Introducing Diversity to a Homogeneous Classroom Environment

And I know you like a jazzier title, so…..

Don’t tell me your kids are too white to care about black people!

Life has a funny way of throwing truths at you, doesn’t it? One minute, you’re happily living in your self-selected bubble of radical, leftist, anti-racist educationalists who are as right-on as right-on gets (because, you know, we’re right)….. and the next minute you find yourself in the heart of conservative America, being told that diversity and social justice are just “too much” for kids to handle. Nope, yep. That’s exactly what I just said.

People use air quotes. I use air quotes. My 8 year old uses air quotes. It’s fine – and sometimes it’s even funny. But when you “air quote” the word diversity when you’re talking about curriculum, you know what you’re gonna get? A blog post. That’s right.

So here’s the thing: I didn’t realize that the need to add diversity to the curriculum was still up for debate. I thought that was something upon which we all just agreed. Years and years of history taught through the stories and documents of white men? Not anymore. 4 years of high school English with only 2 female authors. No thank you. Not discussing homosexuality as a normal part of the sex ed curriculum. Over it.

Except, we’re not.

So, for those of you who would like a little helpful advice about how you could integrate diversity into your school which is composed entirely of white, working class kids, I have compiled the following tips. And for those of you who do not fall into this category but just want to become a little more right-on in your teaching, I present the following.

  1. Teenagers are great at empathizing. No really, they are. As long as you can tell them a story that absolutely 100% relates to them and some emotional trauma, friendship drama or personal experience they’ve had, then you can get them right on board. And yes, my tongue is in my cheek here, because obviously this probably feels next to impossible given that every soul in your classroom has lived a different life up to the moment they walked through your doors.

    However, there is one thing that all the kids can get on board with, because it is the default position of pretty much every single teenager I’ve ever met – injustice. If you know teenagers, then you know that many, many times they have had to suffer the injustice of mistreatment by their parents, teachers, friends or store employees. Now, it is not for me to say how many of these injustices are perceived and how many are real, but the simple fact is they all know what it feels like to feel like they’ve been wronged. SO, every novel that focuses on injustice is fair game for teachers, and perhaps that’s why To Kill a Mockingbird has endured for so long. But seriously? A novel about racial injustice where the main (white) character acts as savior to the one-dimensional black man? How inspiring.

    You want to teach your kids about injustice? How about you read The Hate U Give? Teachers looking to explore the theme of injustice need look no further than this story which features a black teen killed by a white cop for no good reason. Here’s betting that it’s truly not necessary for any of your students to be black to see the injustice in this novel.
  2. There are gay kids in your class. No really, there are. And every novel you present that glorifies (sanctifies) the heterosexual norm is like a nail in the coffin for that kid who just doesn’t know how to find their space. Why don’t you give them something to read where they can actually see themselves in the text? And hey, as an added bonus, maybe it will inspire some empathy in the heterosexual students and we can all just. stop. using. gay. as. an. insult.

    Modern YA fiction which center gay protagonists are easier to find than cheap socks at the dollar store, but there exists amongst high school teachers a reluctance to stray too far from the canon. So, if you’re not feeling too risque but can at least acknowledge that your curriculum is looking pretty hetero-normative, why not add The Color Purple to your reading list? Walker’s text allows teachers to introduce intersectionality and the ways in which race, class, gender and sexuality are all part of the human condition rather than big ‘issues’ that need to be addressed.
  3. Your students are racist. That’s true and I’m sorry (not sorry) if that offends you. We are all racist. You know why? Because we grew up in a white-centered world with white values and white traditions being accepted as the norm and everything else being ‘agreed upon’ as other. Because white people don’t have to worry whether being white will be a barrier. Because white people don’t go about their day thinking of themselves as ‘white people’ – they just think about themselves as people. Black people don’t get that luxury.

