Learning Flexibility

Intelligence is knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do, Jean Piaget

Isn’t it part of human nature to crave some certainty in our lives? To want to predict, influence and ultimately control our futures? Change, and particularly uncertain change, is difficult to manage and takes skill, flexibility and resilience: resilience of the individual, community and context. These skills have never been more needed. We live in uncertain times, faced with challenges not only to the outer environment (with a rise in global temperatures, huge political shifts and threats to the natural world) but also the inner environment (managing the information revolution, the global attention economy).

The breadth of the issues facing us in the 21st Century is great. To give a few examples: Artificial Intelligence and developments in robotic technology will mean that over the next 10 to 20 years 44% of jobs could be automated (IPPR 2017). 65.3 Million people have been forcibly displaced due to conflict, persecution or natural disasters across the World (Amnesty International). Social mobility is at an all-time low in the U.K, with the top 1% of the UK population having a greater share of national income than at any time since the 1930s (OECD Social Mobility study 2012).

Two of the key drivers for change in society: families and education institutions, must rise to the challenge of ensuring the next generation are supported and equipped to manage these challenges, to have the flexibility to adapt to an ever-changing and unpredictable future world. To know what to do when they don’t know what to do- not be scared not to have the right answer, give themselves the space, time and tools to find a way through the challenge and to work effectively with others to do so, whether that be a challenge within the family, within the community, or at school and work.

Teaching Flexibility

What does this mean for our priorities in Education? How should young people, who will be the next guardians of our society, the international community and the planet, be supported to have the flexibility to move and adapt to rapidly changing times?

Families and schools must work together to ensure young people are equipped with the skills to self-regulate, to build trusting relationships, to manage failure and to believe in their own power to affect change. It is not to say that a focus on these skills would replace the importance of knowledge, of the skills of analysis, critical thinking, effective communication- indeed they are entirely complimentary. What needs to be reconsidered is the current imbalance in our Education system- in which a relentless emphasis on results and accountability for these results makes fact-retention king and can lead to teaching to the test, unethical ‘off-rolling’ of underperforming students, undermining of teacher professional assessments and burnout of both teachers and young people.

As well as explicit teaching and learning of these skills, we all learn through our daily interactions with one another. The culture in which young people (and adults) are most effectively supported to develop and hone the skills for life and for learning is an emotionally healthy one: one in which trusting relationships are built, challenges are openly and honestly worked through in partnership and individuals feel valued and supported to grow. This applies to both families and schools- working in partnership together can therefore be a powerful agent for change.

A flexible Education system

If we truly value these skills for learning that also build resilience, good mental health and the flexibility to adapt, our Education system must also be flexible enough to change.

Our school system was developed in the Victorian, industrial era to develop a workforce that is no longer needed and in which the world wide web did not yet exist. The challenges outlined above are 21st Century challenges, and yet in the U.K we see an education system that remains defined by narrow, antiquated definitions of success, does not deliver with regard to the skills that employers now actively seek (Life Lessons, Sutton Trust 2017), is witnessing a youth mental illness and teacher recruitment and retention crisis and is stubbornly resistant to improving social mobility.

And when I talk about the system I mean the policies, the structure, the governance mechanisms and the principles that underpin our understanding of individual and school success as measured by League tables- not the schools themselves. There are countless numbers of inspiring leaders in schools who are brave enough to stand up to the system and who are making huge strides for the young people and families in their school community, driven by a shared set of values ( Ideal School Exhibition, Julian Astle, RSA, 2017).

Headteachers, policy makers, parents and young people themselves need change from the narrow, achievement-based and industrial system to a nurturing, flexible system of education that can work for everyone. The relentless focus on academic grades and punitive accountability needs to give way to a system based on broader outcomes- developing skills for life and work through the whole learning community and within an emotionally healthy environment. This culture shift will rely on building trusting, supportive relationships, with equal priority and weight being given to outcomes such as wellbeing and mental health and be accompanied by a significant shift in the focus of school improvement and governance mechanisms.

Bea Stevenson