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It’s not what, it’s how

I want to talk about education. I want to talk about it without filter. It might even sound like a bit of a rant, which it is. That is why I want to put it out there to hear other peoples’ responses. I talk about this all of the time with the people close to me but that means I am only really creating an echo chamber. Those around me think similarly to me. It would be good to get a little bit of push back on what I am throwing out there! I am not accusing anybody. I am expressing the way that I feel about education at this present moment in time, and I am urging people to ask some questions. On a side note, I am more than willing to change my position if someone is interested in convincing me otherwise!

We grow up within a certain cultural context and our education system is a direct reflection of how we believe a society should be structured. Children are the future of any country, so the form in which we educate them will dictate how they behave as active adults within society. Us adults are responsible for the way that young people behave in society because essentially, we are the ones that parent them, and send them to schools that have rules and policies imposed by the government that we elect!

I grew up within a certain type of education system. I lived it, and I have talked to some young people who are currently living it. All of the responses are the same and haven’t changed from when I was at school over two decades ago. “How are you going at school?” “Yeah, ok.” “Do you like it?” “Not really.” None of them say that they love school! None of them say they love every subject. None of them talk about it enthusiastically. They speak of it as if it is a chore that they have to do. Is that the way we want our young people to be educated? Remember, within the education system we are setting the ground blocks for the future of these young people.

Have we ever stopped to think about what young people would like from school? We don’t give young people any decision-making power until they are maybe 14 years old. The only decisions that they get to make are what subjects they can take. That’s it. How are young people supposed to excel in this world if up until they are 18, they are given very little opportunity to make decisions for themselves?

We ask the question of why our young boys are lazy and disconnected. Is it any wonder why? We also wonder why young males make stupid decisions. Could it be because they have no experience in making decisions for themselves?

This could be another entire blog but I’ll touch the subject quickly. I have started thinking a lot about young males. For starters, I was one so I can at least speak from experience. I am also working with a lot of young males at the moment and in an environment such as Latin America I can confidently say that males are the source of most societal problems. I don’t blame them because they are growing up within a context that almost gives them no other choice but to be extremely sexist! Everything around them promotes a patriarchal society.

There is also a huge difference between males and females that begins happening around the age of 10 or 11. The maturity gap begins around this time, and one could argue that it never evens out. If it does it won’t be for another 15-20 years. Girls begin to mature much earlier than boys and it is no coincidence that the number of dumb decisions made by young males drastically outnumbers that of young females.

There is some great stuff going on in education. There are some amazing teachers doing some excellent work despite of the system within which they work. I just feel that we could be getting so much more from our young people. There is so much wasted potential happening! Imagine how these young people could fly if we provided the right opportunities.

Let’s have a look at some research. It isn’t exactly specific to education but you will get the gist of where I’m coming from. ‘Self-Determination Theory’ focuses on the degree to which an individual's behaviour is self-motivated and self-determined. In the 1970s, research on SDT evolved from studies comparing the intrinsic and extrinsic motives, and from growing understanding of the dominant role, intrinsic motivation played in an individual's behaviour. The short and tall of it says that people are motivated when the drive comes from within; an internal urge or interest in doing something – intrinsic motivation. Not so much when the drive comes from outside of oneself; an external force such as a reward, or pressure put on by a school or an adult – extrinsic motivation.

Deci and Ryan expanded on the research in SDT. Their idea was that there are three psychological needs that motivate the self to initiate behaviours that are essential for (this part is important!) psychological health and well-being of an individual. These needs are said to be universal, innate and psychological, and include the need for autonomy, competence, and relatedness

  • Autonomy - freedom from external control or influence; independence
  • Competence - the ability to do something successfully or efficiently
  • Relatedness - the state or fact of being related or connected.

I would argue that the young folk of today are not often intrinsically motivated because they are given very little opportunity to be autonomous. I believe the second, competence, is achieved in schools on a daily basis, but it becomes exponentially more relevant and rewarding for a young person if they achieve competence in an area that they have chosen to study! Young people love to engage in the things that they are good at! This is the competence need. They become motivated when they are successful. Just look at the division in the subject area of mathematics. I bet you a million dollars that those who like maths and keep choosing it are better at it than those who don’t.

