Naming the elephants in the room

The ultimate aim of education is to teach young people to thrive, while they are in education and throughout their lives. This idea is not new but it has taken on a new level of urgency.

We are all aware of the disturbing growth of mental health problems in children and young people – among teenagers rates of depression and anxiety have doubled in 30 years, and 75% of mental health problems start in adolescence.

Then there are the complaints from employers that young people are not equipped to deal with real life.

Take this 2015 comment by Annmarie Neal, Chief Talent Officer at Cisco Systems, to the authors of Most Likely to Succeed: “The students that thrive within today’s education systems are achievement driven, rule-oriented, compliant, linear… The world of today requires future leaders to be relationship or collaboration driven, rule-defining, creative and innovative, lateral and polymathic in focus. The gap is huge.”

Surprisingly, this is true even of academic high-flyers.

Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, has said that, “We rarely employ straight A students. What we’ve discovered over the years is that their field of knowledge is too narrow and they haven’t developed as people. We find that they just can’t cope with life, and they cause endless problems and frictions. We like to choose students who are bright, but broad, with character. The thing is, if somebody’s intelligent we can teach them the skills we need – and the skills they learnt at school will probably become outdated anyway.  But what we can’t do is teach them to be rooted.”

So the question of how schools can promote human flourishing it is a ‘hot topic’ in contemporary education, particularly around so-called character education – those skills of self-knowledge and social learning that are so important for success both at school and at life.

Of course, as soon as you start talking about teaching character values, the question arises: whose values are you going to teach? You can go back to the Classical notion of civic virtues, like the influential Jubilee Centre at Birmingham University. Or you can turn to an increasingly robust empirical research literature that has developed from sociology, political science, economics, education, psychology, medicine, public health, and other empirical sciences.

The Nobel prize-winning Economist James Heckman published in a paper with Kautz in 2013 that claimed that certain character traits when taught at school, especially to younger children, can significantly enhance a young person’s life chances. They identified character skills or dispositions which are nearly universally admired across cultures, including perseverance and resilience, self-control, empathy, humility, and engaging productively in society.

We know all this. So why are so many of our young people struggling? What is preventing us from teaching them what they need to know?  If we are going to get serious about this, we need to acknowledge the elephants in the room.

The first of these is the way schools are held accountable. This system is a key driver of school behaviour. It has been the subject of much scrutiny in recent years including from the DfE, driven by concern that we are using the wrong incentives and the wrong sanctions. I am not against accountability per se: it’s important that the government has mechanisms for holding educational institutions to account for the quality of education they provide. The problem occurs when this system results in a narrowing of the curriculum. It’s inevitable that when pupil performance is used as a high-stakes accountability measure, schools will prioritise those parts of the curriculum that are tested, often at the expense of others that are not. Worse, the children who stand most at risk of having an impoverished experience are those who are regarded as borderline and receive teaching that is narrowly ‘to the test’ to get them past a threshold.

Ofsted’s chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, has noted the fact that “Where (an) accountability measure becomes the sole driver of a school, college or nursery’s work, their real purpose – to help young people learn and grow – is lost.” And indeed Ofsted has attempted to address this problem in recent years. The inspection framework that was introduced a year ago emphasises the importance of the curriculum and a broad co-curriculum, and introduced non-statutory benchmarks for measuring character education, focusing in particular on resilience, confidence and service to others. This is a start. But even these welcome changes are not enough to give human flourishing the priority it deserves.

There’s a groundswell of opinion among educators that our current system of high-stakes exams, especially during the period around 16 years of age when young people are emotionally vulnerable, needs to change. The movement calling itself Rethinking Assessment [that Peter mentioned] includes senior figures from education, such as Geoff Barton from ASCL and Alison Peacock from the Chartered College of Teaching, heads across sectors, and academics such as the neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and Bill Lucas from the Centre for Real World Learning. This group is calling for change in how we assess. They are conducting a horizon scan of assessment systems around the world and will put forward alternatives to our current system, which we know is one of the drivers of mental ill health in our young.

As for the accountability issue, it’s hardly surprising that schools feel compelled to focus on curriculum areas that have accountability consequences. In 2018 the NFER conducted a rapid literature review on the impact of accountability on curriculum, standards and engagement. They reviewed some of the best available evidence on the accountability systems in six countries. One of their recommendations was a further review of horizontal structures that exist internationally to make teachers accountable not so much to administrative authorities but to their fellow teachers and school principals, and thus promote a form of ‘professional accountability’ founded on professional development and collaboration.

This brings us to the second elephant in the room: not all teachers – perhaps not many –are experts at this kind of teaching, in two senses. The first is that the knowledge and self-knowledge required to flourish cannot easily be taught through the normal curriculum: they must also be taught through the co-curriculum, explicitly and implicitly, cognitively and experientially, through collaboration between peers, between schools, and between the school and the wider community.

This is not a small endeavour.

The second reason is that teachers are not all themselves expert in these life skills. Consider this: the skills we are talking about are those that enable each of us to know who we are; to understand why we think and behave in the ways that we do; to know how to change those habits of thought and behaviour if we want to. These are the skills that enable us to build authentic, trust-based, flourishing relationships. Living these skills means taking full ownership for our own behaviour and the impact we have on others. It also means knowing how to stay healthy – mentally, physically and spiritually. How many of us can claim that we have ourselves mastered these skills? But imagine the impact it would have on our pupils and on our profession if we were to do so!

Ideally, this sort of expertise would not be confined to a small group of teachers who have been trained up, leaving the rest outside that circle: all teachers would need to learn these skills because they need to inform the ethos of a whole school, and one of the most powerful ways they are taught is by modelling. Teachers need to be willing to facilitate and be alongside pupils, learning with them. That’s a role some are uncomfortable with. So right now within the system we don’t have the capacity to teach these skills.

A third elephant in the room is that there’s a tension between the ideal I have just described and making the shift necessary to get there. We are not going to get to a place where schools are teaching fully developed curricula in life skills in a context where these values are modelled by the adults within a few months. But we need to start making progress on it – we can’t just decide the issue is too difficult to address and give up.

We can start by teaching everyone a baseline. If we create some experts, the less expert can partner with them to learn, creating peer-to-peer support within schools and horizontal networks of support between schools. Longer term, it would need to become a part of teacher training.

A fourth elephant from this family of elephants is that we need to make time for this teaching and learning in the curriculum. If time is scarce, these skills need to be given their due priority. If that sounds unlikely, we need to change our priorities and take the teaching of these skills more seriously. They are not just a ‘nice to have’. They are crucial for pupils’ personal and professional flourishing.

Some will try to tell you that there’s yet another elephant: we can’t make these skills a central component of children’s education because they are hard to measure. How will we know when we have taught them successfully?

Leaving aside the fact that some of the most important things in education are hard to measure and the absurdity of the claim that because we cannot measure something it’s not worth teaching, the truth is that we have access to robust measures for a wide range of these skills. For example, the Harvard program that I mentioned at the start has developed a measurement approach to human flourishing based around five central domains: happiness and life satisfaction, mental and physical health, meaning and purpose, character and virtue, and close social relationships.

These are the skills that enable us to lead flourishing lives. They are the skills that form the foundation for how we lead both ourselves and others successfully.

We owe it to the next generation to empower them with these skills. Knowing what we know, it’s vital that these skills are given the highest importance within our education systems.

Hear more thoughts from education leaders and find podcasts, webinars and resources with our thought leadership community.

By Jonnie Noakes, Director of Teaching & Learning, Eton College
19th October 2020

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