Thursday, 13 August 2015

Childhood and Play

This blog continues my reflections on things that retirement has given me time to read and think about. My thinking is inspired by my reading and this blog is influenced by a wonderful book by psychologist Peter Gray (2013) “Free to Learn” published by Basic Books. The book made me think a lot about children and play and in this blog I reflect on my own childhood and that of my children and grandchildren and the different attitudes to play and learning that have taken place over the last 60 years.

It is a joy to watch my two grandchildren, now aged 5 and 3 explore the world. My daughter is not afraid of allowing them to experiment and to take risks. When they were down on holiday last week the eldest climbed quite a difficult rocky cliff and with encouragement and some guidance negotiated his way safely back down. He ran into the quite large waves in the sea and I loved it when he raised his little fists and cried, “I’m not afraid of you!” When the waves knocked him down he jumped up laughing. Of course I was standing right beside him and he was only in up to his knees.

Later this week I met up with a young friend who had been to visit Sweden as part of her education degree and was amazed at the freedom the children were given. She commented that her and her fellow students looked at the environments in which the children were being educated and what did they see? “loads of health and safety issues – we all wanted to do risk assessments!” She was shocked that 18 month old children were allowed to serve their own food, that they could choose when to have their snacks, that two year olds were climbing trees without adult supervision. We sat and talked about her visit and she wondered how two countries in Europe could have such different attitudes.

Of course attitudes are not only different across cultures, they have also changed over time. I am now 65 and when I was a child I lived in a suburban area on a busy main road. Across that road there was a lane that led to the ‘rec’, or recreation ground. There were fields and hedgerows, some trees, swings and slides and when I was eight I was allowed to go and play there on my own or with my friends and inevitably we would interact with other children who made a beeline for the ‘rec’ to play. We played on the swings and made dens in the hedgerows, we played hide and seek, ‘tag’, British bulldog, all sorts of games with balls or just laid on the grass and talked. We were different ages, boys and girls played together, we competed to see how high we could go on the swings – standing and sitting. When it was time to go home for lunch I made my way back to the main road and waited until a woman pedestrian came along that I could ask to see me across the road. The only stipulation my parents made was that if I needed help I asked a woman, and I didn’t talk to strangers. Straight after lunch I would head back to the ‘rec’ to resume my games. Many of my contemporaries look back on childhood and recount similar experiences. We were so independent. Today parents who allow unsupervised play of this kind would likely be labeled ‘bad parents’. Fear of abduction or child abuse by a stranger is out of all proportion to the actual likelihood of such things happening. The number of children who are the victims of strangers has not changed annually over the years and is a very small figure, yet this or the more realistic fear of traffic is the main reason parents give for not allowing their children to play outdoors.

When I had my first child I lived in an urban area but knew I wanted her to have the experience of being outdoors. Every day I would take her to the park, at weekends we would go to country parks or just into the countryside. I encouraged her to play outdoors in the garden, but it wasn’t enough she didn't have the experiences I had had as a child to freely roam and play. When my second child was two and I was pregnant with my third child I wanted to find a way for them to experience some of the freedom to play that I had as a child. To cut a long story short my husband and I moved to the countryside where we purchased a small-holding. Now my children had five acres to play in and my three year-old son was always outside with his wellingtons, wheel barrow, sand, buckets, spades, cars and created his own play. Soon we had friends whose children came to play. I was able to watch unfold what I instinctively knew – that children are designed to play and explore on their own without constant adult supervision.

When I was in school I remember the lessons being very formal, but in the playtimes we played in the playground and on the extensive grassy areas. Our games included skipping games, clapping games, ‘tag’ and hopscotch. We played ‘jacks’ and marbles and sticks. Friendships were made and broken. We ran around, grazed our knees and I don’t remember being observed or surveyed the way children in the playground are today. We were trusted to sort out any disagreements.

