Sunday, 19 July 2015

Washing the grit, resilience and sand out of the classroom

I have had enough GRIT to last me a lifetime. I have had it in my sandwiches, my swimming trunks and in my mouth as I slowly eat an ice cream on the beach whipped by windswept sand. Sand, or the educational term goes, grit seems to be in vogue at the moment. I happen to be an expert on grit as I used to sell it in various forms: builder’s sand; play sand; ballast; pea gravel. You name it, I have sold it.

There are endless schools across the country making their students develop grit, or determination, as most sane people would call it. SLTs are lecturing students how they shouldn’t give up. YouTube videos of a plucky underdog who thinking at first they will not achieve something and then because they found some magical, gold coloured, grit in their pocket they discover they can actually do it. All this wrapped up in an emotional montage of tears, air punching and a track from Take That.

But, I have a problem with all this. We are teaching students that the magic gold dust is within them. Everybody is an underdog and you can do it. We, particularly British people, love an underdog. Look at our films, books and newspapers. One parent fought a school about uniform. The parent won. Hurrah!  One employer was unfairly fined. He fought the company. He won. Hurrah! We love it. Even our superheroes follow this pattern. They are all weak people who have an inner strength and some sparkly magic that will help them beat the big, bad baddie. Hurrah! Gosh, even Harry Potter is a typical example of this underdog figure. He beat a big, scary wizard. Hurrah!  

Resilience is part of the national collective. We will not surrender. Keep soldiering on. K.B.O. I could, at this point, make numerous references to British history where we have had to be resilient if the face of adversity. I will not, because every event in history from these sunny isles features two opposing forces and the least likely to win, wins because they were resilient. Looking at the classroom, this plays itself out regularly. The student that complains about the injustice of a sanction. A parent complains about the school’s rules on a haircut. The school council petitions for a change because something isn’t fair for them.

Is the problem with British students that they aren’t resilient enough? Are we drowning in sea of hundreds of students whose are not tough enough to give something a go?  I, honestly, don’t think that is the case. A lot of this resilience training seems to come from America. If I may be bold to say this, but I feel that it stems from pockets of social inequality. Occasionally, the message before a child steps into a classroom is a message of: there isn’t a slim hope of success. The idea of an ‘American Dream’ has died and hidden itself from the nightmares of reality. I believe this ‘GRIT’ training has worked for some Americans. It has helped generally tough children to toughen up and deal with reality face on.  

Travel across the Atlantic Ocean and we see people trying to bring about changes here. We want to improve things. What can we do? I know, let’s make students tougher. We need to make them resilient. Umm, but, sir, aren’t they resilient enough already? I think they are. Our students are resilient enough. They queue without given up halfway through. They put up with poor conditions in schools such as too hot or too cold conditions. They put up with hundreds of exams in a small space of a month.

So if our students are resilient and gritty, then what is it that stops them from being even better? I think it is consumerism. Over the years, we have allowed education to become consumer led. The rise of student voice is a typical example of this. Students see themselves as the consumers of education, which they are to a point, but they are leading the system more than the educators.

The consumer is always right. Isn’t that the case?  

       They demand what they want.

       They focus on their desires and occasional needs.

       They want things now.

       They see themselves as the centre of the world. 

But, how does this playout in the classroom? A consumer of education might do some of the following:

       Blames the person next to them for their lack of work.

       Forgets a pen.

       Only works hard when it is an assessment.

       Sees that effort is nothing to do with work. It is all about ability.

       No sense of urgency.

       Gives up quickly.

       Doesn’t think for themselves.

       Asks the teacher for the answers.

       Searches for problems. 

Recently, someone tweeted about student interviews to judge the success of the teacher. I find it hard to trust the judgement of someone who isn’t able to vote or drive, or even operate heavy machinery or perform heart surgery, when adults struggle to agree on simple educational matters or lesson grades. The consumer puts themselves at the centre of the world. Like a small baby, they will scream until their demands are met. A frantic parent runs around offering food, drink, comfort or a changed nappy. Not having a pen isn’t about resilience. It is about expectations. An expectation that someone, often the teacher, will sort things out for them. That isn’t resilience. That’s laziness.

Yes, some of the things here might be attributed to a student not being resilient and a deep-seated lack of confidence about the work, but honestly I think a lot of these can be attributed to the student feeling that they are the passenger in the learning process and not the driver. They are passive. They are reliant. They are content. They relaxed. They are comfortable. Do we make work too comfortable for students?

What if students were drivers instead of consumers? They might show these attributes:  

       Will learn from their mistakes.

       Always equipped. If they forget something, they will find a solution themselves.

       Sees that the effort is important.

       Works quickly, but effectively.

       Thinks for themselves. 

       Never gives up. Asks to do it again, if possible.

       Asks the teacher questions about improving.

       Searches for solutions.

I feel that the position students put themselves in is more important than grit. Are they at the centre of the universe? Or are they orbiting something else? As individuals, they consume what they want and how they want it. They watch television according to their desires. They eat food according to their desires. They are holding the remote control, but they are not the makers of things. They control but don’t do. Look at the classroom, students like to control but they are hesitant to do. How many students do we know who spend more time arguing about the work than spend time doing the work?

I heard one person moaning about having to wait to see a GP in a NHS surgery this week. They felt it was ridiculous for them to wait a fortnight to see someone over a minor ailment. They felt it was their given right that they should be seen straightaway. They felt that they had the control. They felt the world owes them something. They thought they were at the centre of the universe.

If we look at how the world is today and you see some interesting points. There is a clear rise in xenophobia. There is a rising fear of others and that all comes back to the individual. It is how the individual feels and what the individual fears. Added to this, everybody and his friends are sharing their individual thoughts or feelings on social media. We can spout (including me) our individual thoughts or feelings, whether they be offensive or not for the world to hear, because, after all, I ‘think’ I am right. We don’t care (well I do) what other people think or feel because the individual is more important than the rest of society. Then, we drive off in our cars, little tanks, shouting at the world for not being able to drive properly and not being courteous towards us. The think we are more important than the rest of society.

Maybe, we don’t need the resilience that is being peddled in schools. Maybe, we need to build resilience against individualism. Get students to think of the whole class and not just themselves. Maybe, we have allowed students to become too individual. Their individual desires affect learning and not necessary their needs. The needs of the class far outweigh the desires of the individual.

Are the students that seem to be ‘non-resilient’ in the classroom struggling to assert their individualism? It is not that they are lacking grit, it is just that there are too many strong individuals in the class that they can’t function effectively in a group. Ofsted seems to be cracking down on behaviour in the classroom, but isn’t the behaviour highlighted often a result of individuals being too individual and not conforming to expectations?

Take Twitter, a collection of millions of people all with their individual thoughts and feelings. Some are hidden from conversations because of the loud few. Does the quiet majority need to be more resilient? Or, do the loud minority need to be more resilient? The answer to this is probably no to both counts. We need a balance. The quiet and the loud need to function successfully together, but in a way where one dominates at the hands of the other being neglected.

Thanks for reading. I am off to wash the sand out of my swimming trunks.



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