The education journey…

  •  Benjamin Whitaker
  •  March 7, 2017
  •  blog

Disclaimer: The following is a little story about my journey in education. It is based on theories and opinions that I have constructed through my personal experience and interaction with the world up to this point in time! I am open to discussion, therefore I am also open to anybody telling me that my theories are wrong and that I should stop talking such nonsense!

When I went to teacher training college in the year 2000, I didn’t want to become a teacher. I just wanted the degree that A. shows that I could apply myself at a tertiary level and B. allowed me to work in different countries around the world. My first teaching job was one week of supply teaching at the primary school where I was taught as a child. It was a small, country town, catholic primary school with around one hundred students. A nice and easy place to start.

My next two years were quite the opposite. I worked for a teaching agency in England and travelled all over London as a supply teacher, walking in and out of a huge variety of schools, primary and secondary. I didn’t really know much about what is was to be a good supply teacher when I arrived in England but it was either sink or swim, so learnt rather rapidly about the ins and outs of walking into a classroom of thirty or so unknown kids.

At one secondary school I would walk into the classroom, stand in front of the door and wouldn’t move until the end of the class, unless it was to call the security guards to come and break up a fight. Afterwards, the guards would leave, and I would take my position in front of the door again! I wouldn’t say there was a lot of teaching or learning going on in those classes. At the time, I didn’t think very highly of that experience but looking back on it, I would love the challenge of walking into that classroom again!

I also remember the first and last time that I tried shouting in the classroom. It was within the first 3 months of being in England. I was teaching in a class of thirteen and fourteen year olds. The classroom environment was rapidly deteriorating, therefore my frustration and the volume of my voice were rising. It got to a point where I thought that I had no other choice, so I shouted at them. It was like the volume of my voice was food for the beast! The students just laughed at me and got steadily worse. It was a valuable lesson in teaching to learn early on in the piece.

There were many valuable lessons learnt in those two years, and if I wasn’t a teacher at the beginning, I was at least half of a teacher at the end of it. I began to interact better with young humans, and even began enjoyed it. At that point I played with the idea that maybe teaching was for me!

After two years of many different schools, I got offered a job as the specialist music teacher in a school called Noel Park Primary of five hundred children. There were fifty-two different languages spoken at that school so it was a melting pot of cultures. It was one of the better jobs that I had ever had because there was no music curriculum, so I got to make it up!

Having artistic freedom with five hundred children was a great learning experience. I had always played music but never really taught it. It is one thing to play music, it is a completely different game to teach it. There were many bad music classes, but also a huge amount of amazing learning and teaching moments. Having five hundred kids perform in the end of year peace concerts was a highlight. Having to write five hundred reports each year was not high on the highlight list!

After two years at Noel Park Primary I decided to leave London. I loved the learning experience of being involved with a great school and some brilliant teachers. I loved the professional development, and the opportunity to share learning with teachers and children alike. I am forever grateful for what I took away from that school. It was at Noel Park that I realised magic could happen within the classroom. Even though I had learnt so much, I felt that working within that education system wasn’t for me. At the time, I couldn’t exactly put my finger on why that was.
Even though I had the freedom to teach whatever I wanted, I could feel the restrictions of the system. I would see other teachers working their arses off to prepare the children for exams (SAT’s). If scores were good, then the school would get more money. It was like a business. I must say this right now, monetary reward for children’s good grades is the worst idea in education, ever!

I had found something in the connection between myself, music and children that was the catalyst to something much bigger than the type of formal education that was being delivered. I found something that interested me. It had something to do with the development of the true child, the one that has the freedom to express, to be creative, to be imaginative, and to connect. To connect with themselves and those around them. It didn’t come through the development of what is formally known as intellect, it came through art.

We have a little girl in Food for Thought who has been with us for three years. When she began with us, she wouldn’t talk. It was about a year before she said anything to me. Slowly but surely, through art, drama and music lessons, and a lot of coaxing, she began to display the true child that had been buried deep inside. Last year in a music class she sang in front of the other children. In the moment, I struggled to play the guitar because I was trying to fight back the tears. Through the power of the arts, she felt comfortable enough to freely express herself and open herself up to connect with others.

There are many styles of formal education. Most, not all, are a top-down approach. I am not saying that there isn’t a place for formal education, because there is. I just feel that historically, formal education is full of so many restrictions, structures, rules and conformities that it stifles the true essence of what it is to be a child, to be an individual. I believe that formal education the world over needs to be looked at from a different perspective. Not a top-down approach that is mainly focused on developing intellect, but a bottom-up approach focused on the individual. The child needs to have a say in what he or she wants to learn! An approach that truly focuses on the needs of the child in today’s world. One that supports the development of the child as an individual human who is a valid, interesting and unique member of society. Not one that supports the growth of homogeneous beings who all need to learn the same thing.