    So, we’re going to stop pretending like we don’t have to talk to white kids about their whiteness because there aren’t any black kids around to offend. We’re going to admit that being white in this town or that city or any old place is a whole hell of a lot easier than it is to be black. And we’re going to make that clear and simple for our students to understand. Because even if they never see a black face in this school, they’re going to have to toddle out into the real world eventually – and wouldn’t it be nice if we could send them out there not waving confederate flags?

    For this, you will have to do a little inventory of your bookshelf. How many of those authors are white? How many of those authors are European or American? Once you’ve done that, ask yourself how many of those books contain characters of color? And of those, how many are presented as 3-dimensional, interesting and vulnerable people with intelligence, emotional honesty and wisdom? So much of our American fiction presents black people as needy, simple or emotionally uninvolved – if this is the only type of black character our white kids read about, then guess what they’re going to think about black people? I mean, it seems to me that in an all-white school it is even more important that our readers are exposed to a diverse range of authors and characters so that our students can learn to see the beauty in all people – not just people that look and think like them.

    It would take me all day to make you a list of books that would fit this bill, so how about we all agree that Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Ellison’s Invisible Man, Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Butler’s Kindred or Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God will not raise eyebrows with the school board – and may well be collecting dust in the back of your book cupboard anyway. The point is that there are literally thousands of excellent texts written by black authors who center their black character’s experiences either in relation to their existence within the white dominant culture, or within their own communities. Either of these experiences will be eye-opening for your white students and should be taught as opportunities to understand their own whiteness as well as develop empathy for the types of experiences that black people have endured over time.
  4. Yes, you really should be teaching this. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard someone tell me that they’re not sure that we should be teaching this stuff in school, questioning whether this is just all too political or declaring that we don’t have a race problem, well, I’d have like, a dollar. But whatever. The point is, our students get their influences from about 3 places these days: their families, their school and the media. I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel like there’s a great deal I can do about the trash that the media puts out into the world, so I’m going to cruise right past that. I’m pretty willing to admit that I can’t do much about what a parent is teaching a child at home – but I do know that when that child walks into my classroom with racist views, it becomes my responsibility to do something about it.

    Because, being an anti-racist isn’t just about theoretical arguments with people who already agree with you or random arguments with strangers on facebook. It means saying hard things in hard situations to people who don’t necessarily want to hear what you have to say. Being anti-racist means committing to having those difficult conversations, even if it means risking my own white security. Because if I don’t challenge my students’ racism, then who exactly is going to take responsibility for that? Surely not the parents who taught them the racist ideas in the first place? Surely not the society who prizes light skin and straight hair above all other beauty standards.

The simple fact of the matter is that it isn’t just our job to teach kids about their racism, diversity and inclusion, it’s our job to make them interact with these concepts. It’s our job to give them the space to understand and reflect on their own attitudes and figured out where they came from. It’s our job to support them so that they know that they can be honest with themselves and still be good people. It is our job to provide them with the guidance they need to find a new way to approach the world. In truth, wouldn’t they be better off with teachers taking responsibility for this than half the crap we dish up to them on a daily basis because it’s ‘in the curriculum’?

“The Power of Now” in Education

This morning I had a revelation. For years I’ve been blaming student apathy, burnout and anxiety on the various components of the educational system which I had previously labelled ‘broken’. Testing, competition, class rankings, lacklustre teaching, pointless busy-work, politician-designed curriculum… the list goes on.

But this morning, whilst listening to Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now” (and you should try to fit in listening to that if you’ve got the time – it’s got a lot of power and beauty to share with the world), I realised that the problem with education is the self-same thing that is the problem with the world in general. We don’t live in the now, we live in our regret, disappointment, longing or pride in the past – or we live in dread, uncertainty, ambition or striving for the future. Like life, education becomes drained of the joy of experience when its focus is constantly on the future.

I cannot paraphrase the entire book into one jazzy paragraph – but if you could understand just this one concept that would suffice for now: the idea of future and past are constructs of the mind and not the physical world – and in order to find peace and contentment, one must exist within the present, physical world rather than in the psychological realms of past and future.

