Thursday, 20 April 2017

When did we standardise childhood?

When did childhood become standardised and why have we blindly followed?

I am as guilty as any of teaching in the way that I thought children learned best.  I have always considered myself to be a good teacher…but my definition of a good teacher is changing, and thankfully so am I.  I don’t in fact believe we ever stop changing, but I have certainly changed direction and thankfully the destination is a hell of a lot more appealing to me.

So often I hear arguments against play…how will they learn? how will we fit everything in? Oh but children love routine and play is unknown.  How will we know what they are learning, how will we assess it?  Oh but we have too much else to do.

We also have a system that has set parents up to believe that academic achievement and extension is of paramount importance…these parents don’t want to see their children just playing.  Play is frivolous isn't it?  Come on, they don’t go to school to play, do your job, teach them!  I don't want them to waste time playing.

To me these arguments and so many like them are an argument against childhood.  They are the arguments of the entrenched, the arguments of the indoctrinated, the arguments of those like me that thought they were doing a good job.  I feel I am qualified to say this as these were the arguments (along with many others) I have made in the past.

Over the past few years I have been on a journey of discovery.  This discovery has led me to an amazingly simple place…a place that accepts children like all mammals learn best through play.  Not play we create, not simply a choice of activities, but true self-directed magical play.  Play where children negotiate, problem solve, develop empathy and kindness, where they teach each other much more than we could teach them…where they learn.  Don’t get me wrong this is an incredibly simplistic statement that actually carries far more depth when actualised.

This journey has also led me to an interesting place, a place where I realise that I have done a disservice to those children I have taught…not because my class wasn't engaging, fun, imaginative or creative, because it has been…but because along the way I forgot I was teaching children, not mini adults.

I, like many have become a slave to this idea we can standardise childhood.  That children can and should be attaining levels of academic of achievement at a certain age and if they are not, they are failing and are not at all ‘standard.’  We then strive to make them standard.  Why?  Because we are told to, because we are led to believe that if they don’t reach a certain standard at a certain time they have failed, we have failed and that they will spend many years catching up…and may never do so.  The mere fact that at six we are supposed to give them reading recovery now sends shivers up my spine, the insinuation that because they are struggling to read that this is something they need to recover from?  I call foul on the implication that this is the best and only way to help them, or that they even need our help so early on.

I scoffed at home schooling friends…I was perplexed by the concept of un-schooling.  Yes I am quite opinionated.  To be honest these things confused me, they went against the ‘standardised’ environment I was used to.  My class was a happy place, children loved school…I was doing a good job wasn't I?  My school still embraced fun, children were talked to, they had voice…why would these people choose not to send their child to school.  They were the ones in the wrong…weren’t they?

I have since discovered that children don’t need me to lead them into learning.  They are wired to learn through play.  Through play they develop cognitive and social skills that allow them to be well rounded resilient human beings.  The type of human beings we need in this world.  The sad reality is that the growing level of mental health issues in our country, the upsurge in conditions that require medication can all be linked back to a lack of play.  What government would continue to pursue and push such a system, why would you want that for our children?

In fact children don't need me to lead them, but they still need me to be there, to be part of the play, to sit alongside, to coach if needed…to just spend time getting to know them and offering them the learning they need when they need it.  I am still important in the process, I can still lead the play at times in the day, if I want to…and I do, I lead it into the wonderfully imaginative world I call Number Agents.  I lead them through drama and puppets, I lead them into a magical world of superheroes and villains…and in turn they lead me, it is this lovely reciprocal bubble of awesomeness that I call learning. 

This journey has come to an interesting place for me.  As a teaching Principal I am still very aware that my staff and I have to comply with the certain things expected of us.  We have to report on standards that mean nothing, we have to use these horrible labels with parents like ‘below’ yuck!  We have to test in order to be able to make accurate judgements…or do we?  Or are we just passively accepting that we do?

This year I am all about discovering even more creative ways I can work within a very flawed system without harming ‘my’ children.  I call them 'my' children, because for the six years they are in my care, they deserve me to hold them to that degree of importance.

I believe that Finland has it nailed and that while our government slowly (if ever) makes its way to listen to those that actually understand children, I can work on bringing  a lot of Finland to my school.  I can advocate for play.  We can continue to embrace play-based learning.  We can embrace disobedient thinkers through Mantle of the Expert and drama.  We can and have gotten rid of most ‘tests.’  We can use the absolute bare minimum of ‘standard’ or ‘formal’ assessments to gain enough evidence to back what we already know about our children.  Does this mean we wont be ‘assessing’ children.  Of course not…but do they really need to know we are doing it.  Is it possible that these assessments can just become a natural part of what happens, that they don’t pose a threat, that they do not create anxiety.  Maybe I can tweak our reports and rather than using below as we are required to do,  I can say ‘not quite there yet.’  It just seems so at odds for me to be embracing a new freedom in teaching and learning, to embrace growth mindset teaching etc and then use such arbitrary, cold statements.  I think that it is entirely possible that we can work within the system and create our own little piece of Finland, where the most important thing is that children are happy.

The question however, is why should we have to, why should we have to work within this flawed system when we have the most amazing curriculum?  

Join me on this journey.  Be disobedient.  Be brave for the sake of our children, so that they can truly develop self-awareness and be well rounded human beings that will make a positive impact on our world and in turn will allow their children the very basic right of free play.

Below are three videos I consider a must watch!

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