Maintaining Moral Purpose

Over the summer, I have been involved in three strangely complementary pieces of work. Firstly, I completed a  chapter for soon-to-be-published book entitled ‘Ideas Informed Society’. It focused on what we need to do with young people faced with this febrile social media-driven stream of opinion. Secondly, I took part in a Delphi Method Research programme with 8 European academics trying to pull together the soft skills for the 21st Century. But finally, and for me the most satisfying has been working with our partner school, Kindle Charter School in New Jersey as they kick off their first cohort. They have identified a number of core competencies that need to be infused into all the students’ learning.

None of this will be new to you, whether it is the 5 Cs that Bosworth Academy uses, or the Future Skill adopted by Shevington and mirroring the Kunskapsskolan approach. The truth is that we can cut these skills in so many different ways, and so many are linked together in a hierarchical complementary way. For instance, here is my contribution at one stage of the Delphi Process.

One can go too deep here, but to illustrate – emotional intelligence is a vital quality for any leader. Along with empathy and listening skills, it enables negotiation and conflict resolution.  Then along with collaborative approaches, these help create a team approach. This list of skills was developed through the 6 weeks of discussion with a range of academics  – they are not mine. But what was interesting for me was how three other foci emerged  – coping with uncertainty, ambiguity and risk, a positive attitude to challenges and problem-solving skills. However, we define these skills, whether we call them core competencies future skills or soft skills, these three areas along with leading – which I define more about ownership and agency – are what young people need to master if they are to be successful.

One interesting element to this list was the identification of ‘ethical skills’. I struggled with this, as for me, ethics are not really skills, but the values that underpin our beliefs, our sense of justice and what informs the culture of our organisations and partnerships.

Kindle Education define these skills as the core competencies. They have explicitly identified these as their core purpose and outcomes for their young people.

My concern with both of these lists as with all such categorisations, is how to make them embedded into everyday practice. How do they become a part of the learning flow across a school – in every lesson and learning experience? It’s so easy for all this to be tokenistic.

In Kindle, the school starts every day with what they call SPARK. Here they spend 40 minutes with their teacher coach. It resembles in many ways the CREW time that some of our schools have created. They are spending the first six weeks really drilling down to each of these competencies with students living the competencies in a piece of presentation at the end of each week – purpose, individual and equitable community. 

We now have a set of teacher and learner resources we can share across all of these competencies. It is only at this point that formal coaching for each student- 15 minutes a day – will begin. You cannot coach if there is no goal,  you cannot coach unless learners have a range of metacognitive and executive functioning skills to bring them to reality.  The development of these competencies will create these strategies and skill the learners with positive psychology for success.

But that is the easy bit really. What all educators then need to do is explicitly link the competencies to their day-to-day work and learner tasks. The instructional core as defined by Richard Elmore makes this obvious. We need to create activities that help build these competencies, not just focus on content. It is not either or – its a combination of product and process.

Finally, I come to the Ideas-Informed Society chapter. In the opening to the book, Professor Chris Brown writes 

‘Democratic societies thrive when citizens actively and critically engage with new ideas, developments and claims to truth. Not only can such practices result in more effective choice-making, but they can also lead to widespread support for progressive beliefs, such as social justice. With Western societies in the midst of environmental, social, and political crises, it seems more pertinent than ever that citizens become ‘ideas-informed’.

If we translate this to our young people, schools have an important role in developing foundational attributes that encourage critical thinking, deep learning and empathy and understanding of the society they live and will work in. However, in many jurisdictions, we are far from this school culture and in some systems, they actually close minds and fail to stimulate curiosity and creativity.

We know that the minds of the youngest of children are full of curiosity and yet as they progress through the school years, this is reduced year by year as schools strive to achieve standardised outcomes resulting in enlarged curriculums. However, the solutions do not lie just in the type of teaching, the assessment systems and the curriculum which includes the development of personal and social and civic education programmes; it requires a whole school culture change.