I don’t remember being given homework in primary school. Time after school was a time for playing not for being coerced into completing homework. Today, as Peter Gray reminds us, we seem to think that, “children can only learn and progress if they are doing tasks that are directed and evaluated by adults, and that children’s own activities are wasted time.” I can’t remember my parents ever being asked to track our homework or help us with projects. This was quite a contrast to my own children’s experience. We will never get back the time I spent trying to cajole, threaten or bribe my children to do their homework. As a teacher as well as a parent I tried hard to make the projects they were set interesting, but it was like pulling teeth. After a long, tedious and frequently mind-numbingly boring days sat at desks they just wanted to let off steam – to play.

When I was in school the dreaded 11+ hung over us and the final year in primary school was devoted to preparation for the test – which incidently I failed. The abolition of the 11+ freed up primary schools to make that final year far more pleasurable, but it was short lived. In 1991, when my youngest daughter was 6 national standardised tests were introduced and she was part of the first cohort to sit the SATs. Since then tests have come to dominate the lives of children from four years onwards. Tests of all kinds have been introduced with one spin-off being competition between children, their parents, between schools and even nations which has become all-pervasive. Preparation for performance on the tests is all that seems to matter and everything else shrinks back in the face of it. It means that more and more children are spending most of their time sitting still, listening to teachers, taking tests, reading what they are told to read, writing what they are told to write and probably daydreaming about what they would prefer to be doing.

Peter Gray’s book confirms my belief that the opportunity to play is necessary for children. It is through play that I learnt how to make friends, feel and overcome fear, solve problems creatively and feel as if I had some control over my life. I wanted my children to have the same opportunities and I want my grandchildren to have those opportunities as well. As Gray says, the things children learn through their own initiatives, in free play, cannot be taught in other ways.

Autonomy is very important for healthy mental growth, yet In schools children spend large portions of their day amongst children of their own age, directed by teachers and sitting at desks preparing for tests. The so-called ‘wrap-around’ school day provides the necessary extended child care in our society where both parents working is the norm not the exception it was when I was a child. Breakfast club and after-school clubs are again organized and directed by adults, there is little freedom to learn through play here. At weekends the children of middle class parents may be ferried from one activity to another: swimming lessons, piano lessons, football, ballet, karate, birthday parties, etc. It sometimes feels as if they are on a never-ending merry-go-round of activity and what gets lost is time and freedom to play, explore, and pursue their own interests.

The change in adult working practices has been accompanied by a growth in child-care facilities. This means that many children enter education at ever-younger ages as they attend nurseries from a few months old. Unlike Sweden that has a longer tradition of kindergartens, the trend in our child-care facilities has been to become structured more and more like schools – with adult-assigned tasks replacing play. I was dismayed when I visited my grandson’s nursery two years ago to find the list of activities he would have engaged with that day pinned outside the door with a list of the learning outcomes from each activity. Opportunities for free play in the nursery school seems to have been drastically reduced as each task the child engages in is linked to formal learning, not to fulfill the child’s desire for exploration and discovery. Learning outcomes are pre-specified and the assumption is that the tasks directed by the adults will facilitate the child’s development and promote a range of skills and intellectual outcomes. Children who are not compliant and want to follow their own pathways will be gently coerced into completing the designated tasks.

In such organized environments Peter Gray asks when do children acquire the skills and confidence to meet life’s challenges. He uses the metaphor of prison to describe schools today. In prison you are involuntarily confined, your liberty is restricted, you are told exactly what to do, failure to comply results in punishment.

The dominant assumptions I find in schools today is that children are incompetent, untrustworthy, and in need of the coercive, corrective forces of schooling to shape them into the kinds of human beings that the elites of society think they should become. Furthermore, children are told that if they comply in school everything will work out well.  Gray argues that the forced nature of schooling turns learning into work suggesting that anything a person is forced to do, according to someone else’s schedule, using procedures that someone else dictates, is work. The very act of taking control of children’s learning in these ways is turning joy in learning into work. This combined with the constant evaluation of children and comparison with other children causes anxiety for children. Tests and fear of failure create more anxiety and this in turn inhibits learning, which occurs best in a playful state of mind.