OK – mull on that for a bit.

Now, consider this (a quote of a quote of a quote of a quote, but still powerful):

Carl Jung tells in one of his books of a conversation he had with a Native American chief who pointed out to him that in his perception most white people have tense faces, staring eyes, and a cruel demeanor. He said: “They are always seeking something. What are they seeking? The whites always want something. They are always uneasy and restless. We don’t know what they want. We think they are mad.” (The Power of Now, E Tolle)

Our entire educational system is predicated on the belief that one must jump through certain hoops, in a certain order and by a certain time, in order to be successful later in life. Getting ‘ready’ for kindergarten means the child won’t be over-looked when selecting those most promising children to be challenged further. Good grades on elementary school exams means placement in the best ‘track’ in secondary school. Achieving all As in high school means getting a place at the right University. Graduating magna cum laude means getting a high-paying job at the best company.

We have constructed our entire educational system based on the notion that what we are doing is not worth doing for its own sake, but for the rewards or achievements that we can earn in future. We are subtly (or sometimes not-so-subtly), repeatedly and relentlessly teaching our children that their only purpose is to ‘get ready’ for something else.

Our schools are completely void of the notion that the power and the beauty of existing within the ‘Now’ is not only a valid, but a worthy, education. We do not teach children to observe their surroundings (unless we are using those observations as ‘writing prompts’). We do not encourage children to study the intricate structure of a leaf (unless it is to attempt to recreate it in a drawing). We do not allow our students to revel in the joy of mathematical patterns (unless they can be used as drill and kill for mental maths tests).

It’s no surprise that I’m advocating for reform of a system that has so much wrong with it that it barely seems worth trying to ‘fix’. But the first question is always ‘What will we put in its place?’ And this morning it became clear to me: we must teach children to observe their world, to be present in their lives and to enjoy what they are doing for the beauty and the delight of participating in those things. Education, then, rather than being a means to an end, must be the end in itself.

Children are delightfully rubbish at not being able to think through ‘consequences’. They don’t worry about their future and they don’t have any way of conceptualising life beyond today. And yet we are constantly trying to drag them into the future: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” “You need to learn how to write so that you can write when you get to high school.” “You need to learn how to spell so that your job applications aren’t misspelled and no one wants to hire you.”

Children do an excellent job of existing within the ‘now’ and we seem to be doing our level best to drag them out of it. We are all going to need to agree that the sense of wonder, enthusiasm and delight that children take in the world around them is the part of humanity that is worth saving.

The constant drive for more, better or new has gotten us nowhere and has left us ‘uneasy and restless’. We label children who haven’t performed well in the past and use this to predict their future. We treat all knowledge and skills being delivered within the school walls as currency to be applied at a later date. We think we need to instill in kids some ‘drive’ or some ‘motivation’. But really, all they need to do is learn to be present and find the job in the physical space around them. The rest will follow.

Encouraging Meaningful Engagement in Home Learners

First of all, I think we can all stop calling it ‘home schooling’ now. Most home educators don’t relate and pretty much every parent I know has finally reliased that teachers are the unsung heroes, that they all deserve a pay rise, that they’ve forgotten pretty much everything they learned in school and that what is currently happening at homes around the world is nothing like ‘school’.

I’ve already talked about how I keep getting people coming to me saying ‘I don’t know how you’ve been doing this all of these years’ and I have to reply by reminding them that this is not what I’ve been doing all of these years. (Ummmm, because we’re in lockdown, which no one ever has been in before, so how on earth could I know what I’m doing?) Anyway, this is not what this is about.

What is being realised by thousands (perhaps millions?) of parents and teachers, after just 6 short weeks of lockdown, is that what they thought ‘home schooling’ was going to look like is completely unworkable; it’s failing to provide stimulation or engagement and pretty much is a waste of time for a vast swathe of kids, parents and teachers. 

