Wednesday 16 October 2019

Who will teach our children?

From mutterings over the uselessness of homework for primary school children, to all-out rejection of the Leaving Cert as 'broken', dissatisfaction with our education system is running high. But something interesting may be happening at last, says Emily Hourican, as the hardcore achievement-orientated parents and the more hippie-dippy just-let-them-be-happy types, find common cause

Writer Emily Hourican pictured with her three children, Bee (6) , Malachy (13) and Davy (9) in Deer Park , Stillorgan. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Writer Emily Hourican pictured with her three children, Bee (6) , Malachy (13) and Davy (9) in Deer Park , Stillorgan. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

Throughout the summer months, along with the usual rumblings around voluntary contributions and back-to-school expenses, a different note was increasingly being sounded. The idea of abolishing homework for primary school children. In July, the Oireachtas Petitions Committee even considered the matter formally, spurred on by a petition started in January to "Eradicate homework for children in Primary School".

It's not that it was a slow season. Plenty was happening. So why all the talk of homework? It is because homework is the low-hanging fruit, an easy route of access for a far wider sense of dissatisfaction with our current education system. This is the one would-be revolutionaries are clustering around, because there is data (plenty of it) to support the claim that sitting slumped over a maths copy for an hour every evening is of no benefit to kids - but it is just the tip of the iceberg.

The dissatisfaction is not new, but it is growing, and spreading, and weirdly, it is starting to envelop even those who are traditionally in favour of such things as structure, exams and results-based learning.

Something interesting is happening; there is a horseshoe effect going on, a way in which two opposite and previously antagonistic ends of a spectrum - sworn foes - are increasingly drawing close together.

At one extreme, there are the parents who believe in hardcore achievement - lots of academic emphasis; lots of pushing for top marks and linear progression; along with carefully complementary after-school activities such as music and chess. At the other end, are the more hippie-dippy ones, who wish to promote happiness, self-knowledge, kindness, creativity, over anything specifically academic.

What's interesting is that now, the two ends are drawing closer together, despite the fundamental mistrust and antipathy between them, because we are all beginning to realise that, actually, the objectives of the high-achievers - success, basically; probably money, too - are perhaps better served by the methods of the hippie-dippies.

This is pretty cataclysmic, but, if it does happen, it would be a very good thing. What you might even call a win-win: happy kids, successful adults. But where is it coming from? Well, first and foremost, from the slowly growing sense of disillusionment with what, and how, we currently teach our kids, coupled with a good deal of panic around their futures.

As we all try and recover from the annual hysteria-thon that is the Leaving Cert, not to mention the misery that is Leaving Cert results day for so many, we need to stop ignoring the growing discontent around an assessment system that has been repeatedly described as "unfit for purpose". Every year, we hear "the Leaving Cert is broken" etc etc, but now, the rumbles are louder and more exasperated than ever.


The Leaving Cert - and we all agree on this - is a horror for kids who aren't academic. They might be bright, even brilliant, but if their minds don't favour the specific kind of information-cramming that is required of our school leavers, then the results will not reflect their brilliance.

That, of course, is a scandal, but the real problem is that, even for the academic kids - the ones who manage the system and spin it to their advantage by getting heaps of points - the education system is failing. As the mother of three children - Bee (six), Malachy (13), and Davey (10), pictured above - who, between them, span the gamut of 'academic' to what I shall politely call 'artistic', I am likely to experience it from a variety of angles, but even for the most academic of my children, the one who effortlessly aces exams and gets dream reports (do not ask me where he came from...), I am far from persuaded that he is getting the best kind of preparation for his future.

From what I can see - and this is despite the really excellent efforts of individual schools and teachers who do a superb job, often one that has to be done around the demands of the curriculum - the Irish education system places emphasis on the wrong things. We prioritise maths and literacy over problem-solving and emotional development. We are too results-oriented, and focus on a learn-by-rote approach that does nothing for anyone's ability to actually think, or work out complex matters, or come up with creative, interesting solutions. And this approach is preparing children to fail in the big bad world beyond their school walls.

We all know - or at least we should by now - that attention-span, perseverance and problem-solving are far better indicators of future success, academic and economic as well as emotional, than the ability to read fluently aged seven, or recite the nine-times tables. We know it, but we aren't acting on it. We know it, but we don't seem to have the confidence, yet, to put this into practice.

And it's not just the formal education system - it's also the way we parents are reinforcing that system, giving way to our own sense of panic around our children's futures, and piling pressure on them to perform and succeed.

It's not hard to understand why we do this. The world is more competitive than ever. Our slice of the pie is shrinking, as economies like India and China emerge and demand their share. Jobs are harder to get, harder to keep, harder to be paid well for. Any kind of security - against old age, unemployment, illness - is shrinking. House prices are increasing dramatically. Working for free - they call this one 'internships' - is the new norm. Even skilled jobs are being outsourced - in 20 years' time, much of the work currently being done by highly trained lawyers here in Ireland, will be done, for half the price, by equally highly trained lawyers on the other side of the world. The rise in artificial intelligence means that the robots, literally, are coming.