Increasing numbers of children are rebelling and refusing to conform and unfortunately many of these children are labeled as having ADHD (attention-deficity/hyperactivity disorder) – the incidence of which has risen steadily as the opportunities for real play has declined. Many of these children are treated with drugs, the long-term effects of which we don’t know.

We know that rates of stress-related mental disorders in children and young people are on the increase, particularly in the last thirty years. The office for National Statistics for mental health in children and young people in Great Britain say one in ten children between the ages of one and 15 has a mental health disorder and research suggests that 20% of children have a mental health problem in any year. Mental health problems among children increase as they reach adolescence.

Yet politicians continue to call for more restrictive schooling, not less. More standardized tests, more homework, more supervision, longer school days, longer school years, more sanctions against children’s taking time off for a family holiday.

Peter Gray claims that children do not need more schooling, quite the opposite, they need less schooling and more freedom. They also need safe enough environments in which to play and explore, and they need free access to the tools, ideas, and people (including playmates) that can help them along their own chosen paths.

As parents and grandparents and concerned adults it is time to call a halt to these practices which I believe are damaging our children. I recommend Peter Gray’s book to anyone who wants to know more about the value of letting children direct their own play and learning.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Retirement blog: Memories of Dying

Retirement blog: Memories of Dying: My mother died young, she was only 53. From the first visit to the doctor for swelling in her tummy to her death was only six weeks. She h...

Memories of Dying

My mother died young, she was only 53. From the first visit to the doctor for swelling in her tummy to her death was only six weeks. She had cancer. The doctor sent her to hospital where they took a sample of fluid from her stomach and found cancerous cells. They opened her up and found there was nothing they could do; she was riddled with tumours that were strangling her digestive system. They drained her stomach and made her as comfortable as they could and sent her home. They recommended food with high fibre to stand a better chance of keeping her digestive system working and they gave us morphine to administer when she was in pain. They didn’t tell her she had cancer. They didn’t tell her she was dying. And she didn’t ask. They didn’t tell us what was wrong until my father insisted on knowing the prognosis and was told she had only a short while to live.

This happened in 1977 and often since then I have wondered whether or not the scientific advances in treatments of cancer in the intervening years could have prevented her death or at least have extended her life and that made me sad. She died too early in more than one sense of the word. But now on reading  “Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande I have for the first time re-framed her last weeks and thought again about the kind of death she did experience. It is probably true that today she may have had an operation that might have lengthened her life by a few weeks or possibly months, but now I wonder what she might have lost if she had been offered that possibility.

After a week in hospital my mother came home and life went on. And instead of giving control of her life to the doctors and the nurses, she had freedom. Freedom to decide what to wear each day and this brought her delight as we took her shopping for new clothes to fit her fading body. She had control of what she ate and when to eat it. She chose to continue to cook my father’s lunch as she had everyday of their 34 years of married life. She decided when she went to bed and when she got up. She was able to maintain her privacy and her dignity. She had the freedom to decide what those last few weeks of her life would be like, to decide what made life worth living for her.

It turned out that she didn’t ask for much. She liked having her own things around her, she liked having a purpose to her days and she did things she wanted to do. Ordinary things like going next door for a coffee, inviting her sisters over for tea, listening to her favourite music, and even finding a passion for Mozart, something she had never listened to before. She said she found it spiritually uplifting and consoling; the human passion for new experience was strong even when so close to the end.

She concentrated on spending time with her family. I visited her 3-4 times a week with my ten-month old daughter, my brother popped in each day. She spent hours pouring over the photo albums remembering and reminiscing over her life. This might sound like we all knew and accepted what was happening, but we never discussed the fact that she was dying. I lived in dread each day that she would ask me and I wouldn’t know what to say, but she never asked, it was never discussed. We all kept the secret. When she died I felt regret about that and wondered whether or not she knew she was dying. I was to discover that she did know. Her neighbour told us that two days before she died she had visited her for morning coffee and took some apple pie round. My mother was famous for her apple pie. She put it down to having “cool hands, perfect for pastry.” On this occasion she announced, “He’ll never have apple pie like this again.” And so revealed that she did know the end was near. Did she want to spare us the agony of talking about it, or, and more likely, it was just a habit of a lifetime – we never talked about anything deep or emotional in our family. All I know is that in those final few weeks when she knew she was nearing the end of her life, she shifted her horizons to everyday pleasures and the people she was closest too.

