All Work and No Play
- September 12, 2016
- Posted by: Amelia Buckworth
- Category: educational psychology
by James Glasse
What keeps me awake? As an education professional, for me it has to be the unprecedented levels of anxiety that modern day schooling inflicts on children. Our exam system coupled with league tables means that children are always effectively being told that what they achieved in the past was not good enough and that instead they should strive for the future without being allowed to live in the present. For what? Show me one government that has ever accurately predicted the future. Did any politician anywhere predict the financial crash of 2008? Our leaders don’t even know what kind of jobs will exist by the time our students graduate or what percentage of those jobs will have been replaced by robots or computers. We are told that we need to be more like the Chinese when in fact the very reason that tens of thousands of Chinese parents send their children here is precisely because our education system is perceived by them to be more relaxed and creative and less exam focussed than their own. In fact, the Chinese government has enacted regulations to lessen the academic burden on its primary schools in an effort to avoid a syndrome described as ‘Gao Fen Di Neng (High Score Low Ability).’ All work and no play doesn’t just make Jack (or Jill) a dull boy (or girl) it is also ensuring that they will be less equipped to thrive in society.
None of those messages seem to be getting through here or on the other side of the Pond. No wonder that thousands of our children are now displaying symptoms of mental illness as they become trapped in a wholly unnatural and avoidable vortex of fight, flight and freeze. Anxiety after all is just imagination driven by fear. As play time is continually eroded, schools are exhorted to adopt mindfulness lessons to help children focus on the present. A great idea but not at the expense of their break time. What of play? Ironic that a group of dolphins is called a school – perhaps a lesson for the humans here. Any biologist will tell you that the mammals that have the most to learn will play the most and play is a natural and vital means of education. Dolphins (and apes) play more than most creatures and it is this unstructured play that enables them to develop crucial life attributes – character, emotional intelligence, critical thinking, empathy, teamwork, communication, adaptability, common sense and ways to control fear and build resilience as well as a love of life itself. Young primary school aged children learn more practical real life abilities through unstructured play than they ever will in the class room. The business leaders, free thinkers and entrepreneurs of the future are born in the playground not the class room. Perhaps if playtime was renamed ‘Unstructured Creative Leadership and Character Development Time’ our policy makers would give it the status it deserves.
So much of our education is actually uneducation as we are told to strive for the ‘Great Reward’ that will come sometime in the distant future. Enjoyment of the education process is the key here. The parent of any three-year-old will tell you that the process of enjoying Christmas presents is the opening of them. In reality, it wouldn’t actually matter if the boxes were empty or wrapped in newspaper (it would certainly make Christmas a lot cheaper!). The irony is that great learning takes place in the present – the wonderful, glorious right here and now – without the fear and anxiety that our over emphasis on past and future creates. Before Tick, Box and Miss Management hijacked the agenda, the great teachers of yesteryear were able to help their pupils get the best grades that they were capable of achieving but by enjoying the journey instead of focusing purely on the destination. Learners function best when they are relaxed and happy and the same is true of the teachers teaching them. A child’s happiness is the single most important thing in his or her life. An obsessive focus on data and goals in the shape of grades and league tables is actually having a negative impact on children’s learning. As well as causing unnecessary misery for thousands of children, our out of control tick box culture is undermining the one thing crucial to a great teacher pupil relationship – trust. Rather than cramming our children’s head with facts we should be teaching them how to think for themselves and to always ask the question ‘why?’ We need to learn to value wisdom and contentment – as Benjamin Hoff put it in his bestselling The Tao of Pooh: ‘We can no longer afford to look so desperately hard for something in the wrong way and in the wrong place.’