Teachers who are optimistic can do a lot to instil a missing sense of possibility among young Scots, say Hilda De Felice and John Walker
t was an understated remark from a young woman from Castlemilk in Glasgow which expressed in a nutshell that issue about the mental approach to things in Scotland. Elaina Richardson was one of the many achievers who moved away from Scotland in the past 20 years in order to fulfil a particular ambition. She became the American-based editor of the glossy magazine Elle, with much power and influence in the world of fashion and a $500,000 salary. Reflecting on her upbringing and subsequent life experience, she summed it up: "What Scots lack is a sense of possibility .
Richardson herself had this in abundance but, sadly, it would appear that far too many Scots, even the young ones, still do not. Our company, DyNAmic Attitudes, had the pleasure towards the end of last year of hosting a conference in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall where Martin Seligman, the eminent American psychologist and writer, captivated the audience. Most were teachers, to whom he spoke for almost five hours on themes related to the national psyche and the role of education in areas such as learned helplessness, optimism and pessimism, pride and positive psychology.
As a self-confessed pessimist, he described how optimists live on average eight years longer than pessimists and are happier and healthier, too. And from an educational perspective, there is robust evidence that optimistic learners enjoy markedly higher achievement.
Two days after our conference, Martin Seligman addressed another event, "Towards a Confident Scotland", where there was considerable reference to the place of schools in the big picture of national confidence. It would appear that some schools are able to achieve substantially more than others in very similar circumstances or areas. Perhaps enlightened and optimistic leadership is the X factor in creating enlightened and optimistic learning communities.
The good news for Scotland is that there is an increasing awareness in schools of the need to allow children to develop their creativity as well as their linear, "left-brain" characteristics, and their emotional intelligence as well as their academic prowess. The stumbling block remains, however, that much of the education system, particularly in terms of assessment and examinations, is geared to the curriculum and agenda of a past age, and is neither dynamic nor flexible enough to embrace the requirements of today's social and economic demands, never mind those of tomorrow.
Since early 2000, we at DNA have been devising and delivering aspects of a programme called DyNAmic Futures, which is all about investing in young people. The programme is based on four principles - responsibility, commitment, collaboration and self-evaluation - and there are activities to be undertaken by the school and the individual. Visiting primary 6 pupils for eight weeks to work with them on a healthy learning project (nutrition, hydration and movement) I found a consistent enthusiasm for active learning not only at that crucial age and stage but among the teachers and participating adults too.
It also showed us how "buttoned down" the primary curriculum has become, with hardly a spare minute for teachers to allow themselves a little spontaneity. The curriculum is cluttered and often ineffective in creating the kind of skills society requires. We need to link the activities within schools to the lives of the pupils. All too often, there is no obvious connection for them and this gap remains one of the major causes of indiscipline in school.
In the past four years, we have worked with around 15,000 young people in Scotland from P3 to S6, the vast majority of whom are positive and eager to learn despite the challenges facing a substantial number of them. We recently added to our portfolio the BLI - Buzan Licensed Instructor - accreditation. Part of the training material looks at a superb model for learning called TEFCAS and there are some thousand or so young people who have now been made aware of how this model works. TEFCAS shows that the learning process is exciting, messy, unpredictable, exhilarating, fascinating - and that, contrary to popular belief, practice does not necessarily make perfect and, above all, that persistence gets results. So simple, yet so powerful. The expressions of relief and enlightenment on many young (and older) faces when this explanation hits home tell their own story.
Martin Seligman spoke of the work he and his colleagues have been doing to shift the paradigm in the world of psychology to become "as interested in building the best things in life as in repairing the worst", "as concerned with strength as with weakness" - in other words, to embrace positive psychology.
In the same way, it would be a massive step forward if more (all?) of the children who slip through the school system simply because they do not fit into any of the categories for special help or treatment or because they don't know the TEFCAS message were able to achieve even some of the fulfilment they deserve, with an Investors in Young People accreditation as an added bonus.
Our mission then, in collaboration with Seligman and colleagues, is twofold: to create a programme that addresses the needs of young people in a creative yet systematic way and which allows them to develop a rich and dynamic range of skills, principles and values - emotional, academic, spiritual, entrepreneurial, artistic and sporting; and to work with staff in schools and in the Scottish Executive to help free up the curriculum.
We are not going to have confident learners until adult role models in schools develop the confidence and courage of their own convictions.
Schools know that education is not about ticking boxes and counting beans, useful though these activities occasionally are. Perhaps teachers have to acknowledge their own power and let their voices be heard in order to awaken in the children as well as in themselves that much needed "sense of possibility".
Hilda De Felice and John A Walker form DyNAmic Attitudes.