A 21st Century Imperative 3: As educators, it is our responsibility to address the developmental needs of the whole child

The trouble with schools is that they just don’t let up for a minute. Apologies for the delay in writing, this is the first time I’ve risen to the surface in almost 4 months. Anyway, onwards with the third part in a six-part series of 21st Century imperatives . . .

The trouble with schools is that we don’t tend to give parity to all aspects of a child’s development. For example, when we see a student having difficulty with a maths problem, we help the child without question. If they are late to class, however, we tend to sanction them. This example highlights two different aspects of a child’s development, but we tend to treat each aspect differently.

In schools we wouldn’t dream of sanctioning a child if they didn’t understand a numerical problem; we recognise that they are still developing their numerical skills and so want to help them. However, in the example above, we fail to recognise that time management, or personal responsibility say, are aspects of a child’s development, just as important as the development of numeracy skills. 

I’m sure there are many arguments that can be put forward which state that numeracy and literacy are far more important than time management or personal responsibility, but I would argue that the uncertain nature of the world today (especially at the moment!) requires young people to develop a wide range of flexible habits just as much as it requires them to be numerate. Employers increasingly in the 21st Century, are looking for a far wider skill set than was expected in the 19th and 20th century. I think we would all agree that we should no longer (as Sir Ken Robinson is fond of saying) be pushing our students through a factory model of education towards a specific end.  

Children constantly make mistakes as they develop. In the last blog, I discussed how important it is for those working with young people to accept that they will make mistakes, be able to take a step back and look for ways to help them overcome these mistakes or errors of judgement. This blog takes this notion one step further and asks that if we accept this, then we must begin to explore possible ways to redesign our school systems, processes, and pedagogy (as well as buildings) to ensure we do give parity to all aspects of a child’s development and fully prepare them for life in the 21st Century.  

If we were to give parity to all aspects of a child’s development as exemplified in the example above, then we were tasked with having to find the space and time to do this within our curriculum offer and create space and time within learning sessions for staff to address various developmental issues. It challenges us to consider ways we can radically change our model of education rather than trying to improve our current model. In other words, we need a paradigm shift.  

This statement challenges the content of our curriculum. It challenges us because like other schools, we do address skills/competencies such as time management or appropriate use of the Internet. However, this is often done in set lessons such as Personal and Social Education, where there is often a ‘tick box’ mentality; we teach certain skills and then as a school turn our back on it on it once it has been taught. One-off lessons don’t work, instead the conditions need to be created where the students will unconsciously be developing skills, knowledge, and behaviours on a daily basis, sometimes this will occur when a student ‘trips up’, but there should be the means to support them, help them up and set on the right path once more.  

Unfortunately, the structure and systems in most schools prevent students from turning skills and good learning behaviours into habits. For example, we timetable students in such a way that it tells them where to go, when to go there and what to do when they get there. By doing this we are forcing them to follow guidelines that give them no opportunity to develop autonomy or the opportunity to act responsibly on their own accord.  

Another example is our blocking of internet sites or banning of phones or other devices in schools. The school should be a safe environment within which students can learn from mistakes. If we can monitor internet usage, we should be spending time educating the students on the moralities behind accessing certain sites, or how to manage distractions more effectively. Out of school parents have little control over what a teenager accesses and the amount of time they are online. As educators, should this not be one of the role/responsibilities we take on in school? (More on this in Part 5)

Schools should be safe secure environments within which young people can make mistakes, be picked up on them and given the opportunity to learn from them. We should allow mistakes to happen rather than putting into place artificial systems (that don’t exist out of school) and blocks that prevent mistakes from happening. 

This is no easy task for the teacher or those running schools. These notions imply that we should give students more freedom to make mistakes rather than restricting their autonomy and thus their learning opportunities. This often raises alarm bells for teachers. “You mean we should be allowing them to climb on the sports centre roof?” they ask incredulously. “There will be chaos!”.  

I would argue that schools; their buildings, structures, systems, and practices are all designed to serve the needs of the staff and the local community before the needs of the students. Our timetabling, bells between lessons, didactic methods of teaching curriculum structure and the lack of collaboration between teachers in the delivery of the curriculum are all designed to control students rather than allow them to become autonomous learners who will make mistakes, but in time develop good habits. 

There are solutions and we’ll explore these in future blogs, for now, I’ll leave you with a few questions to consider with regards to your own or your child’s school:

  • Should the purpose of schools today be different compared to schools fifty years ago?
  • To what extent does your school give parity to all aspects of a child’s development?
  • What are the essential tools to flourish in the 21st century? To what extent does your school address any of these?
  • What habits of learning or skills are the students in your school prevented from learning?
  • As a teacher to what extent do you give students the opportunity to develop their habits of learning alongside their understanding of your subject?  Which is more important?  Why?
  • How does your school reconcile a move towards developing all aspects of a child’s development within a system that is geared towards regurgitating facts in an exam? 
  • In what ways could your school create the time (during learning sessions) to give parity to all aspects of a child’s development?
  • To what extent are pupils (you trust) allowed to fly (i.e. work more independently, possibly separate from the main class)? 
  • To what extent do teachers in your school deliver the curriculum collaboratively?

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