One of the things I tend to ask prospective teachers when they come for interview is what they think education is for, or what’s its purpose. It tends to stump most people, a bit like when people ask you about your favourite books, and then you suddenly can’t think of a single one. I don’t mind what people say – social mobility, the passing on of a cultural literacy, preparation for the world of work – I just mind that people have spent a little time thinking about it. Otherwise, we’re just cogs in a machine, following the next lesson in the scheme of work, right? Some teachers talk about how much they enjoy working with children and young adults, which seems to be a pre-requisite for the job. I have occasionally worked with people who appeared to actively dislike children, but come to think of it, they disliked adults too.
In terms of the ultimate purpose of education, I’m with Hannah Arendt. Her seminal essay, The Crisis in Education, reads as relevant today as when published in 1954. She argues that we need to educate children in order for them to take responsibility for a world not of their making. We need to bring the world to them, and them to the world.
‘Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.’
Hannah Arendt, The Crisis in Education (1954)
Much has been written about the Pygmalion (or Rosenthal) effect and the power of expectations. The reliably good Tom Sherrington has written about it here, in fact:
It is becoming harder, however, to insist on these high expectations [note, I am not talking about unrealistic expectations]. I have used the following line to parents: ‘please do not ask me to lower the standards I have for your son’, which always goes down well, until a point of tension is reached. Academic challenge becomes ever more strongly linked to stress, anxiety and mental health, with these words and phrases used ever more liberally. Directly in the cross-hairs are standardised assessment and examinations, and the fact these generally give the most reliable measure of student learning is perhaps more than a coincidence. The instant medicalisation of standard negative human emotions is a relatively recent practice, and it seems that one teacher’s high expectations can quickly become another’s unfair application of stress and pressure.
Do we love our children enough to maintain our high expectations, and to encourage them to develop genuine resilience and coping strategies; to work their way through difficult challenge and periods of uncertainty. Or do we love them so much that we rob them of the pleasure to be gained from overcoming challenges, instead seeking to whisk away all obstacles in their path? This mis-characterisation of care does little to help children, and instead becomes a banal ‘arms race’ [often played out on social media] for who can virtue signal their love of children loudest. Hashtags like #kidsdeserveit or #doingitforthekids are good identifiers of a commitment to low expectations.
Expecting more of the children we teach (and ourselves too; we are not immune) is perhaps the ultimate compliment to them. It shows that we believe in them – we know that they can, with our role to help, encourage and support. Making excuses and removing difficult or unpalatable situations will not breed resilience but encourage feebleness and entitlement. it will not ameliorate the concerns of children, but will make them less likely to be able to cope with problems further down the line. Normalising high expectations and effort, and occasional frustration, may do more good in the long run.
One question worth asking yourself is this: when was the last time any pupil reached the end of their schooling and thanked you for making things easy for them, for flattening the obstacles and skirting the challenge? Now compare with those who thanked you for believing in them and pushing them to be as good as you knew they could be.
Not a contest, is it?