I don’t know if many educators have twigged a key difference between schooling today and many years ago is just how much we get primary-aged children to think about themselves and their feelings; the result is that everything ends up being questioned and analysed in their heads. As a relative ‘outsider’ to education, this seems really weird. Perhaps this is because my own upbringing was rather old-fashioned, but my childhood-self would’ve much preferred the status quo of mostly doing as you are told and not having too much say in everything: it frees you up to think about numbers and imagining you’re living on your own island (well, a sibling or two was allowed) where all the animals could talk. I think if I were to be asked every 5 minutes how I felt about lessons, teachers, what I was wearing, what food I ate, what constitutes good behaviour and whether my friendships were actually real, I would have ended up completely nuts (and I’m already bonkers enough as it is). So, why do we constantly make children analyse the minutiae of (school) life in terms of how it makes them feel?
In asking children how they feel about something like, for example, uniform, the following thoughts occur in their heads:
- I wasn’t bothered before because I just accepted it, but now I think about it, I actually don’t like it
- This must explain why I don’t feel good in lessons and can’t learn as well
- Come to think of it, I don’t like the rules about ear piercings either
- Uniform makes me sad
And what about asking a child to ‘rate’ their maths lesson with a smiley/neutral/unhappy face:
- I wasn’t bothered before because I just accepted it, but now I think about it, I actually don’t like fractions because it’s a bit tricky and I got quite a few questions wrong
- This must explain why I don’t feel good compared to, say, a day at Alton Towers where I don’t make any mistakes at all
- Come to think of it, I don’t like any maths lessons
- Maths makes me sad
Behaviour is another area where children are, in some schools, constantly required to look inwards to their feelings for the answer. A child will typically be asked to ‘make the right choice’, but the child will only resort to thinking about how they feel about something (since they are young and haven’t fully developed rational thought or the bigger picture) and if they’re not told off or given some kind of sanction then there won’t be any ‘sad feelings’ to try and avoid, nor will they ever learn that their actions affect others. Further, this situation sends the message to the child that they can simply make up the rules of life based on how it all feels to them at the time and if they’re not being educated by parents on the ‘right choices’ and the ‘correct behaviours’ then how will they ever know what to do?
Personally, I think it would be better to not have children constantly looking inwards to their feelings and instead just give them a set of rules for behaviour, uniform and the understanding that they are in school, first and foremost, to learn. Are we not making children incredibly unhappy when we constantly ask them to look inwards to examine how they feel about everything? Are we not causing them unnecessary worry? How are we teaching children to simply put their feelings to one side and accept life, dealing with it as it comes and focusing on a positive future?
An oft overlooked consequence of training children to look constantly look inwards to their feelings for answers is that we are also at the same time training children to not think about the bigger picture or about other people. Little children absolutely cannot deduce that uniform prevents bullying or that being good at maths takes hard work, practice and leads to fuller participation in adult society (and a better chance of making a decent living) and unless someone spells it out to them and makes them feel guilty about it, they absolutely will not think about how their messing about is deeply upsetting to other children and the teacher. Some children (and some adults) will never be able to understand how their actions affect others, so that is why we have rules: to enforce good behaviour until it becomes a habit rather than a ‘choice’. Further, in constantly asking children to think about how they feel in terms of behaviour, many will feel completely justified in doing whatever they want (such as hitting another child ‘because he didn’t let me join in and it made me sad’). This is not something I would want to encourage, but it is inadvertently being encouraged in many schools in the name of ‘putting the child first’.
Of course, I’m not saying that children should never think about their feelings at all, but that we need to dial down the frequency of their being required to look inwards in order to help them develop the ability to look outwards. My solution would be to go back to letting children have a proper childhood where they don’t have to constantly worry about making the wrong choices or whether they might be feeling sad at any point. Let’s just have behaviour rules and the expectation that children accept their education is good for them, freeing up their little heads to play, learn and be happy. If children do the wrong thing, then we should let them know they have broken a rule and made others unhappy, that they should never do that again.
Who’s with me?