Educational Fear of Failure Touches Five Decades

How things have changed. Well, when I say ‘changed’, perhaps I mean ‘reversed’! When I was at school, I lived in fear of not only the other children, but also my teachers. Today, it sometimes seems as if things are the other way around.

Why do we have schools? Wasn’t it originally something to do with educating the children of factory workers? Oh, wait a minute… Surely it was to help our children adapt to an increasingly complex physical environment; to give them some essential knowledge for survival, emotional security, and a pleasurable view of life. No? Oh, I see… to grow up in fear of an omnipotent God? No, that was my parents’ generation… What about ensuring everyone grows up with debt… Getting closer. How about… developing a subservient population whose only expectation is to continue in education, go into tedious employment to pay more taxes than they have left to live on, or sign up for Job Seeker’s Allowance? Well, if that doesn’t control the population, how about the threat of terrorism offset with televisual coverage of various sports and ‘Britain’s Got Talent’? Yes, that should do it.

I’m actually quite a positive person most of the time. I don’t really want to adopt the negative views above. However, I do think it’s time we really looked at how we want our society to evolve and importantly, how we can educate our population in ways that are personally meaningful, intelligent, and fulfilling. So, let’s look at a few basics.

Reasons to educate:

  • Basic survival in a physical world
  • Promotion of cultural and social beliefs, values, and ideals for a sustainable society
  • Ability to support oneself and others in sustainable ways

Ideals of education:

  • To provide the knowledge and tools that individuals need to both manage their lives effectively and inspire them to take good risks for a full and abundant life
  • To promote a feeling among our children and young people that they can make a positive contribution and difference to their world

Distortions of education:

  • Control of an ever increasing population
  • ‘Farming’ of the proletariat underclasses to support an elite minority

In his 1964 book, How Children Fail, American author and educator, John Holt (1923-1985) claimed that a climate of fear and boredom, among children attending school, led to unhappiness, disruption, and a general lack of quality education. Among his observations of rote learning and examinations, he remarked that:

“The true test of intelligence is not how much we know how to do, but how we behave when we don’t know what to do.”

If challenged, most teachers might respond by asking why they should be blamed for everything that goes wrong in schools and why they should then be made to feel guilty, having done what they felt was their best in often difficult circumstances.

John Holt says that:

“”Blame” and “guilt” are cry-baby words. Let’s get them out of our talk about education. Let’s use instead the word “responsible.” Let’s have schools and teachers begin to hold themselves responsible for the results of what they do.”

Today, this may seem like a matter of semantics in an educational world steered by ‘external-to-school’ political agendas, but the real truth of what is happening is possibly more complex. Let’s just look at some of the key things teachers have to cope with:

  • [Often] following a one size fits all curriculum dictate, passed down from central government
  • Pressure to turn out children with a minimum of five ‘A to C’ GCSE examination results
  • Pressure both on, and from, Head teachers to ensure results reflect their school favourably in national League Tables.
  • Managing children in a challenging social climate
  • Competing with a rich multimedia world of games and celebrity stardom

In 1964, Holt was saying:

“There is now a lot of talk about raising our standards higher, about “making sure” that children know what they are “supposed to know” before allowing them into the next grade. What will this lead to in practice? Mostly, to a lot more of the fakery… giving children intensive coaching just before the tests so that they will appear to know what in fact they do not know at all.”

The same can be said today – almost five decades later! Have we learnt nothing?

A few years ago, children applying to some over-subscribed UK State Grammar Schools were being home-tutored to pass entrance examinations. However, in the midst of this madness, one school decided to change its tests so that home-tutoring could not result in ‘a child without a brain’ gaining access to their school. The thinking behind this was quite logical and also based on previous experience. If a child could not understand their test, then he/she would struggle to cope with the everyday workload and levels of expected attainment. In many ways, the school realised that, by letting in anyone who had been “trained” to pass their test, they were not doing the child, or themselves, any favours! This also resulted in creating a fairer system for some bright children whose parents could not afford to ‘buy in’ extra help.

There are many discussions on educational forums concerning general education. Some debate whether or not schools should be run like businesses, while others argue that retaining the fundamental, core purpose of education should be independent of any specific wishes of individual commercial concerns. Personally, I am clear on this issue: Education should be about learning to learn, new discovery, creativity and enjoyment; it should promote method rather than rote; knowledge of how to find out, rather than total retention of a narrow subject area. My own view is that in the present educational set-up for 11-16 year olds, ‘project led’, rather than ‘subject led’, is the only way to achieve this success – and I do not mean introducing something half-hearted and experimental on the fringe of, or parallel with, regular subject-led teaching!

I have witnessed the enthusiasm and content-rich education provided by many Primary/Junior Schools, where the eyes of eager learners sparkle with excitement and pride in their discoveries as they demonstrate their project-led work to others. I have equally witnessed the disruption, dissatisfaction and brash rebellion of Secondary School children, whose dominant aim is to disrupt and prevent learning from taking place. How sad is it that these are the same enthusiastic children I once met in their earlier ebullient incarnations? For those who wanted to advance, the distractions in the classroom around them are now too great. Instead of advancing, they are retarding before my eyes. Teachers battle to maintain attention, never mind interest, and many classes rely on the support of teaching assistants to keep basic order while fielding swearing and sexual comments that any adult would be ‘hauled over the coals’ for!

John Holt talked about children feeling fear in school. Today, it is the staff who feel the fear; they fear the children will not learn enough in time to gain good exam results; they fear that a child might level a false accusation of maltreatment against them; they struggle to follow an ever-changing curriculum; they have to teach methods they don’t always agree with, have time to think about, or understand; and they have to manage the expectations of parents who want to know what the school is doing for their [sometimes] dysfunctional child; and on top of this, they are challenged by society to justify their pay and conditions because a series of government ministers stir up disparaging comments that are amplified by a shark-infested media aimed at a time-starved, cash-poor, society.

Since the advent of the UK Coalition Government, many schools have opted out of Local Authority control (forming Studio, Free Schools and Academies) and I thought this might be an opportunity for some real educational reform. Whether it’s due to legislative restraints, or simply because many teachers have become institutionalised in their approaches and thinking, I am not aware that any real educational reforms are taking place. Certainly, a view as radical as my own, that we should use schools as specialist centres for voluntary attendance, does not elicit much of a following. However, I do believe that with the increasing development and use of ‘smart’ technology and instant access to information, this is the way education will eventually evolve. It would certainly remove some of the fear associated with contemporary teaching and learning.

And another thing…

Richard Gentle (May 2012)

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