The only thing we know for sure is that the future doesn't look anything like the past, and not very much like the present. And that we have no very clear idea of what it does look like. No wonder we're scared. No wonder we're trying our best to be good parents - to equip and arm our kids for an uncertain and frightening world - by pushing them. No wonder we want them to have an edge - many edges - in the battle for survival that may be coming.

That's all very well. The problem is, we are going about this the wrong way. We are equipping them for a future that we don't understand, with the tools of the past. In a spirit of utter panic, we are doing our pathetic best to shore up our children's chances of success in life, but we're doing it all wrong. We are ignoring the latest and best understanding around children's development, in favour of intensively plugging the old system - the three Rs, basically, perhaps with a helping of Suzuki-method violin thrown in.

Too Posh Not To Push

When a second-grade teacher in Texas announced last September that she would not formally assign any homework this year, asking her class of seven-year-olds instead to eat dinner with their families, play outside and go to bed early - all the things we know they should be doing more of - her decision quickly went viral, and was hugely controversial. Not with kids, of course, but with their parents. Instead of welcoming the respite from the daily battles - not to mention the sheer misery of seeing small children try and make their way through maths work sheets when they are clearly exhausted, these parents objected furiously, terrified that their kids would be losing a competitive advantage. And this, despite the fact that experts in all parts of the world are now queuing up to say there is no direct correlation between homework and performance, particularly among younger primary school children.

The obsession with demonstrable performance has resulted in a kind of dirty bomb, detonating in a number of different, often surprising directions. There is also a thriving scene in grinds for eight- and nine-year-olds. Book clubs for seven-year-olds "because they don't do enough reading in school". An obsession with piano grades as opposed to simply playing for enjoyment. A friend who, considering her son's options for secondary school, said - to her own horror - of one excellent, free local school known to prioritise art, music, drama and emotional development - "that's all great, but will they push him to the get the Leaving Cert points he needs…?"

After-school activities that pretend to be fun but are actually just more pushing, in the guise of learning how to code, or play violin, or take photos. Everything, in this world of optimisation of children's learning experiences, is quantified. A six-year-olds' ballet class where 'certificates' are given out at the end of each term, because hey, otherwise the girls might not feel they had 'achieved' anything. And their parents wouldn't feel they had got their money's worth.

Obviously not all after-school activities are bad - Scouts, for example, with its emphasis on self-reliance and life skills, has been shown to positively affect children's sense of self-worth well into adulthood. But most after-school activities are 'achievement' by another name, and encourage children to participate because they want to 'get' something, rather than for the sheer fun of doing. They are results-focused, in exactly the same way as our education system is: "How can I get the 'right' answer so I can move on?". There is no enjoyment of process or of the analytical or critical process involved, for the sake of sheer intellectual amusement.

And yes, I know that institutions need to be run, and measured, in demonstrable and accountable ways. That a class of 30 five-year-olds will be difficult to manage if they are all playing freely and creatively, but there is an amount of 'blah, blah, blah' here, because - first and most important, this is our children's education we are talking about; their happiness, emotional stability and the future of our country, and surely that is worth the effort required to rethink, restructure, reassess? And secondly - it's not as if it can't be done. It can, and has. Finland has done it; Holland, too; more recently, Estonia, with remarkable success. And yes we are all sick to the eye teeth of hearing about the Finns and the Dutch (the Estonians are fairly new to this roll-call of honour, but get used to seeing them cited), but frankly, until we learn to set our own house in order, we're just going to have to put up with ad nauseum repetition of how happy, brilliant and productive their children are.

Not The Finns Again…

If our system worked, you might just say, "OK, not ideal, but at least it's getting results - our kids are out-performing their comparable peers, getting better results, better jobs, better careers". But this isn't happening. Ireland does well on the OECD-PISA scores, which is

still the easiest way to measure academic success. We score above average at maths and science, but only just, although we do better in literacy. This is good. However, we aren't building on what is a historic advantage, and the really good countries (Finland, Holland, Estonia, Japan, Canada) are now powering ahead of us.

The hallmarks of their education systems are delayed start - no formal learning until age six or seven; lots of creative play; limited exams with continual assessment instead; and a promotion of health, well-being, communication, physical activity and the joy of learning. These are things I try hard to remember when I find myself agonising over the fact that my six-year-old daughter is behind on her reading - in Finland, I tell myself desperately, she wouldn't even have picked up a book yet, unless she actually wanted to. And, whatever they are doing, it's working, while our system, increasingly, is not.

A friend with a lifelong passion for and senior role within education told me recently about an encounter with top brass at one of the giant tech firms based here, who expressed considerable dissatisfaction with the recruits from the Irish education system. He was unimpressed with their literacy and numeracy skills, but more than this, it was a lack of "common sense" that bothered him; a willingness to regurgitate material, unanalysed. Given that this kind of tech firm is probably going to end up employing so many of our children, any lack of faith in our graduates is serious.