Worse than that, they’ve realised that the carrot and stick structure of the traditional school model is completely ineffective in this new home-based reality. Without the four walls of the classroom and the threat of bad grades, detention or whatever, kids have started to realise that a lot of it is just bunk.

So all of a sudden schools have got to stir up some intrinsic motivation and passion in a group of kids who’ve done little besides jump through hoops in the hope of earning gold stars for the past ten years. Educators have got to work out how they can craft a new model which engages children on their terms. Schools are having to acknowledge that if something isn’t meaningful to the students, its irrelevance is being magnified by the current cirucmstances and the fact that, from the comfort of their pj’s and beanbags, kids are simply not going to do what they don’t want to do.

So what do educators need to work towards, moving into perhaps 18 months of educational change necessitated by social distancing guidelines? Traditional schools are going to need to embrace what we home educators have known for years. Children ‘learn’ best in an environment based on autonomy and intrinsic motivation which follow a process-driven approach.

For those of you not familiar with these terms, I have extracted some of the sections from my new book in three further blog posts where you can read in detail about autonomy , intrinsic motivation and the process-driven approach.

What all three of these concepts have in common is that they all rely on the learner being invested in their own education. And this investment comes not for the sake of their grades at the end of the year but because the activities they’re participating in and the things that they’re ‘learning’ are relevant to their own lives.

Now, this is where schools face their biggest conundrum – how do you get a class of 30 kids to each invest in something unless you are going to let each kid follow a different path? That sounds like a logistical nightmare. Well, guess what? You’re going to have to. Because the alternative is you keep trying to get them to learn what you want them to learn and they’ll keep spending the afternoon zooming their mates.

So before we start talking about what that kind of self-direction looks like in practice, let’s address that question that I always get at this point…. ‘but what about the kids who would rather sit around and do nothing?’ OK. Yes, by secondary school there are plenty of kids who are so thoroughly disengaged with their own education that they genuinely would rather sit around doing nothing than have anything to do with ‘learning’ whatever curriculum the system has decided it is necessary to shove down their throats.

But that is not the default state of affairs. To quote my new hero, Alex Beard, children are ‘Natural Born Learners’ and we grown-ups (especially you dastardly politicians and yes, you know who you are) are doing our level best to knock that right out of them with our curriculums, standards and rubrics.

The default state of affairs is that children (and yes, teenagers too) are naturally inquisitive, interested in the world and their place within it, and are frequently crying out for ways to engage meaningfully with society at large. So step one in this process is to acknowledge that if you’ve got a child who you suspect would rather sit about doing nothing than opt for traveling down the path of self-directed education, you need to accept that it’s the school system that made them that way – and so the school system is going to have to help them get back out.

Start with this useful tool from Self-Managed Learning, a programme which poses 5 key questions that learners must first address before they can begin to identify their personal learning goals:


The act of answering these questions could take up a significant chunk of time because a) these are really tricky and thought-provoking concepts and 2) the answers will change with time and so deliberating over the ideas will necessarily mean that students’ thinking has moved on since they first started the process. Whoah – I do love a good paradox.

Anyway, individually coaching learners through these 5 questions may be time consuming, but it will mean that they are already on the right path towards identifying what it is that they need or want to learn or acquire. Wow. When you think about it, if you could send every 18 year old out into the real world with a firm grasp of these 5 questions and their current thinking on the answers, they’d probably all be really well-adjusted and happy and, well, smart. Huh.

Ok, so let’s assume that you have got your students to engage with the self-managed learning style and they have identified some really important things that they feel that that need to investigate. AND NONE OF THEM HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH HISTORY WHICH IS WHAT YOU TEACH!!!!!!!

Fret not my friends. I’m going to let you in on a little secret here: you know those kids that got an A in their history test? They didn’t all learn those bits of history. The likelihood is that they shoved loads of information into their short-term memory, regurgitated it on a test paper and then promptly purged it to make room for more relevant information. Because (and here’s the secret) learning can only happen when a person feels engaged and invested in the task at hand. True learning is the ability to take that information and then apply it in other circumstances.