Let’s look at the last need, relatedness. Relationships are the essential base for all learning. The way that schools focus on intellect instead of social/emotional connection, means that young people today lack the connection tools to be successful learners within social environments. I’m not saying they don’t have the social skills, but if social/emotional connection was the centre of all learning instead of something that is taught on the side, the results would be completely different. For example, if New Zealand placed the Hauora aspect of the curriculum at the centre of learning, the long-term, lasting effects would be massive!

Within our current education environments, there are so many assumptions made on behalf of our children that they want or need the same thing as the society around them is presenting. We make assumptions that we know exactly how the world is going to be when kids of today are at the age of having to think about what they are going to do for work. We treat them as if they don’t have their finger on the pulse and us oldies know better. How arrogant are we? We think that because our experience of having lived the 30 years before them makes us better informed to make decisions on the upcoming future that will have huge implications on the rest of their lives.

Here is an interesting idea. I would argue that young people have a better idea of what is coming than older people do. Us oldies grew up in a time where everything moved slowly. We are finding it extremely difficult adapting to today’s rapidly changing environment. Who are the experts in this fast-paced continually changing world? The young folk!

We as adults think that we know best for kids! It’s true, and in many decisions that we make we are probably right, but the limitations that we place upon our kids can have huge negative psychological consequences. The fact that so many of the decisions made for our children give them no autonomy and are non-negotiable sends a message that any natural instincts that they have are wrong. They are taught to shut down that aspect of their personality and do what everyone else is doing! Conform, and listen to the instructions.

I am not saying that many decisions made for children do not involve concern for their safety and wellbeing, because that is where all decisions made by parents come from. They come from a place of love and want for that child to have the best life possible. What I am saying is that if there is no trust given or displayed to a child, then they grow up understanding that their ideas are not valued. The most important factor in the child’s positive development, are the relationships to those closest to them. How are healthy relationships created? Through trust and confidence. If most of the decisions in that child’s life are made for them and are non-negotiable, then that relationship can’t be built on trust. It is built on obedience.

When relationships are built on trust, you can come to a consensus with the child. You don’t have to order them to do something. You want your relationship with the dog to be built on obedience, but your relationship with your kids has to be built on mutual respect.

There is something wrong with the education system. We need to pivot the focus away from the intellect, to honing in on the positive development of social and emotional humans. The majority of education systems are still based on what we teach children. We focus on intellect. I would argue that it doesn’t matter what you teach a child, but how! If we focus on what we teach children, then we are forgetting what it is to be a social and emotional human. We are not robots. We do not learn by the processing of information. We have social and emotional needs and they are directly linked to the way we learn. If a child is stressed or is being taught by a teacher who they don’t trust or do not have a good relationship with, it doesn’t matter what you teach them, they will not learn it!

I don’t like the word ‘teach’. If we ‘teach’, there is a hierarchy in the teacher/student relationship. It means that the teacher knows more than the student and they have to teach that child. Let’s look at another approach. What would happen if ‘as teachers’ we dropped our level to that of the child? Instead of standing in front of the class and presenting information at the children, we could sit beside the children and learn together as part of a process. When you are standing in front of a child or a class of children, what is your perspective? You are at a different altitude, and you are looking in the opposite direction. Why not sit beside the children at the same level and look in the same direction. How do children feel in those two examples?

I can tell you. I child who is taught to, and spoken down to, does not have an equal amount of power in that relationship. That child does not feel empowered and does not feel as though they are respected or trusted. They enter into conformity mode and take on the position of a static absorber of information. There is no autonomy or a focus on a healthy relationship between the two parties. In the other situation, the facilitator has the same perspective as the child! There is an equal sense of power, which has a massive impact on the child’s confidence. The child feels respected and trusted. Respect and trust are fundamental in not only relationships but are also the building blocks upon which the learning process is constructed!