Humanising the Education System

Why does our education system seem to be so poorly adapted for human needs?

Why are schools only judged on academic outcomes when this is a tiny part of what makes us human?

Can we really change the world?  How many teachers really believe in the current system?

What would we consider if we were to start again ?

buck fuller

Educational research appears to be showing us the most efficient ways of teaching, but are we in danger of missing the whole point of education?  Is this the equivalent of tinkering with the engine of a car when the tyres are completely inappropriate for the terrain ahead? 

Currently success is based on how well our young people manage to answer questions sitting alone with a pen, isolated from any technology (how relevant is that to the 21st century?!); for some we say “you are clever” and to others we say “you are not”. In so doing we condemn many to a lifetime of thinking that they are stupid: that’s pretty dehumanising.

In many schools we have lost sight of how lovely it is working with children . There is a great post by HeyMissSmith:

We have lost sight of integration of all types of people. Here is a beautifully written blog by Nancy Gedge” 

Good teachers impart knowledge effectively to their students, but their influence rarely extends beyond their classroom; good teachers have good relationships with most students.  Great teachers inspire for life and this always comes about through personal communication and relationships.  Every outstanding lesson I have seen has an undefinable buzz and feeling of a shared journey: there is a connection between teacher and ALL students that cannot be measured on any inspectors check sheet.

The system theoretically supports this drive for outstanding, but the reality is that it all too often it inhibits it.  Many schools suffer management by spreadsheet, a depersonalised, data driven process that does not take into account the complexities of teaching.  Systems are risk averse – we have no idea how far our students can really go, which is appalling, and surely a wasted opportunity.

“We start out with the intention of making the important measurable, and end up making the measurable important.”   Dylan Wiliam.

There are some amazing things happening in many primary schools, but when the students hit secondary suddenly it becomes serious: it is now all about performance.  The problem with a performance culture is that it tends to leads to only looking at the end result and not the learning.  The most important part becomes sidelined and our students learn little about learning, resilience or independence.  How many very ‘successful’ students have been coached purely to pass exams and only what gets tested gets taught.

A child comes back from a football game. What questions are the parents likely to ask them?

“Did you win?”

“Did you score?”

Suppose the match was lost and they haven’t scored, what value has the game had? With this outlook – nothing, the scenario is entirely negative and for the next game there is a pressure to score and win.

Alternative questions could be:

“did you play well/have fun?”

“what was the score?”

“did they deserve to win?”

“what would you do differently next time?”

These questions focus on the game rather than the result and builds a useful evaluative practice into the child’s life.

Robert Bjork on Learning vs Performance

We can impart knowledge efficiently to achieve an end result such as an exam, but a real success criteria is how much further the students choose to study the subject and how much effect it has on their life.

If we were to construct an education system that was designed for humanity what would we produce?

The starting point should be looking at what we need to be fulfilled: our basic human needs.

We can look at Maslow’s hierarchy (updated for the digital generation) and what this might look like broken down further. What might self-actualisation really mean?


Our fundamental needs can be put under three main headings:

Control – That we feel safe and confident with some sense of order and influence

Humans need to have a some sense of control in aspects of life in order to be happy.  Part of the supposed deterrent of prisons (research is mixed – but certain element of society do love punishment regardless of whether it is effective!) is the total removal of any control the prisoner has.  Sadly many schools have a very similar approach with students, unable to control any aspect of their education.  Then, without irony, we moan that they are not independent.  Some prisoners become habituated and struggle to leave their very ordered world, not surprisingly some students do too.  A teacher at a very high achieving girl’s school was telling me how high the drop out rate was at University – the girls struggled with freedom and self-motivation. 

We also need parts of our world to be certain.  We can’t control others behaviour and this can lead to all sorts of problems of jealousy and unhappiness.  Think how edgy, unpredictable and moody teacher/spouse/sibling can make you feel.  Any teacher who has a class out of control will know how long those few minutes to the end of the lesson can appear to be.  I remember observing a teacher who had ‘lost’ the class and as chaos erupted around her she tidied up the scissors and stationary – here’s something I can control.

In any classroom students need to know how they will be treated by the teacher and classmates.  As a teacher you need to have clear expectations and to apply the rules fairly and consistently (though this is so hard to do!).  One of the reason teachers with weak behavioural management skills are so unpopular is that their classrooms are filled with uncertainty, hence stress.

