Kids are under a lot of pressure these days. The government put the screws on schools in the name of €˜standards', teachers put the screws on children in the name of €˜rigour' and everyone seems to be becoming increasingly unhappy, stressed and ill.
But it doesn't have to be this way.
For over two decades I have been helping young people learn how to use their brains effectively, not only to succeed in school but also to thrive outside of it. One of the areas that I have spent a great deal of time working on is known as Philosophy for Children or P4C. Originally devised by an American philosophy professor frustrated that his undergraduates could tell him what Socrates thought but couldn't think for themselves, it is a process that encourages children of all ages and academic abilities to talk, to listen and to think for themselves.
With school increasingly (re)becoming the place where facts are learned to pass the tests that are set, the need to be taught those facts, to memorise them and then remember them under pressure weighs heavy on all concerned. It can not only mean the difference between pass and fail, it can also mean the difference between feeling like a success and feeling like a failure.
And feelings carry much more weight than facts.
Research shows that when we base our sense of self around our test results, then we are asking for trouble. A poor test score should elicit the response, €˜How can I be better next time?' and not, €˜How bad am I?!!'. In the former, what is called a €˜growth mindset' means that the child knows they can improve and that they can change their approach and learn to get a better result next time. In the latter, the child (and it is often the high-flying girls who fall prey to this mindset most) feel they have failed therefore they must be a failure. And feeling like you are a failure is not a healthy way for any of us to think about ourselves.
In my experience, there are two simple things we can do to help children with this unhealthy mindset. The first is to reinforce the following phrase until it really hits home:
I am not my exam results. I am both capable and lovable, regardless of my test scores.
The second is to change the rules of the game, at least some of the time. If you start to work with children where it is less about what they know (ie can remember) and more about what they think, then there is no chance of failure. By moving away from fixed right or wrongs answers by using questions where there are no set answers, we involve children in the joy of thinking without the fear of €˜getting it wrong.'
Which brings us back to philosophy and, in particular, to a device I called a Thunk.
Proven to work with children the world over, a Thunk is a beguiling little question that appears simple but for which the answer could be yes, no, neither, both, none of the above or all of the above. By asking questions like, €˜Can you hear silence?', Would you be cleverer in a different room?' or €˜Is it right to bully a bully', I have known children who never normally talk suddenly speak up, families who never get to chat engaged in heated debate and children (boys especially) who would never pick up a book devour one question after another.
And, in doing so, I have seen their self-esteem grow in quite magical ways.