Category Archives: Anxiety

Schools and Freedom of Speech

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Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions

David Hume

Try as we might to be rational beings, devoid of emotions, especially in times of crisis it is in times of crisis when we can’t help but notice we are nothing of the sort. When we experience visceral reactions to events we often give words to our feelings and we shout out into the void. Such has been the temerity of recent events to upset our proverbial apple carts that we can’t help running around, picking up those metaphorical apples, only to see them roll further from us and the few we have clutched to our bosom look lonely in comparison, so we shout. Our beliefs, traditions, certainties guide us in the best of times, these beliefs are not the result of reasoned argument, rather they are the result of custom. Those of a rational bent might say that this is a bad thing but I would argue it is a positive. Positive because it retains as central to the human condition a healthy dose of doubt although we might forever ignore this fact feeling. Rather than use reason to defend our feelings, use it, when we can, as the slave to our deep seated uncertainties. Feelings and reason, side by side, with feelings the ‘master’ and reason the ‘slave’; we feel wronged, but have we been, we feel on top of the world, but should we?

When beliefs are challenged, when certainties are taken from us we become fearful, tearful, angry, depressed… and it is at moments like this when instead of being most sure that we are the only righteous ones in the world and everyone else is mad, bad and dangerous to know, we should be at our most doubtful. As I look around for ‘I told you so…’ justifications for my thoughts, evidence that I was right and you were wrong, so that my conscience may be salved, I should do so with underlying doubt. When circumstances change we have to examine our outlook in response.

Those of a liberal disposition who have spent the last few years in the ascendancy, changing the world economically and socially to be more individualistic, global, connected, tolerant, competitive, creative are having to come face to face with the idea of nationhood, nationalism, community, intolerance, the desire to disconnect, the downside of competition: areas where optimism might fear to tread, and it’s a shock. Some people who last week were castigating other people for a lack of optimism are the pessimists now.

Should they be? Why not? It would be dishonest to their feelings to be anything but. Yet, if custom is to be our guide, there are positives – firstly principles: this is a time to reexamine and make positive changes – witness our two political parties reacting to their gut instincts – time for change that restates what their parties might be for and the pursuit of power in a democracy. That this is occurring now should be no surprise and is an essential part of making things better. A general election ought to follow. A liberal party and, maybe, other parties of the centre need to strengthen if our two main parties veer to left and right, why? Custom: we need the centre.

Look at the large global companies, countries, organisations that have moved beyond the human scale and look to how some of these big brands have delighted in being ‘disruptors’ for the communities they have long since lost touch with, desiring instead to be part of an almost bizarre homogenous, idealistic, utopian, cosmopolitanism in which all people can live in a non-multi-cultural space in which diversity is to be celebrated by all wearing pastel colours, drinking Starbucks, connecting via Apple, driving a Volkswagen, wearing Nike, and supporting Manchester United; diverse under the same or similar branded umbrella. This vision of liberalism became far from liberal, intolerant of diversity it sought to impose a happy-clappy utopia onto the world. Now liberalism is in danger of losing its grip entirely maybe it is time to reject this pseudo-liberalism and replace it with the real thing.

Schools can be part of a solution, by returning to first principles and rather than trying to ‘disrupt’ themselves they should concentrate on what they do best and provide stability in troubled times. Schools should be building links with community, nation and nations, and instead of a tick box pursuit of liberal idealism where nobody is right wing, racist, sexist, or homophobic, where all things intersect and victimhood takes centre stage, where intolerance of intolerance is in danger of closing down debate and where ‘western’ means all things bad, we need our feelings to guide us and have them brought out into the open.

And then what? Blood on the walls? Reason must counteract – argument and debate – patient, well argued, well thought through and, yes, emotional too. For too long we have tried to deny some voices and then recoil in horror when they shout and we resort to the most extreme measures to shut them up, and so we should… As Aditya Chakrabortty  points out racist belligerence, boorishness and downright dangerous viciousness can be encouraged when “cabinet ministers, party leaders and prime-ministerial wannabes sprinkle arguments with racist poison. When intolerance is not only tolerated, but indulged and encouraged.” This needs to be stamped upon as it has been in the past, let custom be our guide – draw on the cry from The Battle of Cable Street: ‘They shall not pass’ and resist with every sinew. But might it be better to also challenge these thoughts at their root rather than just relying on suppressing them when it is almost too late?

