When I first started on my teaching fellowship ‘sabbatical’ last month, I set out to explore ‘non violent pedagogies’ (my term for collaborative or broadly child-centred teaching). I knew I wanted to explore mediation in conflict situations out in the world beyond the somewhat rarified air of Wellington College, and visit some schools who are doing innovative things around educating the whole person by specifically addressing various social and cultural issues that the kids bring to school. I’ve spent a few weeks doing that exploration and some of those ideas were starting to come together in practical ways, but it was arriving home at Wellington just in time to hear some of the highest profile speakers at last week’s Education Festival, that really brought things into focus. Growth mindset is not just the latest educational buzz-phrase: it’s out there all around us.
We all know that what happens in the classroom doesn’t happen in a vacuum, that context may not be all but that it is certainly a factor, and that pupils don’t perform at their best when distracted by problems outside the classroom. And yet, even as we teachers bewail government directives that compel us and our pupils to jump through ever narrowing educational hoops defined in terms of ‘accountability‘, ‘standards’ and (of course) ‘results‘, and even as those outside the largely self referential world of education are beginning to notice and report that the kids aren’t all right, I can’t help feeling that we teachers often failCarol Dweck to see the social and emotional wood trom which the learning trees grow, or not, right under our noses. And maybe a period ‘out’ is what’s needed to see more, and say what we see.
So, I spent the first week and a bit on a mediation course run by the redoubtable Maria Arpa of the Centre for Peaceful Solutions. She works to a Restorative justice model, helping divorcing couples, fighting neighbours, gang members and guys in prison to resolve their differences without resorting to violence. What did I learn? Well, it can work, with far harder nuts to crack than the average teenager, however surly and monosyllabic. I can even see how it could work in schools, not as some bolt on alternative to ‘real’ punishment, but as an effective communication tool for classroom teachers to mediate between what they want and need the kids to do, what the kids want and need to do – sometimes but not always the same things – and what the school hierarchy, parents, and everyone outside the classroom wants and needs them to do. I wonder how that idea would go down with the teaching Twitterati, and I’m left wondering why there’s so much machismo in teaching, all that ‘Don’t smile before half term’ and ‘My classroom, my rules’ stuff. I wonder why we teachers so often adopt that pose; maybe because the only alternative we see is to be the ‘nice’ teacher, you know, the one who wants to be everyone’s friend, who lets the kids get away with stuff, who doesn’t bother with the rules we all rely on to keep the kids safe, ourselves sane, the whole show on the road. I think once again how teaching is plagued by false dichotomies.
From false dichotomies to a real life divide: the second and third weeks I was in Northern Ireland. I am supposed to be off doing something explicitly ‘educational’ (as if anything isn’t, but you know what I mean) and I have connections there, so I visited an integrated school. “Integrated Schooling isn’t a sector; it’s a movement.” says Heather Watson, head teacher of Phoenix Integrated Primary school, Cookstown, Co. Tyrone. She tells me about the issues facing Integrated schools, that is schools where children from the two faith backgrounds can be educated together, as long as the school administration can demonstrate a sectarian breakdown of 40% Catholic, 40% Protestant and 20% ‘Other’. You mean you didn’t know there is a part of the UK in 2015 where the education system is almost entirely divided along sectarian lines that date back to the 19th century? And you may well ask how shoehorning everybody else, from Atheists to devout Muslims, into that that ‘20% “Other'”, fits into recognising and reflecting multi-cultural Britain, Ireland and/or Europe. Welcome to Northern Ireland education policy.
Central government education funding plans may equate to real-term cuts throughout the UK, but NI Integrated schools also face the hostility from the local ‘mainstream’ maintained sector, who have recently been successful in persuading the Stormont Executive to support not integrated, but ‘shared’ education – which means separate schools sharing playing fields and science labs, all of which you can do without actually having to talk to anyone. I work in the Independent sector. I know sharing facilities is an easy way to do something that looks community spirited, and it’s certainly an improvement on closing ourselves behind wrought iron gates and posting ‘keep off the grass’ signs, but Integrated Education in Northern Ireland goes further than this sort of superficial sharing: its specific intention is to ‘take the fear out of difference’ by letting the children get to know each other by name instead of by religious denomination.
