Dare to dream

Children can make things happen. Steve Voake reports on the value of teaching them to believe in their own abilities

When the national curriculum Handbook for Primary Teachers was published in 1999, it stated that "Education influences and reflects the values of society, and the kind of society we want it to be... the curriculum should enable pupils to think creatively and critically, to solve problems and to make a difference for the better."

All good stuff, but the fact that a school's success is increasingly judged by national test results has led many to conclude that - in order to survive - they must concentrate on teaching children those things which can be tested. Unfortunately, this subtle shift towards a more didactic style has left many children feeling that education is something "they have done to them".

If we want to build an inclusive society which values creativity and individuality, then we need to do more than just supply the tools. We need to give our children the skills and confidence with which to invent their own future. This is where the teaching of self-efficacy comes in.

To put it simply, self-efficacy is the belief in your own ability to make something happen, to bring it about. A while back, I was talking to a group of children about what they would be doing at the weekend. Some said they might go shopping, one or two others said they would probably watch the television or play on the computer, others said they didn't know. So then I asked the question: "What would you like to do?"

After a few minutes' discussion, it turned out that their answers were very different. One girl suggested that, rather than just going shopping with her parents, she would like to have her friends over.

Taking this as an example, I asked her to try and create a strong picture in her mind, to imagine exactly what the weekend would look like when it happened. Who would be there? What fun things would they do? Once this picture was established, she realised that she wanted it to happen far more than when it was just a vague thought. The picture pulled her towards it.

This was a good thing, we decided, because it created the energy inside her which made her want to make it happen.

Using that energy, we turned to the next job, which was deciding what steps she would need to take in order to turn the vision into reality. She made a detailed plan which involved talking to her parents, organising activities and phoning her friends.

When I saw her again on Monday morning, she told me that it had all worked out just as she'd pictured it. "We had a brilliant time," she said. Talking to the rest of the class, it seemed that many of them had done the things that they had planned.

But here's the interesting part: not only were they happy about it, but they all seemed genuinely surprised. Like many of us, they hadn't realised that instead of waiting for something outside to change, you can actually change it yourself.

So we discussed the importance of self-confidence and belief: "If you think you can, or you think you can't, then you are probably right." And we saw examples of people who had believed that they could achieve something despite everyone telling them that they couldn't, for example Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the Channel.

Then the children made "dream packets" for themselves, full of little notes and pictures of what that they wanted to do and be in the future. We talked about the importance of dreams and agreed that although they do not always turn out as we plan, they usually take us closer to where we would like to be.

And over the next few weeks, we discussed many related topics - such as how our habits and attitudes can prevent us from doing things differently, even when we know that a change will make things better (try folding your arms a different way to see how even the smallest changes can be uncomfortable).

At the end of these sessions, a survey showed that the percentage of children with high self-esteem had increased by almost 50 per cent. All good news, but far better news was the fact that the children now felt they had some control over their lives, that they could actually change things in the world for the better.

When you think about it, we all spend much of our lives waiting for things to happen. We don't allow ourselves to want what we don't believe we can cause, so too often we aim low to avoid disappointment.

But it doesn't have to be that way. And if we are to leave our children with any legacy at all, perhaps it should be the belief that one day their dreams might just come true.

Steve Voake is headteacher of Kilmersdon Primary School, Somerset, and facilitator for the Investment In Excellence programme which teaches the development of self-efficacy.

His children's novel The Dreamwalker's Child is published this week by Faber Faber

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