And what if she had stayed in hospital, what then of her need for everyday comforts, for the companionship of her neighbor, the chance to have her sisters and her mother and father, her children and husband pop round and visit. Sure they would have visited her in hospital, but at home she was the host. She produced tea and cake and got out the photograph albums and recalled her memories. I remember one particular day in her last week when she was dancing and singing to her favourite musicals. As the strains of ‘Carousel,’ ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ and ‘South Pacific’ filled the living room it conjured up childhood memories for me. I knew the words of all the songs and joined in the singing. I recall my small daughter, not yet walking bouncing up and down to the music and the pleasure this had given my mother. If she had been in hospital or even in a hospice she would have been denied that freedom. The focus of staff would have been on the procedures of the hospital, the monitoring of her body, the administering of medicines – all the routines and practices that accompany institutional life, that is merely a life on hold. At home she was able to decide what was important to her. When the pain became too much we administered the morphine and whilst I recognize part of her euphoria in her last days was drug-assisted, I don’t have a problem with that.

And yet I know that if we had been offered the hope of extending her life with an operation, to maybe remove part of the tumor, followed by chemotherapy and radiation, we would probably have taken it. We would have grasped a medical solution to an unfixable problem and I am now thankful we weren’t offered that opportunity. Treating an untreatable illness has consequences that I wouldn’t have known about if we had gone down that route. Instead of being tied to a hospital bed with tubes and monitors and machines, my mother had the chance to live those last few weeks on her own terms. She had the chance to make her last days mean something, to take comfort in simple pleasures and routines. That month of March at home saw the beginnings of new life in the garden and she delighted in the crocuses and daffodils coming up in the garden. Her pleasure in her new grandchild, the knowledge that life goes on.

So now, 38 years later I have taken some time to re-think the last few weeks of my mother’s life and I am so glad her fate was not put in the hands of doctors seeking only to prolong her life for a short time, and with this as their priority, not considering how she might want to live her last few weeks. I now consider she was lucky. She didn’t die in hospital attached to machines sustaining her organs beyond the time her body was able, unconscious but still breathing. Instead she died in her bed at home in private with her family nearby; she was saved the indignity of being unplug and de-tubed and switched off. She had the chance to say, “I’m sorry,” even though I have never been sure what she was sorry for. She had enjoyed autonomy, free of hospital rules and regulations; she was the author of the last days of her life. She wrote her own ending and I am very thankful for that.  

I have learned something important from this reflection and that is there are other priorities than merely seeking to prolong life. We should seek to relieve pain and suffering not prolong it. We knew at the time that the doses of morphine we administered probably shortened her life, but we wanted to prevent her suffering, relieving her pain gave her the chance to achieve what she wanted, what was important to her at the end.

Maybe modern medicine can extend the length of our lives, but that should not be our only priority. Gawande tells us that doctors today are reluctant to tell patients when their illness is not curable, and more than 40% of oncologists say they offer treatments they believe are unlikely to work. And we clutch at straws – do something, fix something, make it go away. We had no discussion with my mother on the subject of dying, we didn’t ask her how she wanted to spend the last days of her life and we weren’t offered any choices and so we took her home and that’s where I think most of us would say we want to be when we die.

