Throughout the course of my teaching career, in both state primary and secondary settings based in the UK, I have spent a great deal of time – as I’m sure many have – discussing levels; their pros and cons for both students and staff.
My main concern with ‘best fit’ practise was that teachers often felt extreme amounts of pressure to ‘mark positively’ and move students up – especially considering that in many places, levels are not only a reflection of their own teaching abilities and the school overall, but something that can directly affect their income. The result of this, however, is that children are sent up to their next year of school with level 4s, when actually they’re missing some basics from level 1.
Gaps in learning can be very hard to fill. In my head it’s like building a wall, but leaving out a few bricks in the bottom and middle and all over the place. Now I’m no builder – but I don’t imagine it’s anywhere near as easy to put those bricks in securely with cement as it is to just pile them all up one by one as you go.
Life skills are much the same. On any given day, myself and many others will become incredibly frustrated with our students because they seemingly exhibit a massive lack of respect, empathy, attention span, pride, collaborative skills, resilience, curiosity, organisation, confidence, independence and so much more.
These are the real ‘gaps’ in learning.
For the most part, we don’t even bother to measure or assess or even teach these vital life skills. We’re too busy arranging exam boosters and extra revision homework to plan out activities that will really encourage ‘little Johnny’ to stop seeing himself as a failing learner or give ‘little Suzie’ the courage to answer questions without her suffering dry mouth and heart palpitations, and ‘never wanting to do that again!’
This is just wrong. So wrong. We’re preparing our kids to succeed at exams, and fail at life.
And I speak from experience. I left school as an extremely successful student – academically successful – yet I was paralysed by a total lack of social confidence. I had full-blown panic attacks when I was asked a question in class; I feigned sickness to avoid Tuesdays as I’d have to go into another class and take my double-bass out of the room; I prayed to god – successfully I might add! – that my English teacher would be off school so I wouldn’t have to do a book presentation to my form. If confidence had been measured like my RE Short-course GCSE, I’d have been leaving with a very sad looking U along with my other grades.
It wasn’t until I was about 25 and teaching – already battling intensely low self-esteem, constant depression and anxiety, following years of missed opportunities because I ‘just couldn’t see myself doing something like that’ usually because ‘there’s a presentation element’ – that I decided enough was enough. I knew that it was something I needed to conquer.
I went to the doctor and had a course of CBT. I took beta blockers for really pressurised speaking situations. I read every book going about public speaking, and I completed the activities inside. I watched TED talks constantly. I joined ‘social phobia’ forums and discussed things feelings and actions. I listened to hypnosis from my speaker-pillow.
And it worked. I learnt that controlling my thoughts could set me free, and that avoiding painful situations would only lead to more pain down the line. So now, whilst I wouldn’t describe myself as a social butterfly, I am for the most part just as anxious as the next person and probably more confident than most. I regularly push myself to do things that scare me, nerves and all, and I encourage the students that I teach to do the same.
For the generation of children being taught right now, these skills are even more important. The advent of iphones and ipads has ignited curiosity in many learners, giving them answers galore at their fingertips, but technology has also stopped many children from interacting with each other, and in some cases their family too, in a real way that fosters emotion, empathy, speaking and listening (not hearing), courage and team skills. This lack of human contact, combined with the government’s obsession with exam testing, is only worsening the problem.
I struggled through my problems – and eventually, I triumphed. But it was such a struggle. And I don’t want that battle for our children. I want them to learn, in school, to be resilient and hopeful and kind and thoughtful. I want them to learn to embrace challenges rather than running away from them; to work with people who aren’t just like them and be okay with it; to develop their own strategies of solving problems before asking someone ‘smarter’ to work it out for them.
The time is now. With the dawn of ‘Life without Levels,’ teachers and school leaders in both primary and secondary settings need to embrace this opportunity. That’s what it is – an opportunity to teach and measure and foster something real.