When I was at school I had a friend who was proud of his National Front views, he would air them regularly, even to his friends who were black. Instead of no-platforming him, we played, talked, debated with him, told him he was an idiot, got angry, argued and continued over time so to do. We didn’t think it through, this was no co-ordinated plan, we had no idea there was such a thing as ‘no-platforming’, we were just kids, trying to make sense of a complex world. It worked… well, by worked, I mean he changed from being a fascist to becoming a sweet, loving, anarchist hippy/punk type; whatever floats your boat maaaaaan.

In schools, voices should not be shut up – for this is where debate is of most urgent importance, because these children are makers of the future and it is within them that solutions need to be found. This is not easy but it is an essential part of strengthening a consensual democracy. Space needs to be found for arguments to be exposed and not shut away so that feelings turn into simmering resentment and airing of reactionary thoughts retreat back into the safe space of home or group. Our institutions need to encompass real difference, not become ‘safe spaces’ for those who all agree. We need unsafe spaces – not dangerous spaces but spaces where confrontation and debate can take place and instead of intimidating people on trams, at bus stops, and through Naziesque propaganda, the challenge to these, what I consider, abhorrent ideas needs to happen not from a position of shocked defence but one of engaged attack.

All should understand that a muscular liberalism can assert ‘moral truths’ about conduct, that violence and bullying is wrong and that this might include grey areas but if in a school election there is a fascist candidate let them stand and face the arguments and maybe, even, vitriol from their peers. Let them feel it. Liberal democracy needs voices, it is consensual not through physical violence, nor from the violence of excluding people from that debate, but from the  agreed position that freedom of speech is one of its central tenets. Abhorrent views need to be challenged in the open and not just dismissed as ‘wrong’ and closed down.

It is customary to say that free speech is sacrosanct, do the customs of your school have that enshrined? Teach kids to argue and debate about stuff and get them busy strengthening their community so that they can reach out to each other, to the future and to the world with ‘an open hand’ rather than, later, with a closed fist.

 

 

 

Is Dance as Important as Maths?

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This morning I attended a talk given by Sir Ken Robinson in which he argued that the discipline of dance was as important as that of maths. Now, let me nail my colours to the mast, I also believe that every school should teach the arts as well as maths, humanities, languages, sciences, design etc. I also believe that if you were to narrow the curriculum down by taking away one of those areas you would be doing harm to the education of children. That is because I believe education is an enquiry into what it is to be human and is an essential part of our pursuit of wisdom. If schooling was a purely utilitarian pursuit then one could argue maths was more important than dance but I believe that would be to demean the experience of our common pursuit.

In his talk and the Q&A after, which featured just one question from the audience, Robinson (no relation) seemed rather subdued, however he was at his most enthusiastic when he talked about Bertrand Russell and his enthusiasm for Calculus and how it lit up Russell’s life and I am glad he emphasised this because the subject maths can inspire pupils just as much as dance can put them off.

Overall his talk left me with various points of real disagreement:

He extolled the virtues of a dance education whilst dismissing the teach to the test approach of modern education.

He implied that dance and the arts were creative outlets.

He worried about the amount of anxiety caused by our system.

He thought dance could engage and motivate.

He believes that children learn lots and then they go to school and they cease to learn as well, the implication being that formal education ‘kills’ learning and not just creativity.

He thought that we could do away with tests, the curriculum, but we should never do away with good teachers.

He was concerned about the environment.

Robinson is absolutely right when he says that for the child their time in the classroom and in the school is the education system and that teachers and headteachers have a lot of power over how the system is experienced by those who are meant to most benefit from it but let’s look at some of his other assumptions.