If you want your students to spend their time engaged in real learning while they are at home and outside of the control of those four walls, you are going to have to be prepared to release those traditional curriculum-based distinctions and embrace the notion that all learning is good and it is rote filling in of worksheets and working to the test that are bad.

So don’t worry that your student has decided they don’t want to pursue any learning that has to do with history. You know why? Because history is really interesting. And if a person grows up being an engaged, interested and stimulated learner then they will eventually get to it. And when they get to it, they will get it – straight away. Because they wanted to understand it – because it had meaning in their life – because they felt that the information was going to help them to achieve their goals.

OK – so, on a daily basis you are going to want to come up with some sort of routine so that you can (sorry, it’s making the hairs on the back of my neck stand up to write this) track their progress. There, I said it. As I was recently very rudely reminded, I have not taught in an actual classroom for the last 8 years. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t understand what it is that teachers are up against when it comes to miss-smarty-pants over here telling you to let the kids learn whatever they want, yada yada. I get it. I’m an idealist, not an idiot.

Teachers will need to feel that they can track and record what their students are doing and the first step in doing that is by encouraging children to set their own intentions at the start of every day. Now, my children set intentions every day and they usually sound like: play lego, eat cookies, go on a bike ride, etc. For me, with young children my intention is to help them realise the value of having intentions. (do you see what I did there?)

So get your students to set their intentions at the beginning of every day. And make sure that they understand that their intentions are entirely up to them. Following that, the teacher (who I’m now going to start referring to as a facilitator, for hopefully obvious reasons) needs to check back in with the students halfway through the day so that they can identify whether they’ve done any of the things they set out to do, whether they want to add anything to their list and how they’re feeling about what they’ve achieved. It may be impossible to do this personnally, so encouraging the young people to establish a habit of checking in with themselves at lunchtime is really the ultimate goal (after all, nobody checks in with me to make sure I’m keeping up with my intentions!) This process then needs to be repeated at the end of the day.

Et voila! Teachers have a record of something. And the students have decided what they want to achieve and taken responsibility for determining whether or not they met their own expectations.

Some of you may find that adopting an ‘inquiry based’ learning model works (particularly if you’ve got senior managers to sell your ideas to) because this provides a sort of structured approach to the autonommous learning I promote. In the Inquiriy-based model we start with children posing questions related to a particular topic (and yes, that will probably be curriculum-based, ho hum.). The teacher is not there to direct the flow of thinking but rather to facilitate the process of recording and positioning so that children with similar interests can work together, various questions (inquiries) on a similar theme can be combined into one set and to ensure that groups are facing the right direction when they start their research.

For those of you in schools who simply cannot down tools and walk away from the curriculum, you may want to take a look at Mitra’s Self Organised Learning Environments (SOLE). This approach makes it possible to enable some of the autonomy and personal responsibility for learning that I discussed above but dove-tailing that into a curriculum. Although it breaks my heart to say it, this could be a productive avenue of exploration for the home-based learning strategies that can’t stomach being radical and ditching curriculum. (But hey – it’s only 18 months. Why not give it a try?)

Moving onto the concept of ‘process’; you may want to scroll up and read that link about process over product before you read on if you’re not sure what that looks like. But basically what you are going to have to accept, is that the fundamental driver in learning is a person being engaged with the task at hand. So the process that they are participating in has to be the goal – not the achievement at the end.

And you know what this means – you have to stop giving them tasks to do.The outcomes have to go. The expectations have to go. The success criteria (shudder) have to go.

Instead, the students need to create activities for themselves that allow them to explore their interests and achieve that hallowed state of flow whilst they’re working. And yes, if the only place where they are going to achieve that state of flow is playing their guitar in the basement, let them.

Remember, your goal is to encourage meaningful learning learning and engagement – you cannot force ‘meaningful’ on someone if their heart isn’t in it.

