Learning’s a risky business

By 17/10/2017 March 1st, 2018 No Comments
by Richard Taylor-West
Headmaster, Shoreham College

I must say I was pleased to see a burst of common sense from a high level government officer, in the summer. Amanda Spielman, who heads up OFSTED, an organisation that sometimes causes teachers to wince, said that she was not at all sure about seeing pupils in hi-vis jackets during school trips.

She said that the culture of wrapping children in cotton wool was damaging for pupils, as it makes it difficult for them to learn to cope with normal everyday risk. I nearly jumped for joy, if I am honest. “Thank heavens,” I found myself thinking, “someone speaks common sense.” Not always what we get from government!

Almost immediately, of course, I found myself thinking that perhaps I am being a little unfair to parents. I am a parent and, after all, our children are immensely important to us and our instinct is to protect them at all costs. We are, after all, hard-wired to do it. A headmaster I know once said to me that every parent has the right to be emotional about their own children, at least once. I think he was right about that.

If we set the emotion to one side for a moment, I think Ms Spielman is right. I do think that overly protecting children cannot be good for them and I think most reasonable parents would agree. Here is the rub, however. Here is the nub of the question: how do we draw
the line?

Schools work very hard, all of the time, to ensure that we are drawing the line in the right place. People like me go to conferences about it and I should reassure parents that schools have probably never been more careful. Schools now have to abide by more legislation and rules than you can shake a stick at and, on the whole, we think we are doing the right thing by doing so.

On the other hand, it is important that we enable young people to manage risk. Taking part in the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme is a good example and we do that here at the College. Learning how to navigate your way across the downs, cook for yourself and work in a team, when things get tough, presents such a fabulous opportunity. We train them, of course, but they will make mistakes too – and not all mistakes can be avoided.

In our Junior School, we have a Forest School and we encourage the pupils to take part in discussions about how to make shelters, cut wood and make fires. They have a go at really doing it too and yes, they are carefully supervised, but there is an element of risk to the activities.

There are other risks too that we need to help deal with, as schools. Social media is perhaps the most pressing, in some ways. I couldn’t contact 500 million people from my LED digital watch in 1978, but children can now. That is scary, to be honest. Again, most schools work with their pupils to learn how to use these tools. We don’t take all of the machines off them, all of the time. We do not think that is the way forward and research tells us it isn’t. We do, however, tell them about the risks, how
to manage them, and we work with parents to highlight the dangers of Instagram accounts for people under 13, for instance.

Academically, there is an interesting conversation to be had too. There is always a risk that pupils will be upset by failing. Yes, there is. We need to ask ourselves, however, why that is. Do they become upset because their parents expectations are too high? Do they become unhappy because we adults have not prepared them and trained them to see failure as necessary and key to becoming successful? I believe it’s now apocryphal that Michael Jordan, the famous basketball player, was asked how he scored so many hoops. He replied something to the effect that it was because he had missed thousands before. Food for thought.

Writing in the Guardian a few years ago, the teacher and psychologist, Marc Smith commented that ‘”Those with a growth mind set view failure as a temporary stop on the way to success.” If that is genuinely the case then we need to teach pupils to have a ‘growth mind set’ and to see that each barrier, challenge and so-called failure is nothing more, on the whole, than a step to success. We also need to teach them that success has many faces.

Schools, of course, need to keep pupils safe and this can never be underestimated in terms of importance. On the other hand, we do need to help children to face challenges, allow them to make errors and give them tools with which to work on what life throws at them. If we don’t, we might not be preparing them for the world and they may never grow up. We try hard to get this right; we won’t always. Schools must be able to learn too.

Please call 01273 592681 to find out more about what Shoreham College can offer you, or to arrange a personal visit at any time of the school year.