I’ll be specific. Education comes from a state level. (I’m going to generalise quite generously here) It comes from people who have never set foot in a classroom, apart from when they were children, who pass down what they see fit for children to learn. They say that a child at x age, should be at x level in all of the subjects that are chosen for that child. They then mark the child on their abilities in all subject areas to compare them to the rest. If a child is not performing in an area, then parents are talked to about their underperforming child. A child sees him or herself as good, average or bad in any subject area. If this isn’t teaching a child to be more like everyone else, I don’t know what is. Ask any parent in the world if they would want their child to be the same as everyone else or a unique individual… I know what the answer would be.

I can vividly remember my English classes at high school. When it was my turn to read, there would be a quiet groan that would sound around the students. They knew what was coming. I would stumble on every firth word, and fumble my way through the text. There would be a heavy awkwardness in the classroom. The sweat would build on my forehead during the silences between words, and the room would grow increasingly stuffy and suffocating. At times, it was a horrible experience. I would also struggle trying to interpret poems that to me sounded like they were random words thrown at the page. I was never at the level of my classmates yet we would all be taught the same thing as though because of our year of birth, we had exactly the same ability.

I am not saying that I have the answer. I am searching for an alternative. Nor am I saying that there is “one answer”. Every school in every country in the world has a different environment and social/cultural context which means there is no “one answer”. Schools should teach to what is relevant within that community context, not to what the whole country should achieve. I believe that that is part of the answer. There are also some amazing changes going on in education and some brilliant schools and teachers who are instigating beautiful learning opportunities, so it’s not all doom and gloom. In many cases though, the great stuff that is happening isn’t being helped by the state. For example, the New Zealand curriculum document is fantastic! Unit standards are not!

Seeing as I haven’t been involved in formal education since 2008, I decided to talk to some teachers. After recently facilitating half a dozen or so interviews with teachers in New Zealand (yes I know, it is a very small sample size), I noticed a very strong underlying theme of too much assessment within schools. It not only stifles children’s creativity but also the teacher’s. Teachers spend so much time assessing and marking that they don’t have time to plan the amazing lessons for kids. It’s a system that restricts everyone. What I see is the system being such a ball and chain on teachers that it strips them of their energy and passion to support kids in achieving their full potential. 30% of new teachers in New Zealand leave teaching within five years. In the UK, 40% of new teachers leave within the first twelve months!

So, after leaving London I went to Spain for six months and worked in a cafe. I met someone who would play a vital role in my journey of education. An Argentinian by the name of Valeria. After Spain I moved back to my home town of Alexandra to work for a term as the arts and sports coordinator in my old high school. It was a great change and I really enjoyed working with many teachers who once taught me! I also got another taste of the huge lasting impact that music can have on youth. I took several bands to a local rock-quest competition. There was an energy and excitement that is rarely achieved in a classroom. Young people had the opportunity to express themselves using a form of communication slightly different to the norm. This is proof that great things are happening within schools. I just feel that it is such a small percentage of the overall package. I believe that the arts need to have much more space within the formal education context. I feel that this is also part of the answer.

Art is expression, whether that be music, visual art, drama, dance or any other art form. As I am a male from New Zealand, I know that I could have used a few more tips on expression as a youngster. Speaking from experience, males in New Zealand aren’t that good at expressing themselves, especially if it has anything to do with emotions. I feel that the arts can be used as a tool to develop self-expression.

We have a boy of ten years old who attends Food for Thought. He has a horrible home situation of abuse and neglect. He never talks to us about his problems. He brews them up inside. There are a few ways that he expresses himself. He is a complete clown, and the other kids laugh at him because it is actually hysterically funny. He is a great actor. He also has amazing rhythm and is gifted musically. He is in his element when he is performing. It is even a form of therapy for him, an outlet.

After teaching in my home town I moved to Australia. I did a little bit of supply teaching and then left teaching to start a cafe. At the time, I didn’t think I would go back to teaching, but somewhere deep inside I still had an education itch that needed to be scratched. My experiences were great but I couldn’t see myself teaching and not being able to have full control of what was being taught. Being in schools had allowed me to be in contact with a lot of humans. The cafe environment was also one within which I could have a lot of social interaction. I am a social person and contact with other humans is my drug of choice. Making coffee allowed me to get my fill on people through them coming into my cafe to consume their drug of choice.

After almost five years of coffee making coffee in Melbourne I turned the cafe into a social enterprise. I moved to Argentina and myself and my Argentinian friend Valeria started a healthy food and creative educational activity program for vulnerable children. We direct 100% of the profits of the cafe to support this project. We were to have the freedom to teach whatever we wanted. It was time to scratch that itch! It is quite funny because I am writing all of this in hindsight. I don’t think I ever consciously thought about this trajectory. I was just following my nose and seeing where it took me. I used to express my frustration about the education system but it is only recently that I am beginning to understand exactly why that was or is.