Let’s look back to our friend that ‘would rather sit around and do nothing’ than take responsibility for their own independent learning. For too long, this learner has been sat in a room being told what is important and why x,y&z need to be learned. After years of having information that seems too distant, too boring or just plain useless presented to them, they have finally switched off. You are going to need to believe that they can switch back on if given the right level of trust and freedom. They will.

But they are going to need a skilled facilitator who thinks about what sorts of prompts or invitations to lay scattered about around them to help them engage with something. Some really organised home educating parents do an excellent job of taking cues from their children and then, every night, setting out small tasks or games which might be of interest to the child in the morning. I know, right? We are not that house.

The idea though, is sound and will be hugely useful in prompting previously disaffected learners to engage with this new mode of self-directed learning. Although, since your students are all at their homes you won’t be able to set up enticing and beautiful displays or activities. You’re going to have to think of digital prompts.

Those prompts could be curriculum or content based but just as useful would be some really engaging non-academic prompts. Suggest that they go to the basement and retreive a broken appliance and try to fix it. Perhaps they like cooking and so could be tasked with researching and preparing a meal from a country of their choice. Maybe they could be pointed towards some charity work taking place in their community that they might like to engage with.

Another avenue to explore would be to try posing ‘essential’ questions to your students. Wiggins and McTighe developed this notion of essential questions which are those that lead us to explore porblems, quest for knowledge, demand critical thinking and even work towards real-world solutions. If you look up ‘big inquiry’ questions or ‘essential’ questions you will be presented with 100s of ideas for this type of prompting. But the idea is generally that you pose big, concept based questions and allow students to follow their own paths in exploring that question.

As above though, you really do need to commit to the importance of not judging/grading outcomes though. Question prompts need to lead to process-based thinking just like taking a part a toaster is not necessarily going to end with the toaster put back together. Yes, you may discover that the toaster has been turned into a robot, and that in itself would be an outcome but it is an outcome arrived at through full-hearted attention to the process, not because it could have been predicted before the start of the exploration. Likewise, you may find that all your left with is 1000 tiny pieces of toaster all over the kitchen floor – and from that a person may well have learned that they really have no interest in assembling toasters. This, like so many other realisations, has merit and should not be dismissed as unimportant simply because ‘Explore whether or not you are interested in toasters’ is not a curriculum topic.

A good facilitator is someone who can stand back and observe the learning that is taking place without having to interfere. They offer up a multitude of options without any pressure on learners to choose one thing over another. They create environments (physical and virtual) that are filled with engaging and challenging concepts. They listen to the child and guide them towards new concepts that they think might stimulate a child further. They use all of their knowledge and experience to gently nudge their learners in the direction of new ideas. All of this while trusting that humans are, by their very nature, desirous of knowledge and learning.

When providing students with learning prompts there should be no need for them to present you with an essay, a report or any ‘evidence’ of their learning. If you can accept that those worksheets that you’ve been sending home aren’t really evidence of learning either, you can probably take the leap towards understanding that traditional ‘evidence’ just gets in the way of engagement with the process.

As soon as a person knows what the end ‘product’ needs to look like, all of their attention will become focussed on bringing that product into existence (if they’re a ‘good’ student) or shrugging their shoulders (if they’re like me in my AP English class). By telling them what they need to produce at the end, we’ve stopped them engaging with the process.

Imagine if all you ever talked about with them was the process? What they are enjoying, what avenues they’ve gone down in their explorations, what they are going to change about their intentions now that they’ve learned what ever they’ve learned. Then they’d have to engage with that instead now wouldn’t they?

The last of this triumverate of learning engagement is intrinsic motivation. Briefly, this is the process whereby a person is motivated to act for their own personal reasons rather than because they’re hoping to get a gold star at the end. There’s so much evidence to show that gold stars (and any other kind of reward) does so much damage to the learning process and self-esteem in general, that I simply can’t cover it all here. Let’s just say that every time a child is made to do something for the promise of a good grade, their motivation to continue to do that task in future drops.