Robinson  talked about dance as though it was intrinsically good for the child yet in the next breath he is arguing against teaching to the test. A lot of dance education in this country is precisely about teaching to the test, whether it is ballet or contemporary there are dance exams in much the same way as there are piano exams – the pupil is graded. Beyond that there are performances to rehearse which are as exacting as any test, if not more so as any error is not seen by one person but by an entire audience and you can’t put a line through your mistake and put the correct thing next to it.

This brings me to the idea that dance is inherently creative. Is it? It might be creative for the choreographer, but in much dance it is the strictest form of rote learning imaginable to humankind. This learning by numbers involves your entire physical, mental, emotional self in obeying a set of moves in time, maybe Robinson would prefer more ‘free-form’ dance but his examples included some extraordinarily disciplined approaches to the art, which is all to the good, but he uses an industrial metaphor and, maybe, some dance is quite industrial I wonder if he has a view as to whether this form of dance is a bad thing?

Robinson said he was worried about anxiety, depression and other forms of mental health issues which are affecting the young. Now there is evidence that dancing can ‘lift the mood’, however there is also evidence that dance can breed anxiety, eating disorders, affect body image, cause physical problems, historically, en pointe was particularly problematic for younger dancers, and there used to be a cliché that dancers smoked rather than ate. Performance anxiety is part of the performing arts experience, and stage fright is a known problem for quite a few performers.

Dance can engage and motivate people who like dance and by teaching it more people can find that engagement within them, however, there will be some, perhaps many, who will look at dance on their timetable with sheer horror, perhaps more than there would be for maths, I don’t know… What I do know is that any subject on the curriculum will have their share of those who don’t like the subject as much as they do other subjects even to the point of being demotivated and disengaged.

If children stop learning as much when they go to school and if this is a feature of formal education then Robinson should go the whole hog and suggest that we ban schools as they clearly have it wrong. Yet he says he supports teachers and schools but, actually, do they stop kids from learning, I doubt it. I would like to see a comparison between those who have formal schooling, in which I include home-education, and those who are left to fend for themselves. I expect those who receive some sort of formal* guidance do a lot better in terms of learning than those who have none.

My biggest disagreement came with his idea that we could do away with curricula and tests and that all we need is ‘good teachers’. This, I think, is one of the biggest problems in our current education environment, the idea that outstanding teaching is all we need. We need to accept that not all teachers are as good as other teachers and never will be. Even if all teachers were equally as brilliant to rely on them putting together ‘outstanding’ lessons all the time to prove how good they are would be a disaster. Our obsession with teachers as outstanding, the tips, gimmicks and tricks approach to short term lesson planning that comes from thinking that the teacher is more important than the curriculum has been a disaster. Ofsted has a lot to answer for. I believe the curriculum is far more important than the teacher. The curriculum can be designed and stand the test of time, encompass the pedagogical approach of a department and help make teachers more effective and, indeed, more likely to be good. Without the curriculum, well, you have nothing – no thing to teach. It is by being a drama teacher, outside of the national curriculum, that has made me most aware of this. Good curriculum design is central to good teaching and learning. If by testing we mean regular checks on what has been learnt and how it is being articulated then we are learning from the arts rather than against them. Good arts teaching is constantly checking to see how pupils have understood what they have been taught.

Yes Ken, dance is as important as Maths in a broad curriculum but I’m not sure that if we follow the logic of your arguments through that you are making as clear a case for ‘creative schools’ as many seem to think. I would go so far as to say that much arts teaching is extraordinarily traditional in many ways; highly disciplined, lots of whole class teaching, following a classical or very structured curriculum with ‘great’ set works, and testing the artist in very public ways by sharing their work regularly with a critical audience and examiners. If we can agree on this then I believe that schools based on an arts model will be very different to what many consider a creative model of educating to be, and that though I think play, as your Persil campaign puts it, and creativity is an important part of that model it is not the whole story by any means.

Which brings me to your mention of the environment, is Persil environmentally friendly nowadays?