Times are troubled, there is no doubt. Probably the only thing we do know in what is a period of quite historic global and political uncertainty, is that we are in a strange transitional phase. The pace of globalisation has quickened, the numbers of migrants are higher than ever and continue to grow, and the gulf between rich and poor is a gaping chasm.

And so, now is the moment to refocus our education system and our own approach as parents, to what, and how, we teach our children. Until we discover exactly what the desirable skillsets of the future are (Chinese? Geriatric healthcare? Robot maintenance? I'm being facetious, but you see what I mean…), we need to encourage the kind of broad-based openness and willingness to change, adapt and learn, that begins with flexibility, enthusiasm, excitement.

We need to shift the focus away from the grind of 'points you need' and 'career objective', to questions like "What are the challenges we face in the world that interest you? That you feel passionate about? What would you need to develop in yourself in order to be able to make a contribution to this challenge?"

Put like that, the whole education system suddenly looks different, far more dynamic, with a move away from the idea of 'teaching' children - something that is a largely passive experience for them - towards encouraging their sense of possibility and interest in the world. After all, presumably we want them to be the people who are shaping that world, rather than the ones waiting quietly to be told what to do.

Only Hippies Are Happy?

For far too long there has been a crazy kind of thinking around happiness in children - that it is somehow something woolly, a bit hippie, associated with a lack of discipline and ambition, with buildings wigwams in the forest and learning from nature. All those parents who used to send their seven-year-old boys to boarding school, ignoring the tears and trauma, on the basis that this was good for them - the trauma as much as the educational opportunities. As if being damaged (of course, they would not have called it that) was a prerequisite for later success. And in some ways, they were right, although the causal effect can only be guessed at. Many of those sobbing schoolboys went on to become MPs, top lawyers, doctors and so on. The ones that didn't have breakdowns, that is.

We didn't do the boarding-school thing so much here in Ireland, but we internalised the idea that children needed to be 'toughened up,' not indulged or cosseted; that anything too 'nice' - too much art, or music, or playing shop - took away from the all-important business of learning. Those were the days when a 'rounded education', one that favoured personal development and happiness over academic excellence was something only 'hippie' parents cared about, the ones who sent their kids to progressive schools where they only studied if they wanted to and seemed to spend most of their time experimenting with sex and drugs.

Now though, the very parents who would have dismissed the hippie notions - free play, outdoors activity, delaying formal education - might be beginning to find common cause with such things. Because after all, as it turns out, the very things that make our children happier, seem also to make them better adapted to the working world; more competitive (in the collective, keeping-up sense, not the exclusivist 'I'm better than everyone' sense); more resilient.

Happy, creative, imaginative children lead to intellectually engaged, robust adults who are likely to grapple effectively with problems, greet change with enthusiasm and adapt to an evolving world. So happy kids make productive adults? Who knew…!

The problem is, even having identified happiness as a worthy goal, we cannot make our children happy. All we can do is create the conditions for their happiness, to the best of our ability. And this means doing something that may feel counter-intuitive, and that means acting as an antidote to the education system: helping them to understand that exam results are not the be-all and end-all. Helping them cope with the challenging teachers. Helping them to think more clearly about what's important in life - the ability to cooperate, communicate and listen, the ability to get along with others, the ability to resolve interpersonal problems.

I have a private theory that encouraging kids to be 'nice' is something worthwhile. And this is despite all the macho Master-of-the-Universe guff about nice guys finishing last. By 'nice' I don't mean a pushover. I mean someone who has consideration for others, an interest in their lives, a sense of humour, a willingness to get stuck in and help out, whether that is on a global aid initiative or because the office photocopier has broken down. After all, if the future contains as many robots as seems likely, how much more valuable will basic humanity be? The ability to say something funny? Warm? Kind?

The future is now, and it's a tricky one. The old certainties of 'good school, good college, good job' are rockier than they ever were. We can no longer rely on our children slotting into the lives we may have dreamed up for them, because the world is changing faster than our imaginations can keep pace. They are going to have to make their own way, in what is undoubtedly going to be a strange, even difficult, place. They are going to need to keep pace with this world, take it on and wrestle it into some kind of shape that works for them, and that won't be easy.

Magic formula

Of course we'd like to provision them with a bag of certainties - degrees that automatically open doors, skills that translate into a large corner office, a magic formula that floats them to the top. But we can't - we don't have the formula, or know what the skills are.

All we can give them as they start off on this journey are the kinds of things that may look a bit useless - like one of those fairy tales where the hero sets off with a piece of bread, a length of string, and a kind heart.

In our case, these things are the unquantifiable and immeasurable: common sense, energy, decency, lots of enthusiasm and a mind made sharp by years of questioning and solving problems, both real and abstract (everything from how to make a lean-to stand upright in the wind, or divide six sweets between four people, to complex mathematical equations). Instead of micro-managing and 'teaching', we need to step back and let them learn. We need to let them be happy, and hope that success comes, too.

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