And since we’ve already discussed how the traditional methods of evidencing learning are not really evidence of anything other than worksheet-fill-out-ability, it stands to reason that the awarding of marks is also evidencing not much beyond the person’s ability to jump through your hoops. So the fact that these grades are actually harming students’ engagement with their own learning should surely be enough to illicit a change in tack.

If we are going to focus on the process over product and encourage children to set their own targets then there is nothing to really assess at the end anyway. But this means that students are going to need to come up with a different way to document what they’re doing with their time. If this is presented as a way for the teacher to ‘monitor’ their learning though, it isn’t going to work. It needs to be an opportunity for the student themselves to see what they’ve done and what they still need to do.

Eliminate the product and there is no need to assess. Allow the student to guide their own learning and there is no need to cajole. Provide a rich and stimulating environment alive with possibility and they will engage with their own learning.

This all relies on trust. Without trust, a learning programme can never truly be self-driven. And without that, there is no hope of meaningful or engaged learning. Trust in the child’s innate desire to learn – this is the most difficult concept for educators in the traditional system to accept. Now that we are moving away from the traditional, trust must be at the core of the new system.

Our care of the child should be governed, not by the desire to make him learn things, but by the endeavor always to keep burning within him that light which is called intelligence.

Maria Montessori

(The content of this article is drawn from my latest work How to Nurture a Problem Solver which currently does not have a publisher. So if you’re a publisher or agent who likes my work, feel free to get in touch!)

These blogs are being written and are free for you to enjoy, read and share. If you feel that what I write has value and you’ld like to donate a few pounds to fund my writing time so that I don’t have to give it all up and go work at the McDonalds drive through, please do. But if not please don’t feel obliged – a share on social media is great for getting the word out!

Intrinsic Motivation

Motivation is a funny thing. Sometimes we feel like we’re filled with inspiration and an awareness of the things we need to do to get to where we want to go. Sometimes we just want to sit in our pjs and watch television. Some people are highly motivated by work, money and career success, they are happy with their lot and they seem to really ‘have it all’. While others have chosen to live an alternative lifestyle, following their passions and exploring their creativity and yet seem incapable of lifting themselves out from the dark fugue of depression that shrouds their existence.

To say that this is all understandable based entirely on the one word, motivation, would be facile and misleading. After all, there are differences in background, educational attainment, social pressure and biology which all factor into a person’s constitution and which will all affect their life choices.  

However, for now we are looking at motivation and the role that this plays in a child’s ability to engage and sustain their focus on problem solving tasks.  More specifically, we need to look at the difference between the different types of motivation to understand what makes a good problem solver and what does not.

Motivation can come from three different sources: external sources are anything where a reward is offered for the completion of any task; internal sources are those which come from within a person’s own ambitions and which satisfy a person’s personal desires; and lastly, there is addiction. Mercifully this last one is not an issue which we will need to delve into in a book about nurturing children to become better problem solvers.

Good Job!

If I had a dollar for every time I heard a parent exclaim ‘good job’ to their progeny as they completed some completely inane task I’m quite sure I’d be sitting at the top of a turret in my castle whilst writing instead of, well, here. Anyway, the point is that parents the world over seem to have some sort of compulsion to shout ‘good job’, or some variation of that, whenever they witness their child do something.

If you look carefully though, you will see that children whose parents rely on the ‘good job’ school of praise will start to turn their heads towards their parents as soon as they complete a task. Gone down the slide? Look at mummy and wait for a ‘good job!’ Done a wee on your potty? Look to see if daddy noticed – or better yet, bring it to him to see, ‘Good job!’ Completed another painting (in 6.8 seconds)? Show it to mummy and daddy and see what they think, ‘Good job!’

The issue with all of this good-jobbing and the subsequent way in which the child quickly learns to turn and look to the parent to see if they’ve noticed their latest accomplishment, is that it is shifting the child’s focus from being proud of themselves for what they’ve achieved to checking to see if anyone else is proud of what they did.

