But we musn't get too big for our boots

8th September 2006 at 01:00
It's clever to recognise the talent in all pupils, says Neil Paterson, but it's cool to be able to accept and congratulate it too

or someone like myself with personal and professional interests in the teaching climate in schools, the revelations from the Professional Association of Teachers (PAT) conference in Oxford that "it's not cool to be clever at school" were disappointing.

The message is hardly new. Anybody called a "swot" over the past few decades is under no illusions about whether it was meant to be a compliment. But more disappointing was the conference's apparent continuing acceptance of this state of affairs.

Certain factions of the teaching profession appear to be pursuing some sort of Nirvana, where no child has to live with the differentiation of inhabiting either end of the ability spectrum. This would be fine if it was how the world worked after pupils leave the increasingly politically correct environment of school.

In my opinion, the best teachers instil a culture which recognises the strengths and talents in every child, and find a way to encourage other children to do likewise. Within an environment of positive reward, "clever"

children can accept their successes with due modesty, while those who know they have the power to shine in other areas learn the magnanimity to congratulate them. This type of culture is hugely liberating and nourishes the seeds of emotional intelligence all children need to progress through life, where personal comparisons, favourable and unfavourable, are inescapable.

Hay Group's extensive research in this area strongly suggests that productive pupilsstudentsadults are those with a high degree of self-awareness - those with self-confidence to acknowledge strengths and admit weaknesses in themselves and those around them.

A key part in developing this confidence can only be built through feedback from an early age which helps individuals realistically to pitch their notion of self-worth throughout their own lifetime.

How wonderful if the PAT conference had, instead of debating how to remove the terminology of success and failure, explored the notion of attacking the double-edged sword of stigma which goes with it? As a society, we talk about failure being a learning experience, yet regularly seem to flirt with the idea of minimising this experience, alongside that of conspicuous success in schools.

In Scotland, with its "Jock Tamson's Bairns" legacy, the problem is possibly exacerbated by a reluctance to get "too big for our boots". The mindset of "I kent his faither" means that, as a nation, we are not particularly good at seeking to stand out. Teachers who want to avoid using words like "clever" are not helping.

If it's perceived as clever to be cool in school, but not cool to be clever, then teachers need to start challenging some of the value systems which underlie the situation.

Some work has been done in this area through the introduction of the controversial personal learning planning (PLP) where, from an early age, pupils are encouraged to develop skills of self-appraisal. As an educational management consultant, a father of school-age children and a member of a school board for several years, I'm aware that this initiative is not without its shortcomings. PLP needs to be shaped by good teachers who fully grasp the importance of teaching realistic self-appraisal. It takes courage to deliver both positive feedback and constructive criticism, especially when parents may themselves be unrealistic about appraising their offspring's potential. Never criticising children under those circumstances would almost certainly lead to a quieter life, but our research indicates that it bodes ill for the happiness and life success of the adults they will become.

Recent research by Hay Group has identified that the best organisations expose their new recruits to 360 degree feedback. They get them used to receiving and giving feedback on behaviours and performance. By this means, those who work with colleagues are encouraged to develop greater sensitivity to the impact their own behaviour and personal style has on others. They are also taught to be discerning as to whether or not they are achieving the outcomes they desire - and, if not, to consider changing the way they interact.

This system offers total feedback and requires a level of emotional intelligence that cannot exist in adults facing the need to appraise their own behaviour in relation to other people for the first time.

School-leavers are often criticised for being unfit for the world of work and reluctant to accept feedback. We are not helping the situation if schools allow pupils to progress without developing the self-appraisal and self-worth that comes with failing at some things and excelling at others.

The best teachers are those who encourage healthy differentiation and identify value in all. To pretend that "all animals are equal" has been tried before. It didn't work then and it doesn't work now.

Neil Paterson is a director of global management consultancy Hay Group

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