Our Beautifully Global-Minded Empathy-Fuelled Children
Do you know who is an outspoken advocate of the rights of every man, woman and child? Do you know who cares deeply about the plight of every refugee? Do you know whose heart aches at the destruction of the rainforest? Do you know whose gratitude towards those who educate them runs deep through their appreciative veins?
Every single primary school child, as expressed through their writing.
At this juncture, I could begin to make a point along the lines of…
What is it about growing up that takes these sensitive compassionate young souls and turns them against the world? What could secondary schools do differently to sustain this globally minded compassion that is the life-force of primary aged children?
I won’t be doing this, as you have probably detected from my tone. The uniform compassion and care of primary children, en masse, is a load of bunkum. It’s cobblers.
No friends, this shall be a tale of pliability, desirability effects and the sense that the morally correct answer is the one that curries a teacher’s favour.
I want to ground learning in the reality that most children don’t give honestly a toss about what goes on in the world, or certainly no more than most of us do as adults. Most are emergent ReTweet activists at best, but are more likely to spend their time eating crisps and playing on their phone.
This seems dark and cynical, but for me, I think anything approaching genuine hope – however lofty and ideals-driven this concept is – should have its origins in an accurate understanding of what goes on on the ground.
So here we have it. Towards a Pedagogy of Authentic Indifference.
Picture the scene. Yours truly is teaching a lesson in a unit on Global Citizenship on recycling, telling them about the journey that their plastic bottle takes from being bought in the shop to being salvaged in some dump, once our garbage has been outsourced internationally. The ultimate point here is to build an understanding of the connectedness between our convenience and the things that allow for it.
Cue a room full of suddenly environmentally inclined children. See as thirty exercise books become filled with impassioned defences of recycling and of the need to reduce use of plastics. Watch as thirty children commit themselves on paper to doing something right by the world.
The lesson over, the children back home, I pour through, littering their workbooks with ticks and praise, a question here or there. I might see a passage or two that seemed to be suffused with genuine empathy and care, but by and large, I know that on the way home, as these kids drank their bottles of coke, they probably chucked it in the bin.
Here’s a thought. If, when we are asking to children to write, and imploring them to really get their own viewpoints and ideas down, why is it that they all write basically the same thing. If, when asked ‘What will you do differently to stop climate change?’, the pupil answered like this, how would we respond?
It strikes almost as defiant. How dare Iqbal refuse to engage in this compulsory parade of global empathy I have created for my class?
The fact that children tend not to write things like this, tending instead to feign interest in literally whatever we ask them to have an opinion about, suggests a number of things.
It could suggest that they think we care about everything, and expect them to care about everything.
It could suggest that they know that we as teacher don’t actually want their opinions, but what we want is what we would like their opinions to be.
Pupils perceptions of what we consider desirable work structures their thinking, their writing and their contributions far more than the need for them to authentically and honestly reflect on their opinions.
Sometimes the issue is in deliver. We may have a unit of work about, let’s say, poverty around the world, but what we are judging their work on is not so much a knowledge of what poverty means, what it looks like, where it is and its complexities. Chances are, they are being judged on some piece of reflective writing where we implicitly expect them to care about it. The work is at the level of pathos not logos.
Why does this happen then? Partly, I think teachers expect a certain uniformity of response because they input a uniform contribution of delivery. Partly, I think pupils read between the lines and I think that even when we tell them we want to see their real opinions and perspectives on something, they know we are being disingenuous.
If we were not being disingenuous in this manner, for a pupil to say ‘Sorry, respectfully, I hate reading Anne Frank’s diary because I prefer Star Wars’ would not be defiance bordering on hate crime, but would be an authentic statement of fact, an accurate response to the question.
What am I suggesting here?
For one thing, let me be clear in stating that I am not an ‘enlightened one’ here, who challenges this for myself all the time. Simply, recently, I have flirted with the idea.
Again in the Global Citizenship unit with Year 5, I have them contemplate who manufactured the things they own, including the clothes they are currently wearing. Picture yours truly, hoisting a child’s Nike Huarche skyward in front of a map focused on Indonesia (NOTE – child was not attached to shoe at this point). Picture the frenetic energy of 30 children frantically grappling at the labels on each other jackets and trainers, looking at which country their products were made in.
Picture me, commanding silence, frown lines switched to ‘life changing wisdom nuggets approaching’ mode, fleece in hand, telling them calmly about the working conditions and often exploitative labour conditions. See me nudging my charges towards contemplating the twisted vines of irony of they themselves, many of them of Bangladeshi origin, wearing school jumpers being produced in Bangladesh, a country rife with child labour and low education rates, and of us using it as an example of exploited labour in a lesson on global citizenship.
But then, after the fervent indignation has risen, I dropped the truth bomb. Handing the expensive trainer back to the kid with the holy sock, my voice back to human mode rather than TED talk, I say to them
‘But let’s be real. None of you care enough to actually do anything about it right? Nor do I, look at me – I am preaching this whilst wearing an Adidas tracksuit. Who here actually cares?’
Ah, this is it. Now they are actually thinking. I can tell, because their eyes are lilting upwards, rather than towards each other. A couple tentatively put their hands up, some look around a bit nervously. They have actually been asked now.
Policing the Twee
A final thought here. Perhaps we are so dependent on this false reality of primary schools as places of unfettered kindness, goodwill and youthful decency that we fail to prepare our pupils to actually become positive, compassionate souls. Primary-focused resource sites tell of a gaudy Cath Kidstonian perception of the years before 11. The language of the Twinkls and Mrs Pancakes tell a tale of Comic Sans and Cartoon Frogs ribbiting public service announcements about Safer Internet Use. I am not posturing here, but primary schools are not a place of fairy dust and kindness. Kids batter each other in the playground for fun, choosing to do so with friends. Children say abhorrent things to each other to hurt each others feelings. The gender divide is routinely fortified and friendship groups stratify by race and religion.
The kids know this, but we don’t often talk about it. They are just as human as we are; viscerally so.
So it is wrong of us to approach questions of social and moral decision-making from the presumed standpoint of egalitarianism. Some children don’t care about Black History Month, and some children are racist. You won’t see this if you look in their books though, because the lessons have bene taught from the standpoint of a set of shared values that, actually, possibly don’t exist. We tell them what it is acceptable to think, and ask them how they respond. In doing the moral thought for them, and then retrospectively asking them how they will demonstrate the values that we tell them they already have, we leave them ill equipped to truly embody them.
We ought to second-guess pupils work. Some children genuinely will hold values that chime with our own, and which would contribute to a cohesive society that moves beyond ‘toleration’ towards genuine respect. Some of our children can see beyond their own perspectives and experience life through the lens of the other. But many won’t and many don’t. We need to police the twee, and ask, are the kids just saying this because they think it is what I want to hear?
Teachers, hands up if you have ever been told by a child that you are their favourite teacher. Hands up if you have been told by the same child multiple times that you are their favourite teacher.
Don’t get me wrong, it is a really nice boost to receive such things, but let’s maintain a focus on the fact that it is really in children’s best interests to grease up our palms. The surest route to a successful and easy ride through primary school is to do what it takes to secure positive praise and attention from the teacher.
I Am Not A Monster
I say this because I want them to be curious, critical and make an impact, rather than just saying ‘I want them to be curious, critical and make an impact’ and then keeping them in a social condition that prevents it from happening.