In Northern Ireland 18 years after the Good Friday Agreement, talking to each other is still avoided, and still a matter of life or death. Heather Watson’s school has just celebrated the first 10 years of integrated education in Cookstown, Co. Tyrone. They have a new nursery block, fully subscribed with new pupils, but because of the cuts they don’t have the money yet to furnish it. That ‘yet’ is Heather’s: when I visited she was getting ready to welcome the September intake of infants, and their parents, for an induction day. She lives in hope; she knows that Phoenix IPS is a lot more than the furniture. But furniture would still help.
If Phoenix IPS is bounded by the limitations of the Executive’s furniture budget, parts of Northern Ireland face much greater educational challenges. When I visited East Belfast Mission’s Skainos Centre, Director Gary Mason gave me a tour of the local streets, decked out in a gaudy array of Union flags of all shapes and sizes, with the occasional Saltire and Star of David flying alongside on lampposts, overhead lines and drainpipes. ‘They’re getting ready for the 12th; it’s not usually this much.’ he says. We drive along the ‘peace walls’ separating the enclave within the enclave: one ‘Catholic’ street, end terraces boarded up, a lone Republican tricolour flying from the upstairs window of the central house in the row. A newer wall, bricks brighter orange against the older terracotta of those it abuts, cuts straight across what used to be a through road. He tells me the residents here live with a daily low level barrage of golf balls, bottles, bricks into their back gardens over the wall. It goes both ways, all year, and intensifies now, in the ‘marching season’ . He shows me the gable end where, a few years ago, the local community painted over a house-sized picture of armed and balaclava’d paramilitaries with a mural of Aslan, the wardrobe and the snowy woods of Narnia. C.S. Lewis was born not two miles from here, he says. We need to celebrate something else about our culture than this – waving his hand towards the flags. I make admiring noises and he demurs. I missed a chance, he says; a lot of the people here have literacy issues; I should have given out copies of the book. Anything to get the kids reading. He drives round the corner and we stop at this mural.
The boy is from the Protestant side, the ‘wee girl’ the daughter of a local Catholic family. A local wrote the poem and they put it up on the wall. That’s great, I say. The paramilitary ones are going up again, he says. For a few years we were painting them over; now they’re coming back.
Back at the Skainos centre, Gary introduces me to Linda Ervine, whose work with the centre’s Irish language project, Turas, has just won an award. People here were annoyed when Turas started, she says – like everything else here, the Irish Language is politicised, seen as belonging to the Catholic Republican cause. They need to learn their own history says Gary Mason – they need to learn about the 18th century Presbyterians who went out on horseback ministering to their – Irish speaking – Presbyterian congregations. Linda Ervine agrees. She’s just come back from the Scottish highlands, where Gallic is spoken by proud Scots of every sectarian affiliation. I think that false dichotomies, unchallenged, lead to real divides. But even here there is hope, and breaches in memory and knowledge can be mended: Turas Irish Language classes are now attended by people from all backgrounds, their hunger to learn bringing them together.
I fly back to attend a service at St Paul’s to commemorate the Battle of Waterloo. Wellington College is the national monument to the Iron Duke, so some of us staff and pupils, are invited. It’s all grand, and humbling, with young boy soldiers and old men soldiers reading out eye witness accounts from their actual or regimental ancestors. The current Duke of Wellington reads from the Bible about the peace of God, which passes understanding. We sing the National Anthem.
Waterloo Day is also the first day of Wellington’s Festival of Education, so I can only get to the second day. Ken Robinson is entertaining; he says a lot of the stuff that I have already read in one of his books, and gets some laughs. But Carol Dweck is the one I have come to see. As expected, she talks about Mindset, then she expands on her theme to talk about ‘false growth mindset’. I sit up and take notice. When she says we teachers need to examine our own areas of fixed mindset before they can truly ‘walk the walk’, I am mentally shouting ‘Yes!’ and doing air punches. Yes, it starts with us; yes, we need to look at our own attitudes before we can really help our those of our students; yes, the walls between us are extensions of the walls within us. What we bring to the classroom isn’t just our knowledge and qualifications; it’s the sum total of ourselves. Any teacher knows that: the question is, how do we reflect it in our practice?