Why am I this and not that?

A favourite joke of mine is Emo Phillips’ discussion of divisions. This must apply to every group that’s ever been…

I was walking across a bridge one day when I saw a man standing on the edge about to jump. So I ran over – “Stop! Don’t do it, there’s so much to live for” I pleaded.  “Like what?” he said.  “Well, are you religious or atheist?”  “Religious,” he said. “Me too! Are you Christian, Jewish, Muslim…?”  “Christian,” he said. “Me too! Protestant or Catholic?”  “Protestant,” he said. “Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?”   “Baptist,” he said.  “Wow, me too! Are you Baptist church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?” “Baptist Church of God” he said. “Me too! Are you original Baptist Church of God or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?”  “Reformed Baptist Church of God!” he said. “Me too! Amazing! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?”  He said, ” Reformation of 1915.”  So I said  “Die, heretic scum!” and  pushed him off the bridge.

Whilst it is clearly the case that we define ourselves partly by what we are not (“I never read the Murdoch press”,  “I wouldn’t support Man U if you paid me” etc etc), this can appear ludicrous. I’ve often felt that our constructed tribal loyalties, now that they have little to do with survival, are expressions of an emptiness in our sense of identity.

As educators are we not sometimes culpable of reinforcing these divisions. When we thoughtlessly teach about “different cultures” and emphasise the differences before exploring what is similar, we are chipping away at our common humanity. The consequence of this is to create barriers to empathy, the impulse to understand what it means to stand in someone else’s shoes.

I appreciate Malcolm X had a different perspective – in the heat of the Civil Rights movement he sought to emphasise not the common humanity espoused by Martin Luther King, but the separateness of races. But I wonder whether he would remain of that view today… there is far greater genetic variation (about 94%)within so-called racial groups than between conventional racial groupings (about 6%).

As Gary Younge succinctly put it in his marvellous book Who are we …“In short, we are much more alike than we are unalike.” So do we really need to spend so much defining ourselves by what we are not?


Tackle adversity with your students – they will surprise you

  • Sensitive issues and children

With the very best of intentions, my family decided that I should not attend my mother’s funeral, who died when I was 10. The thinking was that the distress would outweigh the benefits of being present. This was in the early 70’s and no doubt attitudes have changed since then, but from my point of view, this was the worst possible decision. My family sought the best for me, but I was more resilient than they feared and suffered for a long time from not having been able to take part in that mourning ritual.

This may have informed my attitude to talking about sensitive and potentially upsetting matters with our students.

“Australian children are being terrified by climate change lessons” warned the dramatic headline in the Sydney Daily Telegraph.

Whilst this article undoubtedly forms part of the barrage of climate change scepticism, it raises an important issue that educators need to address. The notion that children need to be protected from the adult world is commonly held. They are seen as by some as “vulnerable dependents”, in a state of innocence, who should remain untouched by the difficult and frightening challenges of the real world.

I appreciate that not all teachers or parents share this view. As Alice Bell has written, children’s relationship to science learning is complex. But there is a significant proportion of educators who believe that children of primary school age need to be protected in order that they can flourish.

I believe this is fundamentally misguided. The impulse comes from good motives, but it does a disservice to pupils and their development. Children’s concerns are not addressed by failing to deal with them, by sweeping them under the carpet. Those concerns are better addressed by tackling the fears head on, with sensitivity of course, but ultimately with a message of hope. And there is always a hopeful message that can be found.

  • The lesson of paperclips

The most inspiring example I have seen recently is in the film “Paperclips”, which documents the true story of teachers in a high school in rural Tennessee, who taught a topic on the Holocaust. They wanted to tackle the broad issue of diversity and intolerance in a community that was overwhelmingly white, Anglo Saxon and Protestant.

Early on, a student asked what 6 million Jewish victims meant, because he couldn’t conceive of such a number. After self organised research, the pupils decided to collect 6 million paperclips to represent the victims (inspired by Norwegians during the war, who had worn paperclips as a silent protest against the Nazis).

You need to watch the film to get a sense of the power of the learning that took place. But one incident stood out for me. An American soldier present at the liberation of the Mauthausen concentration camp, came across an emaciated girl there with beautiful eyes, appearing perhaps more striking because she was so thin. She made contact with him, kissed his hands and told her his name.

The soldier was moved, went off to complete his duties and returned an hour later to learn that the girl had died. He kept this incident to himself, unable to speak of it even to his wife or children, but when he learned of the school in Whitwell, Tennessee who were collecting paperclips he sent them one in memory of the girl and wrote to them of the incident.

The wonderful, uplifting thing was, as he told the filmmakers, that he imagined that the girl’s soul or an essence of her anyway, was not left alone in an Austrian concentration camp, but had been adopted and laid to rest, to be tended by caring school children who honoured her.

Out of the ashes of the Holocaust with its unspeakable inhumanity rose something good, hopeful, nurturing, beautiful even. Out of the most evil smelling shitheap, things can grow.

If we are capable of finding a message of hope and optimism out of the Holocaust, surely we can do the same with other challenges we currently face. First though, we need to have faith in our pupils to handle it.