I hope that if I am faced with terminal illness that my doctors and my family are honest with me, and give me the chance to discuss my end-of-life preferences. And although we never did discuss this with my mother, I now feel sure that she did in fact get what she wanted and I wouldn’t want to change that. What I would change for me is having a chance to discuss what I want. I want to the author of my life for as long as I am able and that means those around me should be prepared to talk about it – I was not brave enough and I regret this now. I think we are all afraid of death, even those with hopes for an afterlife, which I don’t share, but when it comes and if I know it is coming, I want to face my mortality and have the chance to express my hopes for the time I have left. And I want my family to help me achieve what is feasible. How we end our lives is the end of our personal stories and we should be given the change to carry on shaping those stories right up to the end for it is the end of the story that tells us how to evaluate the story as a whole – it is important, too important to be left in the hands of doctors alone.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Numbers Rule OK?

“Not everything that counts can be counted. And not everything that can be counted counts.” Albert Einstein

A head teacher friend of mine has a problem. The government in Wales has decided that the results of the Year 5 tests in mathematics, reasoning and reading for each child should be plotted on a continuum and sent home to parents. The continuum has 100 in the middle – the average child. Average apparently spans from 85-115, below 85 is below average and it follows that above 115 is above average. Each parent gets the printout with three crosses placed on the continuum to represent their child’s position in relation to all the other children of their age in Wales. So now each parent knows – their child is ‘above average’, ‘average’ or below average’ and by how much. Where would you like your child to be placed? As you might expect a number of parents are worried about the place on the continuum that their child, on the basis of three tests, sits. Especially as these are high-stakes tests, these numbers will be a major determiner of which set they are placed in when they go to the secondary school and research tells us that once placed in a set it is very hard to move out of it.

Numbers are not like words, which require interpretation. Numbers are a source of authority that purports to reveal truth. Never mind whether they actually do so or not, the way they are presented gives them the status of certainty, of factual information, of reliable evidence. And such ‘truth’ surely cannot be disputed. Unsurprisingly the majority of parents think the numbers assigned to their child tell them something factual about that child.

Stop for a moment and reflect – do you believe that the most important things in life can be measured? How about friendship? Could we assess our friends and assign them a number according to how good a friend we thought they were? What about our parents? Our closeness to our children or other loved ones? If we did decide to measure such things against a set of criteria and come up with a number surely it would make us feel uncomfortable. It would undermine the human feelings that are so dear to us.

On the other hand the pursuit of excellence does require some form of assessment of quality.  It is true that if you can’t measure something you can’t improve it and measuring is a fundamental component of human life, to reject measurement would be impossible. So we need to measure – but there are many things we refuse to measure and for good reasons. We would, for example, find it odd to measure the beauty of the natural world and then decide which is better by assigning them a numerical value – the Grand Canyon or Victoria Falls, maybe the Lake District. Or using numbers to decide which has more value, a painting by Picasso or a sculpture by Henry Moore. Such measurement is nonsensical and we immediately see that.

Could it be that we are so obsessed by measuring in education that we are confusing what we can measure with what we cannot?  Confusing what we truly value about human beings with what we can measure? We need to sort that out. Then, having decided what we can measure, it is only too easy to be seduced by numbers and forget that there are good and bad numbers. Remember the saying, ‘There are lies, damned lies and statistics’? Numbers are influential; they shut down arguments and stifle political and social discussion by claiming to provide incontestable facts. We all trust people with numbers – even when we recognize how easy it is to fudge data for all sorts of purposes, even though we know numbers can be manipulated and misrepresent the world they seek to describe, even though we know there is widespread cheating on the tests by school leaders – numbers, simply because they are numbers, are taken to be correct.

First, we need to sort out what can and cannot be measured, and secondly we need to look carefully at what we decide to measure and make sure the numbers we use are valid. Perhaps most importantly we need to consider how the presence of numbers, good and bad, influence how the stakeholders in schools – the pupils, parents and teachers – behave and what they believe. Numbers have the power to affect how we carry out education in our schools. In an era of data-driven decision making it is important to question the data we are collecting and the status we give to it.

Let’s get back to my head teacher friend. She has to deal with the parent who demanded to know why their child is ‘above average for mathematics and reasoning, but only average for reading’. They want to know where the school has gone wrong – he is clearly a ‘bright’ boy, this result must be the fault of the school.