Further, if we are to equip young people for this increasingly chaotic and rapidly changing world, we need to ensure they can handle the ‘mountains’ of information. The big data  statistics for 2023  are frightening:

  • 90% of the world’s data has been created in the last two years.
  • It is estimated that 1.7MB of data is created every second by every person on earth.
  • The average internet user spends 6 hours and 58 minutes per day online.
  • Each day google processes 8.5 billion searches.

Not only are we creating incredible amounts of information,  but young people have unstructured access and as such need a whole new set of skills to be able to process this and turn it into verified valid knowledge. Those creativity skills we seek to enable needs to be based on knowledge and access to a wide range of processed ideas.

Text Box: Goodhart categorises the population as  as ‘anywheres’  and ‘somewheres’. ‘Anywheres’ are generally graduates, live further from their parents, and are more comfortable with openness, autonomy, and novelty. They are more comfortable with social change and can probably fit in anywhere. A larger group are the somewheres, who are generally less well educated are more geographically fixed and feel more comfortable with the familiar and group attachments. It is always difficult to generalise, but mainstream political views tend to be dominated by  modern political parties in the UK and USA with anywhere views. Although the values and world views of both groups are valid this divide helps us understand some the schisms and decisions in political decision making in the last decade.

Are ideas and knowledge equally distributed across the population, so we reach the best of decisions? Or are large sections of the population alienated from political decision-making? This works both ways. A lack of empathy and understanding of those most disadvantaged might impact negatively on the decisions taken by the government. Children are not just influenced by schools but more especially by their families and their community.

This is a whole new subject for discussion, but I want to just relate this to children in our schools. If we add poverty to alienation, then we further limit access to information. Just take a few basic facts about education poverty (25)

  • Children who have lived in persistent poverty during their first seven years have cognitive development scores on average 20 per cent below those of children who have never experienced poverty.
  • It is estimated that 7.1 million do not have the literacy skills they need to read a newspaper or complete basic tasks such as filling in a job application.
  • Research shows the deprivation that this brings puts them at significant risk from such things as crime and mental health issues.
  • These can be traced back poor literacy skills in childhood. Children with poor skills at five are six times more likely to reach expected levels at 11 and the situation deteriorates through high school.

If we are serious about having an ideas-informed society, we have to deal with a significant cohort who cannot access let alone analyse information or data. And this has to start in schools. It is much further than equality. It’s about equity.

I entitled this piece as maintaining moral purpose. We talk a lot about a broad education when in reality that is not what most young people receive. We talk about equity and yet we do not mitigate against the challenges many young people have to access learning equitably. But do we create the space in the curriculum to develop the whole person? We may say we do!

Much of what Global Spirt Ed is about,is helping schools rethink the way young people can access their learning. By personalisation and adaption, by coaching and positive psychology, by creating visibility we help schools realise their goals. By providing wider opportunities across the schools, we enable them to challenge traditional school thinking. Taking a positive approach and embedding competency development at the heart of school culture makes our school missions believable.

I am going to finish this with a couple of recent encounters. I had the pleasure recently at the LIFE Trust of sharing a platform with Craig Pinkney. Craig is a Criminologist, Urban Youth Specialist, Visiting Lecturer, Founder and Director at Solve: The Centre for Youth Violence and Conflict. Craig is recognised as one of the UK’s leading thinkers/doers in Responding to Street Gangs and Serious Youth Violence. He talked about the lives of many young people in our urban centres at risk of exploitation, gangs and knife crime. He challenged us to think about how our programmes in school are reflective of the daily life of those teenagers. Do we recognise the context outside school they have to face.

And then at the Kindle Launch, I met a young black poet and painter Keion Kopper.  The founder of Kindle DJ Hartigan met Keion about ten years ago when he was a tutor in a school especially working with those who were at risk of disengagement. It was powerful to see the testimony that Keion gave about how DJ had helped him reframe his thinking and how he owes his well-being and success to that coaching intervention. The tears in his eyes said it all. The power of coaching  and someone believing in the limitless potential of every individual

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