Recasting the Golden Rule – Global Citizenship

  • The Golden Rule

Great rule of thumb – just it’s so trite, especially when said in that slightly patronising way teachers reserve for their pet pocket beliefs…”Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself”.

Or you can put it negatively: “Don’t treat others in ways that you would not like to be treated”.

These ideas, or variations on them, are found in belief systems across the world and throughout the ages: Ancient Babylon, Greece, Egypt and China; Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Baha’i, Hinduism, Confucianism, Jainism, Sikhism… Everybody espouses the Golden Rule as central to harmonious living – a building block for a functioning society.

  • Let’s recast it

But…the person deciding what is or isn’t ok is “you”.

What if the rule stated: “Treat others as THEY want to be treated”. 

Just consider the subtle but crucial difference between that and the injunction to treat others as you want to be treated.

There’s a potential problem, as Moira (@globaldimension) perfectly reasonably pointed out, namely that there is a risk of huge assumptions being made about how others want to be treated. My answer is simply – then you’d have to work a little to find out how others did want to be treated. Ask them. They would be required to do the same to you.

  • Your favourite aunt

Imagine for a moment going to the home of your favourite elderly aunt, living on her own in her spotless home. When you visit, whose rules do you abide by? Hers, obviously. You mind your language, behave politely, take care not to put your feet on the sofa. Not because that is how you want to be treated in your home (you may not care about those things), but because you are treating your aunt as SHE wants to be treated.

Why can’t we show exactly the same repect and courtesy to everyone (sadists and psychopaths excepted)? We would not be obliged to act identically to others, but we would need to take their views into account when choosing ourselves how to act. This does not in any way prohibit disagreement, but it probably does proscribe the way that disagreement is expressed. Might this not provide a step forward in terms of multicultural understanding and cooperative living?

What do you think? What have I not thought through?

This idea was brought to my attention by my brilliant colleague Mary Young, having heard it said by Jane Elliot ( of the famous blue eyes/brown eyes experiments in schools).

Miserable but safe…We can do better by our children

The  joke, usually with Jewish mother as protagonist, goes something like this…

Mother and child on the beach. “Put on your hat…Let me put on more suncream on your arms…and legs…Watch out for the hot sand…But don’t catch a chill…Come here…Now! Look,you nearly fell in the sea…not with that boy, he’s dirty…The sun’s too hot, come under the shade…Cover yourself…not like that, like this…Now go and play”

 “Oi”, she observes to her beach neighbour as her son totters away, “such a nervous child!”

  • Elf ‘n safety

Are we not doing something similar to our children as we watch anxiously over them and determine with iron certainty what is or isn’t good for them? Two apparently unrelated articles in the Guardian caught my eye.  Both go to the question about what it is appropriate for children to contemplate in educational settings. What is it ok to teach about and what is beyond the pale?

 In Tim Gill’s article “The end of zero risk in childhood”   he cites the  head of the Health and Safety Executive, Judith Hackitt :

the creeping culture of risk aversion puts at risk children’s preparation for adult life“.

A combination of factors – including sensationalist reporting, cowering or lazy teachers, bureaucrats, short term political vision together with Americanisation of our legal practice and insurance companies in on the act – all have led to a  “health and safety culture”. But in the UK understandable concerns about children’s wellbeing have been taken up to and beyond their logical conclusion. Now we are at the point where there is zero tolerance of risk. Hence Judith Hackitt’s remarks.

As Tim Gill reports, we do children no favours by bubble wrapping them so they do not encounter risk. This does not prepare them for anything. Treating children as “irredeemably stupid, as fragile as china plates, and utterly unable to learn from their mistakes” does not protect them; it leaves them vulnerable and ill prepared for assessing risk, which is after all, a daily fact of life.

In a UNICEF 2007 comparative survey of OECD countries measuring children’s wellbeing, UK children came second to last in terms of subjective well being, but did moderately well in “health and safety”. In other words our children are miserable, but pretty safe!

  • Same sex relationships – what’s the problem?

Then there was the report of the Billy Elliot writer, Lee Hall, who has spent the last year working on a community in Bridlington involving 400 people of all ages. Sounds like a great project. One of the characters is gay. As a consequence, one of the Primary schools has withdrawn their support, notwithstanding efforts to conciliate.

What is the fear? Really, what is the problem? Same sex relationships are a part of our society. Not only are they within the law, Equalities legislation dictates that no discrimination should be suffered by anyone because of their sexuality. I have noticed, as I support schools in implementing Global Citizenship, that dealing with same sex relationships is particularly challenging for some adults, who think it is an inappropriate topic to be discussing with children, especially young ones.

But when we dig a little deeper, the primary concern is that same sex relationships are confused, in the minds of those who find this subject distateful, with sex. Why does that misconception persist? Surely teachers would no more discuss sex between same sex couples as between heterosexuals. The teaching issue is simply about the diversity of loving relationships that exist in every town and probably village in the country. Whether or not individual teachers engage in same sex relationships is not the question. Children will not become infected by discussion of relationships – they merely become more aware. It may even help them stop using “gay” as a derogatory term. It certainly will raise the esteem of those children, who through no active choice of their own, are gay. And isn’t it our duty to enable all the children in our charge to flourish? How can we achieve that if we do not allow children to feel a sense of self worth?