I want to say that we don’t have the solution. Social Opportunity Group is working on “a” solution. Three years ago, we started this project and we are refining and tuning it as we go. We are very young in terms of being a facility that engages in education. I also don’t have any delusions that we are creating an education revolution. It is an alternative that, at the moment, is accompanying the formal education system for about 30 primary school aged children here in Argentina. In my head, if we can create something that works within this extremely difficult social/cultural/familial environment, then some form of it might be applicable within different contexts.

Firstly, it is important to declare what our goal is for education for primary school aged children. We want to forge values in each child, catalysing the development of sustainable communities. Relationships are at the centre of any functioning community. Our goal is for children to have the empathy, confidence and self-control to be able to form and maintain those relationships.

So here is it. The health of a human has four key elements. Intellectual, physical, emotional and spiritual. Here are our interpretations of these:
Intellectual – your understanding of the world
Physical – the functioning of your body as it is designed to function
Emotional – your reactions to your interactions with the world
Spiritual – the connection with yourself and your emotions in the present moment
Within our project, we are attempting to promote the growth of all four elements. We believe that it is not acceptable to only cater for some of them. It’s like building a car but not putting any wheels on it. We want to support the growth of the child as a whole.

We put an emphasis on the physical, emotional and spiritual elements. We believe that the intellectual element comes naturally when a child is healthy physically, emotionally and spiritually. If children are unstable physically, emotionally or spiritually, then it can be difficult to develop a sound understanding of the world around them. There is a young girl of nine who attends Food for Thought that seems to be incapable of expressing her emotions. Whenever she has a problem with another child, she is completely unwilling to discuss any kind of reaction that she had. It hinders her development because she gets too upset and sits out of classes.

We also believe that the intellect will develop naturally if the other three elements are in balance. Children are naturally inquisitive, they absorb the information that surrounds them. They absorb all of the information that is relevant to their lives in the environment within which they live. This is an important point to make that means that we don’t have to focus so much on the intellect! Our form of education is moving away from many formal education environments where children are tested on their intellect from a very young age.

We began this project with the view that healthy food and creative activity were the perfect couple when it came to supporting the positive development of children. We served healthy meals, and coupled that with activities in art, music and drama. To this day, we still believe in that hypothesis, although we have grown the activity side of the program. We now also offer yoga, gardening, cooking and physical education through games. We also have all sorts of invited guests to give workshops and activities such as: clown, circus, cooking, music and art.

Food plays such a major role in children’s development. Our gardening project has been a revelation. Kids who have never put anything green in their mouths before are now eating greens regularly because they had a hand in growing it! From our perspective, especially within the community that we are working, food is a key focus. Food is medicine. If children can learn good eating habits at a young age, then they are much less likely to need medication later on in life. Not to mention the impact that a balanced diet has on the spiritual and emotional aspects of health. Just to add, the pharmaceutical industry in Argentina is crazy. Everyone is medicated is some form or another, even kids.

We put the children into three ability groups for classes. More often than not that means that the children are in age groups. If there is a child that is less or more able in a certain subject area, then we move them to a different group. For example, we had a child of 10 years old with learning challenges who felt very comfortable with the younger children, so he participated in all of the classes with the younger children. So generally speaking, the groups are 6/7 year olds, 8/9 year olds, and 10/11/12 year olds. For all groups, but particularly the youngest group, we have a strong focus on games. Children have a lot of creativity and imagination and they learn through discovery. We want to support the growth of open minds that are inquisitive and free. Games paly a big role within our project!

We evaluate every day on things that functioned well and areas that need improvement. We take an objective view and try to be as honest as possible in all of our evaluations. This process is central and imperative to the development of the project. In a very quantity-focused world, we are very quality-focused. A very simple yet effective method that we often use to evaluate activities is: noting the smiles on the faces of children. We also encourage trial and error because that is where the learning and development happens for us and for children.
We are lucky enough to have this opportunity to develop an education program with no restrictions. The most important factor is that we care for the positive holistic development of children. Everything that we do is capacity building for children is this big crazy world that we live in. The world is changing at such a fast pace, that the best possible thing that we can do is support the children in developing their ability to think and learn for themselves. It is a natural instinct that children have. We shouldn’t be teachers, who the hell knows what these kids will need to know, ten, fifteen, twenty years down the track? We should be supporters in the process of learning and investigation. Our role is to put opportunities and experiences in front of children that excite them enough to create their own opportunities and experiences in learning for themselves.

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