Unfortunately this illustrates only too sadly that in education numbers influence everything we do and this can negatively influence the educational lives of many pupils and their teachers. What about the self-fulfilling prophesy of telling a child she is ‘below average’ and the impact this might have on her self-efficacy and self-esteem?

To help me think about this I turned to Professor Lorenzo Firamonti, a leading political scientist whose latest book, ‘”How Numbers Rule the World” draws our attention to the fact that measurement, expressed as numbers have become the driving force behind our social, economic and political decisions. Numbers, whether they are right or wrong influence our behaviour and that of the people around us. If we apply his arguments to education we can see how it has become dominated by the production of numbers to assess the quality of our children, our teachers and our schools and to guide the placement of children in ability groupings. Numbers drive school policy-making and guide development plans. Numbers have increased bureaucracy for everyone in schools. It’s time to unpick the impact of numbers on our educational system and ask if it helps improve the quality of education for all our children. At the moment it is numbers that decides what makes a good school and activities designed to improve those numbers dominate the thinking of all involved from the parent complaining, to the head teacher to the Director of Education in the Local Authority.

No one can doubt that the numbers we attach to students are powerful and exert enormous influence on the behaviour of schools. Schools are rated on the basis of test and examination results; in a market economy they have to compete with one another for pupils, it takes a brave school not to focus on preparing children for the tests. Test results are seen as key indicators for a ‘good school’. This has some predicted and unpredicted side effects. Schools are expected to show progression for each child and in primary school the magic number is Level 4B in English and Mathematics in year 6. These targets inevitably influence how teachers respond to the pupils in front of them leading to extra focus on those children who are borderline in the desired grades. A focus on some students inevitably means the neglect of others as research on secondary schools has established.

Secondary schools are judged by the percentage of GCSE A*-C grades, including mathematics and English, their students obtain. In this context it is the C/D borderline students have more money spent on them and their teachers spend more time planning interventions to maximize the number of C grades. Teaching becomes strategic as teachers teach to the test; learning becomes strategic as pupils are encouraged to only do what is necessary to pass the test – what becomes of deep learning in this scenario? What matters is passing those examinations, no matter if the knowledge gained is short-term and surface learning, that students acquire information rather than understanding.

When numerical reasoning is systematically applied to the world of human interactions in this way it has all sorts of unintended side effects. What about the impact on teachers whose stress levels and unhappiness are linked to the loss of autonomy, social status and professionalism? Many teachers are leaving as a result of the increased monitoring, evaluation and sheer bureaucracy

Firamonti laments that, ”The complexity of social relations is lost through the cracks of mathematical algorithms.” My head teacher friend is not prepared to sacrifice her commitment to social relations, to the quality of interaction between the children and teachers in her school, to prioritizing the understanding of each child as a unique human being with multiple interests and talents to the demands of numbers. The children to her are not merely a set of crosses on a sheet. She wants her school to be an ethical institution where the people in it listen to each other, where relationships are nurtured, where differences are valued, creativity is encouraged and thinking is promoted. And that means mixed ability teaching. This is not an either/or – her results are also good, but I believe such results arise from the creation of a happy, productive environment where children are encouraged to think their own thoughts and come up with their own ideas and as a result love learning and are not made to feel judged by a number.

When parents are sent the continuum and see where their child has been placed it almost inevitably shapes their perception of their child. They believe the number has something real to say and they forget all the intangible capabilities their child is acquiring. The presence of the numbers reduces debate – parents see them and think they say something real.

It is time to ask ourselves what we want for our children – do we want schools that put all their energies into the micro-management of the production of measurable and uniform outcomes so we can rank and categorise, compare and contrast, group and set the children in our schools or, do we want schools like my friend’s that nurtures questioning, dialogue, respect and responsibility and seeks to fully acknowledge each child’s uniqueness and difference because that is what makes them human? Numbers can’t do that.