Our education writer Hilary Wilce explains the new – and ancient – philosophy which is coming back to the fore in British schools.
A radical and exciting revolution is taking place in education and it’s one guaranteed to produce happier children, more fulfilled young people and more capable and cheerful adults.
If this sounds too good to be true, it’s worth knowing that this revolution is long overdue and that while its full results have yet to be seen – education is a slow business, it grows at exactly the same rate as the young human being – everyone involved in it is confident of success.
This revolution is both absurdly simple, yet also subtle and complex. It involves seeing all children as the individuals they truly are and then offering them an education that encourages every aspect of themselves to flourish and grow.
It’s also an idea that has its roots in ancient ideas, right back to ancient Rome, when the poet Juvenal coined the phrase mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body).
English philosopher John Locke’s influential work Some Thoughts Concerning Education of 1693 proposed a similar theory, that education must address three areas: a healthy body, a virtuous character and an appropriate academic curriculum.
Now, ‘educating the whole child’ is an idea that has spread rapidly across all schools in recent years, first taking off when the innovative headmaster Anthony Seldon took over Wellington School and introduced hippy-style ‘happiness lessons’ into an institution that had until then been mainly known for its links with the military.
‘Schools,’ he explained, ‘should open the minds, as well as the hearts, of the young. It is vital that they do this as many adults possess neither open minds nor open hearts. Our young should learn how to think and how fully to feel. Education is their greatest chance to learn how to live.’
Since then, the revolution has galloped ahead and virtually all schools now say they aim to offer an all-round education. This is clearly visible in the way they reach out to potential new parents. Test and exam results are still important, but they no longer fill the whole stage. Instead schools emphasize that their pupils play in the mud, sprawl on their boarding house beds, laugh a lot, make music, dress up, help others and do lots of hands-on learning.
“Factory-style rote learning is long gone. Pupils are offered opportunities to develop their creative side”
Of course, schools have always offered arts and sports and after-school clubs, but one of the fundamental underpinnings of this new style education is the recognition that great academic results spring out of personal happiness and fulfillment, not the other way round.
The revolution has been driven by forward-looking heads, but also by parents who wanted to find ways their children could avoid the distress of ‘exam treadmill’ schooling.
Now, say schools, parents actively seek out a rich and happy school experience, asking probing questions about the provision of emotional and social learning alongside the academic curriculum.
Significantly, one of the most popular schools in London at present, with a long waiting list, is an alternative forest school that educates its children entirely outdoors in all weathers.
So what does educating the whole child actually involve? Of course, pupils still get regular lessons, but these are increasingly tailored to meet the different learning styles of the children in class. Factory-style rote learning is long gone. Pupils are offered opportunities to develop their creative side, through drama, art and music, their adventurous side through outdoor play and exploration, and their leadership and teamwork skills through group projects.
In addition, many schools now emphasise serving others through charity and community work. And underpinning all this is a whole new focus on character education and the importance of developing students’ inner strengths such as resilience, tenacity, kindness and empathy. They may be encouraged to take risks, set goals, make mistakes and review their actions.
Another vital element is the recognition that today’s students face many new challenges. Social media can lead to insecurity and bullying, fragmenting families can mean emotional instability and a rapidly changing world means an uncertain future.
Schools now provide older students with sophisticated personal education programmes that include questions of racial and sexual identity, and mental health issues such as depression and self-harm. Students are taught ways to look after both their physical and mental wellbeing.
All this makes for a much kinder, more inclusive education than in the past. Today’s non-sporty child will find success in fencing or yoga. The anxious one will have learned mindfulness and know who to ask for help. The swotty pupil will be able to pursue their own advanced science projects, while a creative one might be busy producing their own film and soundtrack.
Of course, many students will still experience difficulties and parents need to watch out for these. They should also be cautious about any school’s glossy claims of what’s on offer. It’s always important to look below the surface to make sure it’s not just fine words. The key is to watch closely what’s actually going on and ask existing pupils about their day-to-day experiences.
A NEW UNIVERSITY FOR A NEW AGE OF PUPILS
Some people in education think only a really radical shake-up of our whole system will meet the needs of students in the 21st century.
One institution striking out on a new path is the London Interdisciplinary School, which opens in East London next year. This new ‘university for polymaths’ will train students to solve complex problems by bringing different skills and strands of knowledge to bear on a single issue. The Metropolitan Police has already asked it to study the problem of knife crime, for example.
All students will take the same bachelor of arts and science degree, incorporating science, technology and the humanities and including ten weeks of hands-on work experience.
The university is building on the experience of one of its co-founders who helped set up the pioneering School 21, also in East London, which takes pupils from 4 to 18 and teaches them through a progressive mixture of coaching, character education, in-depth teaching and real-life learning to develop the skills, confidence and creativity needed for modern life.
The school emphasises the need for young people to be able to speak out confidently and fluently and aims to send them off with the ability to shape and change their world.
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