Routines are very important to give this sense of order, it is probably less important what the routines are than that they are always carried out.  School routines such as line up outside, coats off etc are better than individual teachers creating their own ones.  This depersonalises the rules so there should be no arguments like “Mr Linklater lets us listen to music, why don’t you?”. The ability to respond to the students with ‘the rules say ….’ is undermined massively if this happens.

Every failing school I have worked for has had massive inconsistencies in behaviour management strategies, which led to many unhappy students and behaviour that was out of control at times: every rule was open to negotiation.  Those who applied the rules firmly were seen by the students as ‘harsh’ and having a problem.  **The first step was always to ensure if there was a rule, that it was applied.**

The importance of consistent rules are supported by the broken window theory here.  This states that preventing small crimes such as vandalism, public drinking and toll-jumping helps to create an atmosphere of order and lawfulness, thereby preventing more serious crimes from happening.  Although debate is raging as to whether it is really effective and whether it has caused more harm than good in the US here, it seems to make sense that keeping the little things tight can prevent the big things from happening.  Just because it seems to make sense doesn’t mean its true.  We are not rational beings, although we delude ourselves in thinking that we are. If you are not convinced try this

Teachers with a high reliance on certainty can come across as rigid and control freaks.  Their classrooms may be very ordered, but sometimes their relationships with students can be shallow as they give very little of themselves.  Order is more important than variety which suits some students perfectly, but not others. The importance of autonomy, purpose and mastery are outlined by Dan Pink:

Stimulation – The need for variety, the unknown, change, new stimuli.

Variety is the spice of life, but if there are no elements of certainty present, also potentially a source of stress.  We all need variety in order not to get bored.  However many high achieving students, particularly those who have sussed the system and have no real interest in the learning, simply the exam performance, do not want variety – “can you just teach it to us”.  These are often the Type 1 Gifted and Talented outlined here  On the other hand those sparky and potential troublesome students need variety to keep them interested as they are not motivated purely by exam performance.

Variety people tend to be thrill seeking, now orientated beings not great at long term planning . 

Stimulation is also about growth and improvement.

Variety driven teachers tend to be more chaotic than the certainty driven ones; more likely to take risks and try new ideas.  They are usually the ones we remember from our own school days; they can be inspiring, shocking or a mixture of both.  The rise of spreadsheet management and the homogenising of the teaching profession into OFSTED pleasing performers has been disastrous for many of these impulsive teachers not bound by the rules.

Identity – A sense of self and a place in the community

We need to feel significant: that we have an identity and that we are valuable.  This can be either as an individual or as a  part of a group – proudly being a member of form 4C, or a goth, a gang member, one of a sports team.  Your status may be completely different depending on your environment and the group you are in at the time. Ali who is captain of the rugby team is a god outside your maths classroom and a mass of insecurities in it as he’s horrified he might appear dumb. Chloe the orange girl with the make up and short skirt is queen of her gang and when she is in her form group she is a terrifying. She is a terrorist in Mr Perkins’ science class, but a pussycat in Ms Anichebes’ who knows her very well.

It is important that any school promotes a strong sense of shared and inclusive community and values all students.  Otherwise competing group identities with a strong attraction – You can be one of the bad boys/girls with an expectation that you cause trouble. Gang culture can be very persuasive because you can be a ‘nothing’ in the classroom, but a big deal out of it.

In the classroom the quiet ones are sometimes the missed ones, the ones almost without an in class identity because the teacher doesn’t make any time for them.  In challenging classrooms these hidden students who keep their heads down to prevent being targeted, often feel they have no value and leave school with little sense of self-worth.  Our education system has failed these students but we often didn’t notice (I feel a sense of guilt looking back about some).

Introverts are often underestimated and extroverts overestimated.

Extra curricular trips and clubs are fantastic opportunities for building relationships and learning the identities of those students. These should be promoted as much as possible, but these are in decline within the state sector.

Research indicates that eating together has incredibly positive effects, so this clearly should be a priority; sadly in many schools lunchtimes have been reduced to a brief functional eating activity.

There is strong evidence that when people feel anonymous and not part of a community, that their behaviour deteriorates.  An interesting study on the Lucifer Effect is here with a summary below.

I believe that environmental, societal conditions contribute to making some members of society feel that they are anonymous, that no one in the dominant community knows who they are, that no one recognises their individuality and thus their humanity. When that happens, we contribute to their transformation into potential vandals and assassins–a danger to my person and my property — and to yours. This is particularly so for minority group members who are rendered as “invisible men and women” by the prejudiced attitudes of “in group” members.

Can we change it?

gandhi shake world

If we really want to we can

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