Essay: Creating successful little people

Essay: Creating successful little people

There is currently a lot of pressure on the education system in Queensland in particular with schools under instruction to lift the academic ante, chaplaincy in a state of contest and a new high-school grade structure to be fully implemented by 2015, which will see students finishing primary school in Grade Six and starting high school with Grade Seven, bringing them into alignment with other Australian states.

As someone who left primary school in Brisbane at the completion of Grade Seven, only to start high school in Sydney in the same grade resulting in some doubling up and some lapses in education (read: confusion!), it pleases me that there will soon be a national standard. But as someone whose parents divorced in Grade Nine, and whose grades dropped significantly at the same time, I worry about how kids are coping in schools, particularly those more vulnerable ones for whom home life is far from ideal, but who might rely on schooling as a place of refuge, structure and stability in addition to learning – all which can help a child develop into a functional adult.

"There is plenty of evidence that shows that students who are more socially and emotionally skilled do better academically and later fare better in careers and relationships," one private school counsellor tells me. "And in this world of ever shifting moral markers, it is becoming more and more imperative to give kids training in resilience, ethics, citizenship, and character. But I don't think it can be at the expense of the more traditional content. That begs the question, how do we fit it all in?" 

And, indeed, is it the responsibility of schools alone to create these happy little human beings – able to cope with all the world will inevitably throw at them? Or are schools being loaded with too many child grooming obligations in the absence of other community structures, the church and the family unit, from which we have traditionally derived our education in morals, values and sense of identity, purpose, responsibility and place?

The family is a point of serious contention right now, particularly in light of the Australian Christian Lobby's For Kids' Sake report, authored by the University of Sydney’s Professor Patrick Parkinson, which attracted the support of former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett but also the derision of a vocal opposition who are sick of hearing about the collapse of the family being the key to all the world's woes. The report is concerned with building on the Best Interests of the Child strategy in reference to article 3 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is concerned with government that acts in the best interests of children.

"Children can’t vote. They have no money, no trade union representation; they have no money and fewer rights, even the right to be born," says the ACL. "And so, they are easy to pick on, oppress, suppress, marginalise, trick and exploit. They are reliant on adults for their care, protection and nurture. And too many adults are failing in their responsibility."

Can children be truly insulated from all that's wrong in the world – and their parents' decisions – by organisations like the ACL? No, but surely the ACL shouldn't be maligned for trying to work in the favour of children? Still, what is this plumb line for a child's "best interests"?

I recently attended an event at a Toowoomba school that houses boarders. I was highly impressed by the capable, intelligent, polite students who ushered me around the school's campus and shared in their dreams for the future: one wants to be a teacher, the other a scientist. Beyond the school's values, which are based on Christian teaching, they are active in service, giving girls the opportunity to work on the overseas mission field in orphanages, which gives them the rounded, grounding sense of how well off they really are.

But not all school children get this service-based education, nor the basic skills that will ensure they might function as independent, income-earning adults. This is why I will support organisations like the Girl Guides 'till the cows come home. But, even then, you can have all the knowledge and skills in the world and still be vulnerable. Even those who are from privileged backgrounds have their struggles. 

In America, where the issues always appear to be amplified tenfold, the talk is around fostering positive character traits in kids through schools. It's not an entirely new concept, as most schools have value codes, but one that warrants exploration as 'The Nanny School' becomes an inevitable talking point and parents come to expect a return on their school-fee investments.

Writing for The New York Times Magazine, in 'What if the secret to success is failure?, Paul Tough notes that children with privileged upbringings are encountering very specific emotional problems tied into emotionally distant parents: apparently, great expectations in academe are not being matched by adequate support in the home. This is creating "a potentially toxic blend of influences that can create “intense feelings of shame and hopelessness”, according to psychologist Madeline Levine, author of The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids.

Oh, no, the poor rich kiddies, you say; how terrible for them that they can't get straight As. But if we think in terms of how the world functions – and the responsibility of the rich to ease the pain of the poor – we do have problems. If these kids aren't doing well in life, the whole global economy could very well come undone. Just think about Warren Buffet's recent call to raise the taxes on the rich to feed into the American economy and help resolve its debt problem. Or the highly educated Dr Martin Luther King Jnr, the proponent of the civil rights movement?

One pricey private school, located in the spiritual homeland of America's meritocracy, New York, has endeavoured to create its own character-based syllabus with the help of popular positive psychologist Dr Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan. The school has nutted the key traits for future success in life down to seven: zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity.

"True, learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying — but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging," says Angela Duckworth, an assistant professor to Seligman. "To help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.”

The school's headmaster, Dominic Randolph, described by Tough as "a bit of an eccentric... a one-man TED conference", is against the use of evaluating students with "character  report cards" (i.e. get a CPA with your GPA) but sees the inclusion of character-trait development as a core part of his school's curriculum, building on the junior school's ethics guidelines ("Treat everyone with respect"; "Practice good manners"; "Avoid gossiping"; "Help Others"), otherwise known as CARE (Children Aware of Riverdale Ethics).

