01 January, 2009

A Teacher's View on Education

"….I have had an enthusiasm and concern for children and young people for almost as long as I can remember. This, combined with a commitment to understanding how we can all live happier and more fulfilling lives, has led me to a range of different environments and information sources during the past decade. I have learnt how to use my talent in building relationships with children more effectively, and I have had time to develop my thoughts on education…

From birth until the age of formal learning, children learn naturally and instinctively. They observe the real world around them; explore; experiment; persevere; and develop - all fired by their own motivation and at their own individual paces. Their achievements are spectacular. With only the support of others, they are the masters of their own learning, pursuing what they need and what interests them.

Many adults also learn and develop in this way, though not always with the same self-discipline! I have seen first hand the need for different approaches to children (by parents and educators) and this motivates me to read /observe /research /discuss… and learn effectively. My father has a keen interest in particular aspects of history and chooses to pursue this interest by gathering information and increasing his own knowledge.

However, whilst we were successful academically (in the accepted sense) during our years of formal learning - it did not rival what we achieved beforehand or have achieved since. If learning can be such a joy, why was it not for all those years? I recall long periods of boredom and frustration; I recall lessons that gave us such a poor grasp of the subject in hand, that the grasp was soon lost.

Recently, I chose to attend a seminar on 'motivation in the classroom' at the British Education Show. The speaker was Ian Gilbert (who runs a company called Independent Thinking) and he put it succinctly, children (in fact all learners) need to know 'what is in it for me?' ' We need to know the "why" before the "how" is even relevant'. Children have proved that they learn actively before they ever set foot inside a classroom, and yet when they get there they are usually given passive roles. It is a little like setting a television on standby. Learning is not a receptive task; it is active, pro-active even. Yet, if they are able to see or feel a need for something; if they have a personal interest in something; or if they just want the challenge; they have the "why" and are ready to learn actively. Children spend far more of their lives outside of school, out in the 'real world', and they deserve to see that what they do is realistic, relevant and necessary. The motivation is then intrinsic and the "how", the learning itself, actually means something and can be absorbing.


Responsibility, independence and choice are essential for effective and enjoyable learning. Teachers do not need to give up all control in order to share some with the children. In fact, the respect they may then gain can make the arrangement even more effective.

A relaxed and lively atmosphere is helpful; and not the risky hindrance many believe. Similarly, children, in fact, rarely waste time and play. Let's trust them more and pressure them less.

We live in a world which requires literacy, numeracy and, increasingly, computer skills. Therefore, we need to allow children to see the real need for these skills and support them in gaining these skills at their own, individual paces.

If teachers always expect particular outcomes and impose these on children, then they are limiting imagination and creativity greatly. Furthermore, they are weakening self-esteem and encouraging fear of failure. How much more driven might children be if they believe that "anything is possible"? How much more successful will their learning be if they see failure simply as an outcome, rather than as a problem, or a weakness?

The subtleties of teachers' (and all adults') language (including body language) are important. If we show children that we believe in them, and their abilities, then they are encouraged to believe in themselves. Being extra positive about what a child might achieve can change what we believed to be realistic for them. Let's not label them, and prevent them from change. Let's encourage them to appreciate where they are now and get excited about where they can go if they choose. We can support them all they ask. We are also models for the children. They observe us more closely than we tend to remember. For example, that they will notice if we treat our colleagues differently from the way we encourage them to treat each other. Or if we do not believe in ourselves the way we hope they will believe in themselves.

Children need other vital skills, which, in my experience, are often neglected. We need to actively encourage, and give time for, work on social relationships, teamwork and co-operation, concentration skills, independence and self-esteem, empathy and understanding… More than just a few minutes circle time once a week, or a group task with no real purpose and which the children are not able to follow through. For example, I encourage children to work together and help each other. Both parties benefit, no matter what their respective ages may be.

Each of us is different, in terms of our learning styles, as well as our strengths and talents. A child who has a particular empathy for others should be celebrated and encouraged as much as a child who excels in Mathematics. Achievement on canvas and looking after the school vegetable patch deserve the same praise as a piece of writing. All these skills are important in 'the outside world'. Furthermore, allowing for different learning styles might mean that one child opts to present a topic he/she has researched through artwork or oral narration, while another might present it in writing. Being proficient in all methods is desirable, but opportunities for personal choice aid effectiveness, motivation and enjoyment.

When I think about how much children and young people are required to sit still for their learning, I consider how it feels sitting in a cramped economy class aeroplane seat for hours. It feels unnatural and uncomfortable. We are even told that it is bad for us. As I have sat at the computer typing this statement, I have been free to get a drink, or go to the bathroom or simply to get up and move around when I have needed to. Nobody told me when I should do these things, I just knew when I needed to and was then able to return to the computer and continue working.

I often consider how tongue-tied children are required to be. How to 'get children to be quiet' is a big issue in schools. However, aren't we expecting too much? If we continually ask children to suppress their urges to speak, they are bound to (and do) 'fail' on a regular basis. Of course, there are times when it is appropriate to stay quiet, e.g. school assemblies, but if we also order them to eat their lunches in silence - a time when there is no obvious need - how can children be expected to appreciate the really important times? Let's be more realistic on this one. And, let's let them ask questions!

I have really enjoyed writing this statement. I can see the need for what I believe; and I have hope that it is possible. This is what all children should be experiencing in their learning. I have felt the exhaustion, frustration and despair of trying to push children to "learn to swim against the tide", trying to force them to learn in unnatural ways. I hope for something different."

These thoughts come from a lady called Victoria Berridge who is a Primary School Teacher but now works as an educational presenter for Positively MAD, a company dedicated to making a difference to the next generation.

What are your thoughts on education? Please sent us, if interested.