When I started teaching, an unspecified number of years ago, children would bring us their learning with great joy. My son’s Reception teacher, in whose school I taught, told me he’d beam and say: “This is brilliant, isn’t it, Mrs Horton?”
There was no national curriculum, and no targets or Sats for pupils to measure themselves against. I’m not saying it was perfect, but as far as the emotional climate was concerned we understood that we were there to nurture positive, creative young people with a can-do attitude.
Today, it’s different. I go to my students at their tables and they’re often hesitant to show me their work. However low-key I make it, they know I will assess them according to their target, the learning objective and so on. Some are brave, confident. Others wait, biting a lip, hopeful. They know there will be a new step, a new target.
We are all on a journey, of course. But some children grow disheartened by the distance and give up travelling. “Where will it end?” they wonder. “At secondary school, at college, when I start work? Will I ever be good enough?”
These children believe they will never make it. They will never be great like their friend who somehow hops and skips through the steps with ease. How have we produced so many children whose lack of self-belief is a central barrier to greatness and success in school?
Culture of comparison
Unfortunately, we live in a culture of comparison. Advertisements, television and social media all send subtle and not-so-subtle messages to convince us that others are living the kind of life to which we aspire. Happiness is a better job, a bigger house, a slimmer figure.
Yet we’ve all experienced the transitory satisfaction of getting what we want, only for it to be replaced by the next desirable item on the wish list. We have a sneaking suspicion that real happiness has nothing to do with this. It might even be that the process of working towards our goals is where the essence of true contentment lies. But we are too busy to stop and think this through.
We cannot expect children to be exempt from these messages, particularly when our education system – to a certain extent – mirrors them. Some children fail to see their own potential because they work in an environment where only excellent outcomes count: only the most eloquent writing is read out; only accurate mathematicians are praised.
We get excited about outcomes the way we get excited about a new TV. They impress for a while but it’s not long before we’re pushing for bigger, shinier ones. (“You’re a great writer, but if you used a semi-colon occasionally you would also be technically brilliant.”)
Perhaps, then, in this, we need to be countercultural. After all, our job as educators covers personal outcomes as well as academic ones. This kind of teaching and learning focuses not on measurable results but on process – building on each child’s natural motivation to help them develop into creative, confident learners who are keen to take risks, collaborate and persevere when the going gets tough. These qualities are vital for success in life as well as learning.
Some schools manage this well. They teach children how to evaluate their emotions, encouraging them to find ways to be more self-aware and confident in dealing with things like challenge and conflict. One such tool is mindfulness, which teaches pupils about the physiology of the brain and shows them calming techniques such as breathing drills and “brain breaks”. These are easy to perform and can be incorporated into daily classroom practice.
Another positive development is the ever-growing impact of pupil voice, via things such as class and school councils, school newsletters and pupil representation on interview panels. In some schools, children are involved in brainstorming ideas for key areas such as playground activities, assemblies and sports days. This builds confidence by allowing them to share their ideas with the school community – and see them brought to life.
In my experience, one of the most effective ways to help foster positive, engaged pupils who love learning and life is to find creative ways to engage and inspire them. “Character of the day” displays with photos and slogans celebrating qualities such as risk-taking, curiosity and compassion work well. (For example, “Tom showed character today when he persevered in making a circuit with three working light bulbs.”)
Similarly, using an online maths game to teach a small group how to convert analogue to digital time engages pupils who might otherwise feel less than positive about the task.
And perhaps we also need to be countercultural in helping to offset the expectation of instant results. Some children assume that if they cannot master something straight away, they have failed.
Speed is natural for them in so many other areas of their lives – sending a message, finding a website, scoring points in an electronic game. But greatness does not happen overnight. Mastery of key skills, particularly in writing and maths, requires repetition and practice, key elements of success that modern life does not naturally prepare pupils for.
Delayed gratification – the decision to forgo instant pleasure to experience better long-term gains – is an important aspect of this. Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow tests in the 1960s and 1970s demonstrated the concept to perfection. He would leave a marshmallow in front of a child, telling them that if they didn’t eat it straight away they would receive two later – and then leave the room. He found that the children who managed to wait grew up to be more socially competent, resilient and successful than their marshmallow-gobbling peers.
If delayed gratification is another facet of successful, well-rounded people, perhaps we should be focusing on strategies to develop it: saving pocket money for a desired item, say, or planting seeds for a sunflower-growing contest. Our society is hurtling ever more quickly towards a world where children are not taught how to postpone immediate pleasure for long-term gain.
Going back to school
Finally, one of the best ways to tap into children’s innate motivation and build confidence is to take the time to encourage them. And we can keep the need for this fresh in our minds by putting ourselves regularly in learning situations, to help us remember how it feels to be less than great.
We can take an evening class, go on a course, or learn a new language or how to play a musical instrument. This will keep the experience of being a learner with its attendant stresses – fear, pride, shame – fresh in our minds. And when you try to catch your instructor’s eye for an approving look, a smile, desperate for a sign that you’re doing OK, remember: this is what it’s like for some children in your classroom, every day.
These strategies and others (which will be explored in a series of follow-up articles) may seem insignificant when considered in the context of classroom life as a whole. However, used systematically, they can help to create an atmosphere where young people can take hold of life with self-belief and optimism. This will enable them to become not only successful learners but also successful human beings.
Deborah Jenkins is a class teacher at Heathfield Junior School, Whitton