state of being intensely interested or attracted.
Does that sound simplistic? It’s actually a no-brainer – just think of your ten year-old and Minecraft. You don’t have to entice him with gold stars to spend hours in front of a pixelated screen moving blocks, counting rows and columns, creating a fantasy world and exhibiting a love for detail you could only dream of in his English essays. In a way that we had better learn from, this computer program has managed to tap into countless children’s and young adults’ capability for being fascinated, holding their attention and rewarding them, not with anything external, but with “flow”, the intrinsically rewarding state where skills and challenges are well matched, with both steadily increasing (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi).
“Academic results are the outcome of a rich curriculum” – Naveed Idrees, Head of Feversham Primary
And here’s the good news: We can foster the ability to be fascinated in our children. It can be done from day one and doesn’t cost anything, requires no gimmicks, no classes, no special resources. It also takes you right out of the rat race – how often do you feel exasperated by school-gate comparisons of children? “Ginnie can ride a bike,” “Michael spelled his name yesterday.” “Well, Alfie managed to recite the alphabet backwards standing on his head and wiggling his toes.” You can’t really boast about a child being fascinated, because how do you measure it? But then, how do you measure the roots of a tree? You only know later, after the tree has grown, so let’s forget about nursing our insecurities by comparing surface stuff, and let’s get our hands dirty to preparing the ground.
Because this approach to bringing up children requires the most costly and rare commodity of our times – presence. It requires of us to allow every one of these little beings to carve out a space of their own in our already full-to-the brim lives, to demand our attention, at some points in their lives for hours on end, it requires of us the willingness to tune ourselves into them, sleep and shower-deprived as we are, to feel their feelings and think their thoughts so that by small consecutive steps we can help them learn communicate them to us with ever-increasing accuracy. Maybe we need to put our career plans on hold because, as the saying goes, “there’s no app to replace your lap.”
This approach to bringing up children requires the most costly and rare commodity of our times – presence.
We spend hours doing nothing, by which we mean, pulling faces and allowing ourselves to be interrupted by a squawk we’ve learned means “I’m hungry” or “I’m bored”. Later, we point out ambulances, diggers and squirrels, flowers, dogs and butterflies (I end up pointing them out to my husband with great regularity!). It seems mundane, but you are helping them learn the vital skill of paying attention, and who doesn’t want a kid like that!? It does actually helps domestic arrangements – talking to my toddlers to prevent them from falling asleep in the car and saving the nap for when we actually get home has earned me many pleasant hours with a napping child in the house! It takes a long time, but in the process, we help create something beautiful – children that are truly alive, that have a light in their eyes, that have absorbed into the depths of their being the message that life is worth living, that it’s interesting – and that adults have interesting things to say!
You are helping them learn the vital skill of paying attention.
And if there’s anything I feel a bit smug about, it’s this: Teachers consistently telling me about all three of mine “they’re so interested, they’re a joy to teach.” The test results so far confirm this, but never mind those for now. The sproglets want to learn and no one, least of all they themselves, is going to put a stop to that. And Naveed Idrees, head of Feversham Primary (yep, I love their story) essentially says the same thing. According to him, “academic outcomes are the result of a rich curriculum.” In other words, a curriculum that fosters fascination and self-expression and all that this entails.
So stuff the worry. Look at your child. Enjoy life yourself, and share it with your kid. Smell the roses, point out ambulances, let them inhabit a piece of your mind, and if you haven’t experienced the feeling of flow yourself, have a think about something you’ve always wanted to do – ballet or basketball, teaching or taxidermy, literature or playing the lyre. If you’ve never had the chance, now is the time. Start small, prepare to stick with it, and share the fascination with your family.