The Best of Friends

Even more than most people, children can mean many things with their words. But listening to them still remains the most direct way of probing their minds. The number of ‘shaft-of-light’ moments that I have experienced over the years could probably fill a book in its own right…

My previous post about expectations received much attention (by my normal standards anyway), and I think the longest correspondence of any so far. I should perhaps emphasise that I was trying to consider the issue in the broadest of terms, though inevitably not all got covered equally. So we might consider:

  • Children’s expectations of their school, teachers and lessons
  • Children’s expectations of themselves
  • Teachers’ and schools’ expectations of the same
  • Other parties such as parents and society at large.

It is very possible that there are significant disparities between different groups’ expectations of the same thing – though there is also the possibility for expectations to be contagious from one group to another.  This is a complicated area, and trying to make sense of it is not made easier by one’s own biases and limitations. I am currently reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast Thinking Slow, which is making me particularly mindful of this at the moment…

But last week I took an opportunity to delve a little deeper than I usually would into what my pupils were thinking. A discussion in a Year Nine class, that I might normally have suppressed in the interests of learning Geography, I instead let run and even encouraged a little. As I said, one has to be very cautious in drawing conclusions, not least because one cannot verify the facts or ascertain the sincerity of the views expressed, but the observations were not without interest.

The participants were fourteen year old girls (the boys in the class showing no interest whatsoever); most are biddable, but towards the lower end of our ability range. They were working on an extended task, but other discussion developed, which revolved around who was being unkind to whom on the social media, who had the best boyfriend, and their plans for what sounded like a regular (unaccompanied) outing to an expensive shopping destination twenty miles away in London. Not for the first time, I got the impression that school is nothing more than an inconvenient interruption of a hectic social whirl in which their parents are willing accomplices…

I have transcribed their words as accurately as I can, given that I was relying on memory:

Pupil 1: English is really boring. Why do we need to do that stuff? I mean, we already know how to speak. Why do we have to do all those stupid exercises and notes? And literature – what’s the point of knowing stuff about all those boring books?

Pupil 2: …I just do what I want, when I want. (Me: Even in your lessons?)  Yep. (And what about at home?) Yep, the same there. (Don’t your parents tell you things?) Sometimes, but I mostly don’t listen. (And what then?) Nothing happens…

Pupil 3. …we want more fun in our lessons. (Me: what do you think would make lessons more fun?) (pause….) dunno really, just less of the stuff we have to do. (Don’t you think the teachers know why they give you this work?) ….’spose so – but it’s just boring. I don’t see the point.

Pupil 4: Well, we don’t really know what the future will be like, so we don’t really know, do we? (Me: do you accept that your teachers have lived parts of their lives that you haven’t come to in yours yet?) Yes, that’s obvious. I s’pose they do know stuff – but it’s so boring and I don’t want to do it. (What would you rather be doing?) Dunno, probably hanging out with my friends, or going shopping.

…and one contributed by a year 10 pupil courtesy of a colleague with whom I was discussing the issue…

“Aw miss, you only got me a D in my exam….”

I’m fairly certain this is all routine stuff that will be familiar to many. But within it lie clues to how children today may perceive their schooling. I’m certainly not going to idealise the past, but what strikes me is the confidence with which these individuals make judgements based on what is inevitably a very limited appreciation of the wider issues; well, that’s modern children for you.

But what also seems to be lacking is any sense of obligation, be it to teachers, parents – or even themselves. They perceive little use in what they are doing beyond immediate amusement. As RequiresImprovement observed on my previous post, why would affluent children make the effort to think, when (as Kahneman says) it requires effort, and the rewards are so intangible? It’s ironic that ultra-materialism has led children (and adults) to reject the one path that was supposed to lead them to empowerment….

Another expectation which has echoes in the above, is parents who see their offspring as their “best friends”. I cringe every time I hear this. To my mind it betrays a completely inappropriate relationship, one born of infantilisation and one that is in denial of the more difficult responsibilities of parenting. If this is how the other principal adults in some children’s lives behave, it is no surprise if those children cannot cope with the expectations of teachers. If adults and children alike are engaged in some kind of conspiratorial form of play at home, then where is the understanding of the need for effort, perseverance, mature behaviour and good conduct going to come from?

I saw nothing in the above exchanges that made me reconsider my fundamental views. Children may complain about their lessons, but they appear to have very little idea what they want instead. All we are seeing is the age-old complaints of pupils; the only difference now is that they (and some in education) seem to think they should be listened to. Becoming too emotionally close to children only makes it harder to disregard such whining, and adopting educational policies that condone indulgence at the expense of more demanding development will only make matters worse.

We live in a time where leisure and self-indulgence are such high-profile aspects of life that children have less understanding than previous generations of what real effort actually means. And this is reinforced by a permissive and indulgent parental culture which offers little effective guidance about the appropriateness of behaviour or attitude. As I mentioned before, I encounter many children who genuinely seem to have no understanding of why they cannot have everything they want instantly, with no obligation on them whatsoever.

At the stage when children like those above are about to start exam courses, I doubt how much more we can do to change their fundamental attitudes. Certainly there is an element of mid-teen ennui, but my feeling is that it goes deeper than that.  When I asked one of the protagonists what she expected from her future life, the response was immediate: “To marry a rich man”.

There are several pupils in that Year Nine class who keep themselves apart; while the bulk of the class has made – I am afraid to say – only marginal progress this year, these others  have engaged with what we have done, and have made strong progress both academically and, perhaps more importantly, in their attitude. Several have opted for Geography in Year 10. I have increasingly been able to have meaningful conversations with them, though whether I can claim any credit is another matter; maybe their expectations were just different to begin with.

Of course we need to engage with children as we find them – but there are clearly back-stories and attitudes invisible to those who judge our success. We also need to worry less when our pupils complain. While there are many ways of reading these comments, in the midst of such relativism and indifference, we need to set the expectations for education – and they need to derive unapologetically from the intellectual and personal development that is what we offer.

In this respect, we are employed to know best! But we should neither be surprised nor unduly distressed if some refuse the offer; in the market society they worship, consumers have – as they know well – the option not to buy. But as LeahKStewart implied, teachers must also avoid sending the message, “Please learn these things to do well in the exam so I can keep my job” – otherwise we are no better.

Towards the end of the lesson, I approached one of the more vocal girls; I instinctively dropped down to be on her level. Across the desk, I looked her straight in the eye and said, “You have to trust your teachers. I can’t prove why – but they have been places in their lives that you haven’t yet. They do know what they are talking about.”

She appeared hypnotised. Just for a moment, I had her undivided attention – then she turned and took out her vanity mirror again.

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