Interestingly, Tough notes a distinct difference between programs aimed at developing "moral character" versus "performance character":

"In 2008, a national organization called the Character Education Partnership published a paper that divided character education into two categories: programs that develop “moral character,” which embodies ethical values like fairness, generosity and integrity; and those that address “performance character,” which includes values like effort, diligence and perseverance. The CARE program falls firmly on the “moral character” side of the divide, while the seven strengths that Randolph and Levin have chosen for their schools lean much more heavily toward performance character: while they do have a moral component, strengths like zest, optimism, social intelligence and curiosity aren’t particularly heroic; they make you think of Steve Jobs or Bill Clinton more than the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi."

Using his own experience of dropping out of Harvard to take on a carpenter's apprentice role and travel to Italy where he did odd jobs and studied opera, a time defined by "failed experiments and setbacks and struggles" (only in America is dropping out of the corporate system to join the blue collars considered "failure"), Randolph is interested in what it means to be a "successful human" beyond standard academic test results and in instilling what he learnt via curriculum.

It's an admirable contemplation. But in his efforts, he's setting the benchmark for the school quite high. No Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest theories here, though American schools are fiercely competitive, but the suggestion that functional adults can be created with adequate attention to predictors for success. Again, that's zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity.

But can these be taught? Or must they be cultivated through experience? By getting out into the world? We all experience tests, trials and disappointments in life – to inoculate us against them would be doing us a disservice. These, in turn, help us to make considered choices, another of life's learning curves, in order to navigate future hardships and challenges without falling apart (and, yes, some of us will – in which case, we should help them to get back up again).

"It is a central paradox of contemporary parenting, in fact: we have an acute, almost biological impulse to provide for our children, to give them everything they want and need, to protect them from dangers and discomforts both large and small," writes Tough. "And yet we all know — on some level, at least — that what kids need more than anything is a little hardship: some challenge, some deprivation that they can overcome, even if just to prove to themselves that they can."

There must surely be a source of stability in each of our lives, which cannot always be put back on ourselves; though the human will can achieve many things, our personal resources are finite. The role of the parent is to equip their young with the tools to go out and thrive in the world. And if that place of stability is not the home, then it falls to the school. Which is where the situation gets sticky: can a school be everything to every student? And what if the school becomes is own source of instability?

Caroline Overington's recent Weekend Australian Magazine cover story on "agile learning" (aka "personalised learning" or "self-directed learning") canvassed those Aussie schools who are currently experimenting with alternative learning methods through the incorporation of new class structures and technology. Writes Overington:

"It involves the complete collapse of the old teaching model, often dismissed as "chalk and talk", which had teachers working in small, closed classrooms with "their kids" sitting at desks, heads down or facing the whiteboard for most of the day. In the new system, children - some of them as young as four - take responsibility for their own learning.

To be clear: the curriculum stays the same - all Australian schools are required to teach certain things - it's how the children go about learning that is changing. Teachers work in groups, not to pour information into their students but to guide them as they set about finding things out for themselves. The rules for student behaviour in these spaces differ between schools. In some cases, children are free to get a snack from their bags; in others, they can roam from one part of the space to another or take their work outside."

While it would be ridiculous to suggest technology does not have a place in schools, as workplace structures are also adapting to new means for production, some old-school stalwarts think all this new learning stuff is bullocks and what a good education comes down to is "the teacher... the integrity, the quality and calibre of the teacher in the class. If you can get that right, you can pretty much teach in a tent," says Peter Turner, director of Catholic schools in the Wollongong diocese.

The architecture of classrooms as a superficial development in what's becoming a more holistic approach to teaching where "education isn't just spelling and writing and maths" but about "the whole child – physically, educationally, spiritually" developing. It's a huge responsibility.

Perhaps it is a good thing that children in this choice-frazzled world are learning to make more of their own early on, but if the world of adults is anything to go by, what children really need is stability, discipline, structure, routine and simplicity. And a shoulder to cry on when things go wrong. And someone to listen to them, without conditions tied into their performance. And teachers who inspire them to better themselves; to reach for the stars.

But not all students will be "stars" in the standard success model the world subscribes – excellence in sports or academics or the arts, and even in appearance – in which case they need to know that they are still valuable, important parts of the world whose characters and ability to give everything their best shot, will bode them well in life, as well as the idea that they have something to offer the world and to others – even in the small economy of the home.

This must also be tempered, however, with the idea that we are not perfect. That discipline is a necessary measure; that boundaries are designed to keep our often haphazard humanly ways in check. In this regard, humanity needs a plumb line for morality, some sort of equilibrium that cuts through the clutter when our ideas of what might be good for children threaten common sense.

"I think that there is a shift back to values and the reality is that values cannot be taught in isolation they need to have some foundation for students to take them on board," another senior educator from a Christian private school tells me. "To be educated and informed does not mean that students are indoctrinated. We need to give young people credit that they can make up their own mind but how can they make up their mind if they don't know anything about religion? Education alone does not give meaning to life it is a means but not an end."

By widening our idea of what constitutes a successful life, equipping kids with the best resources and providing them with adequate support mechanisms, and places of refuge, as well as a strong moral compass, before allowing them to tread their own paths in life, we might hope to achieve a world in which each of them thrives in their own right; where failure or disappointment is not to be completely avoided, or hidden, and where success does not trump one's responsibility to fellow human beings. No Band-Aid solutions.

See also:
Girl Guides Helps Breed Leaders
Catholics, Cupcakes and Community

Girl With a Satchel