 

Maybe Scream! Anxiety and the Young…

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Natasha Devon, the Government’s ex Mental Health ‘Tsar’ said recently that: “Time and time again over recent years young people – and the people who teach them – have spoken out about how a rigorous culture of testing and academic pressure is detrimental to their mental health… Anxiety is the fastest growing illness in under 21s. These things are not a coincidence.”

These things are not a coincidence…

Maybe they are a coincidence; maybe they’re not. What they are, of course, is a convenient narrative, and perhaps testing and academic pressure is part of the problem but other things could be too.

In this piece Annie Murphy-Paul points to research that our ‘Smart-phones’ might be making us miserable, she concludes:

“A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind… While it’s true that our minds seem naturally inclined to wander, our technological devices make the problem considerably worse. You’ll be happier if you focus on what you’re doing right here, right now—and that means putting your phone away whenever possible.”

That smart-phone usage has increased over the past twenty years (from 0%) and especially for younger people I could say:  “Anxiety is the fastest growing illness in under 21s: these things are not a coincidence.” In fact, it says ‘technological devices’ – maybe all computers, tablets, games etc??!!!? “Anxiety is the fastest growing illness in under 21s: these things are not a coincidence.”

Other things might add to anxiety, group work and behaviour add to teenage resentment according to an article in Education Week, maybe this sort of practice has increased over the past few years? “Anxiety is the fastest growing illness in under 21s: these things are not a coincidence.”

Maybe anxiety is increasing because of identity politics and the “intense debate about trigger warnings, a term that is 20 years old“?

Maybe the whole twenty-first century skills dogma is causing anxiety? Telling children they have to prepare for jobs that don’t yet exist is not exactly comforting… In a competitive world, where we are told that robots will take even middle class jobs! And they will have to compete with people who will work harder, for less, and that the halcyon days of workers’ rights might be over as bosses look to exploit their workforce

In the future, we are told, our children will have to study on and on to accrue qualifications and work until they are eighty years old and will never be able to afford a house in which to live so will be forever renting and sharing… That our kids are informed that they won’t be able to have a loving relationship that lasts a lifetime, that sugar is killing them, that antibiotics are failing to work, that airplanes will fall from the sky and people will kill them in concerts, on holiday, at football matches… 24/7 media tells them incessantly,  with more lurid headlines that vie for attention on paper and online…

Or maybe Cultural relativism stresses children out: ‘Hey, there is no truth, your opinion is equally valid to mine…’ Maybe when they have all the information in the world (mediated by large West-Coast global conglomerates) at their finger tips, ask a question and get millions of replies then that is stressful…

Maybe when many of the replies they get are sponsored but, hey, an advert is equally valid to a critical text written by an undercover journalist with a left wing axe to grind…

And, how many adverts do they see, do ‘we’ see, every day? Buy this, believe in this, you too can look like this… And ads pop up, pop up, pop up, stop you reading the clickbait, clickbait, clickbait and pop up, pop up, pop up…

And social media where all your friends are doing better than you, looking better than you, having more fun than you, exist in sunnier days than you…

And classrooms where all the ‘short term attention spans’ are catered for, speed up, be fast, lots of busy activities, they can’t concentrate for long so don’t help them learn to…

And parents who, terrified that every adult left alone with their child is a paedophile, so insist on accompanying their children every step of the way, whilst informing them… “When I was your age I was out in the fields all day, playing on my own or with mates and I was never touched up by a TV personality, priest or politician, though I was offered sweets once by a retired Scout Master…”

And parents whose work/life balance is so askew that they are constantly on call to work, knowing a slip up or two might mean the sack, must reply to this email, oh and this one, and this text, sorry love can’t play today…

AND that BREXIT is a ‘high-risk bet for our children

“Anxiety is the fastest growing illness in under 21s: these things are not a coincidence.”

Maybe we all need to slow down, take a deep breath, and think – if it’s true that anxiety is on the increase in the young, maybe some things are a coincidence and somethings may not be, however there are things over which we have power to do something about in our classrooms and in our homes today, but will we? Or do we want the narrative to affirm our already held beliefs and prejudices, after all, ‘there is no truth’…

What should we do? What can we do? What will we do?