  • Pupils’ concerns

As I’ve said before, pupils have questions and concerns. They are by nature curious. We do them a disservice if we silence or stifle their innate curiosity or fail to answer their questions, however crass they may appear. Sweeping difficult or contested issues under the carpet does not make them disappear…they resurface as inevitably as prejudice follows ignorance.

Children are so much more than merely vulnerable dependents. So have the courage to let your pupils explore and take risks, ask difficult questions and be prepared to tackle those discussions with an openness and honesty that models acceptance of our diverse community.

Please let me know what you think.

How to inspire your pupils to be creative

This wonderful TED talk by Janine Benyus on biomimicry got me thinking…

You know when you ask your pupils to create a new machine, they come up with some incredible ideas …most of the time. There is extraordinary inventiveness lurking in their grey matter. Sometimes you wonder where they could possibly derive their ideas. Occasionally, the answer is a bit prosaic – a cartoon they’ve seen. Sometimes, you just have to marvel.

What about using biomimicry as a tool to spark creativity? Looking, really looking, at nature’s myriad wonders and using the water repellant properties of some leaf forms (cabbage or alchemilla mollis), the cooling systems, energy conservation methods, heat retaining qualities or flexible building materials of flora and fauna as a starting point for sparking your pupils’ creative fire.

Apart from being a growing area of current scientific enquiry, which has already yielded spectacular results, it helps us stop and wonder at nature. It provides us with a reminder that we still have so much to learn about the natural world which is able to adapt  to stimuli. In doing so, it may help us to regain a little humility in the face of the natural world, which sustains us and which we are in the process of trashing. Rather than trying to dominate and force nature to bend to our will, we could be using (as opposed to using up) natural resources to live in a more sustainable manner.

What would your students make of Janine Benyus’ talk?

Global Citizenship – resources for looking at the impact of our choices

I’ve posted this clip before, but I love it. The captions are in French. Your task is to translate them! This speaks of so many things, including the worth of individual action…

  • Why act alone?

I appreciate that thousands of individual actions, uncoordinated and disparate, are not sufficient to combat climate change, resource depletion, abject poverty or any of the major challenges facing us. Those issues require political leadership. But individual action is necessary too, to put a rocket under the bums of our leaders and to engage in a manner of living that more fairly shares the planet’s finite resources.

  • Good citizens

As educators, we have a vital role in discussing with students what it means to be a good citizen. This includes at the very least an appreciation of who we are and who are our “neighbours”, those to whom we owe a duty of care. I argue that in our interdependent world, that duty extends to everyone on every continent. I would argue it extends also to future generations, as well as to our biodiverse flora and fauna. Our collaborative approach matters.

  • Concerns

On top of this, we have to teach optimism. Looking forward without hope is terrifying and ultimately discourages action. Teachers often tell us that they avoid tackling difficult issues like climate change because the prognosis is too bleak and depressing for students, especially the younger ones, who should be shielded from such dark visions until they’re older.

I couldn’t disagree more profoundly. Like all scary things, the fear is in the unknown. Sweeping under the carpet does nothing to allay the fear, it only exacerbates it…like the unwritten essay with deadline looming or that call that you should have responded to much sooner. Avoidance does not diminish the problem.

And the thing is that children have concerns about the climate and disappearing polar bears and war and poverty. Their concerns should be discussed openly, stage appropriately and without being infantilised or patronised.

  • Positive outcomes

The research is positive and heartening. Both the comprehensive Cambridge Review on Primary education (totally outrageous that it was sidelined) and research done for the DEA, now Think Global, shows conclusively that those students who engage in global learning (about real world events beyond our borders):

  1. want to change the world for the better
  2. believe they can do so
  3. understand that their actions have an impact on the lives of others near and far
  4. think it is worth taking personal steps to combat climate change
  5. think it is a good idea to spend 0.7% of GDP on aid
  6. are comfortable living with people of different heritages

Students who have engaged in global learning do these things significantly more than their counterparts who have not had such learning experiences in school…and there are lots of those!

So this is really heartening. Confronting those difficult problems that don’t look like they’re going away actually leads to a more positive outlook.

  • Ways forward

To progress pupils’ thinking on this, one of the keys for the teacher is to have pupils understand the impact of their own choices. At times, we all try to shift responsibility, but one of my theories of behavioural change is that it comes after an acceptance of one’s own responsibility. There are a zillion ways to approach this. Consider this clip about our use of plastic and the consequences for bird and marine life. How would you use this as a stimulus for discussion with your pupils about tackling the problem? Change starts the moment you start considering the issue. Why wait?

(If I haven’t managed to edit the Oxfam ad at the beginning, please ignore that)

Global Citizenship – That thinking feeling…#ukedchat #esdgc #globaled

Saw this at the recent International Conference on Thinking in Belfast. Laughed out loud…

How would you use this in your classroom?

For more ideas, have a look at our new website.