The development of this ‘external locus of control’ is insidious and starts right from the very first shout of praise. Unfortunately, what happens to children who have been encouraged to have a very strong external locus of control in their early years is that by the time they are teenagers, their self-worth is wrapped up in the praise and acknowledgement that they receive from others. And the older they get, the less notice they get (partially because they keep themselves locked in their bedrooms for hours on end so no one actually sees what they’re doing), which means that there are fewer and fewer opportunities for them to be praised.

This then leads onto the world of university where, firstly, everyone is obviously already very clever and intelligent and blah blah blah, so getting a good mark on an exam doesn’t set the individual apart from the crowd. Additionally, it’s not in the university lecturer’s job description to spend hours bigging up the young adults in their care, at best they hope to deliver the information they have to share in a way that is conducive to being understood, at worst they are only there teaching because it provides them with the money and time to pursue their own academic research.

It’s no wonder then that life satisfaction, rates of depression, dropping out of university and indeed, suicide, are as high as they are in this population.  As they move into the ‘real’ world, people who were raised with a very strong external locus of control are not able to sustain the level of praise required to feed their needs. But consider the alternative.

The opposite of the external locus of control is, perhaps unsurprisingly, an internal locus of control.  Here a person finds their motivation and desire comes from their own internal awareness of their wants or needs.  They have lived a life where they’ve learned to connect their actions and efforts to their success and do not seek external validation for their achievements.

Consider the child who is raised without ‘good jobs’. When they get to the bottom of the slide, they look to their mummy and discover that she is actually talking to someone else. In this instance of benign neglect the mother isn’t ignoring the child because she couldn’t care less about her safety or happiness. Indeed, the mother may well be casting frequent glances out of the corner of her eye to ensure that the child is safe. But this mother knows that going down slides is super-fun and the child doesn’t need even one iota of praise for accomplishing this task. The child will continue to climb the ladder and slide down the slide for exactly as long as it continues to be exhilarating and engaging not because they’ve been praised for doing it but because it is fun.

What about our child who has finally used his potty for the first time? Sure, daddy is probably delighted that this has happened, and not just because he’s tired of shelling out for nappies, but show me an adult who gets a round of applause for using the toilet and I’ll show you my pet dinosaur.  Seriously though, the child has done something remarkable: they’ve changed a behaviour that has been entrenched for a couple of years; they’ve potentially conquered a fear of the potty; they’ve certainly conquered the uncertainty of not knowing whether or not they were going to be able to manage this task. So acknowledge those things: ‘you’ve been working hard to get the courage to use that potty,’ ‘you sat there for a long time before the wee finally came out,’ ‘you have been using a nappy for a long time, that’s a big change for you.’ All of these are examples of ways in which an adult can acknowledge the process that the child has gone through rather than the outcome.

Imagine the artist who, when she shows her parents her artwork, gets, rather than praise, an opportunity to evaluate the process that she’s been through. In answer to ‘do you like it?’ a parent can respond, ‘are you pleased with it?’ or ‘tell me about how you chose the colours that you used,’ or even ‘this has taken you a long time to make, does that mean you feel that you’ve worked really hard?’ This is process-based evaluation and keeps the focus very firmly on how the child feels about their accomplishments. 

Fast forward to the teenage years, to a child who has been encouraged for their entire childhood to be proud of their own achievements, to acknowledge the sustained effort that they’ve applied to their tasks, to evaluate their success or failure based on their own personally held values and ambitions. This teenager will not need someone to pat them on the back for getting an A on their history test or a teacher to acknowledge that they’ve kept their locker tidy – they will know that they’ve done these things because they chose to do them, they focused on what needed to be done in order to achieve them and they feel a strong sense of accomplishment because they know they did what they set out to.

A child who has a strong internal locus of control is more likely to feel confident to stand up for their own ideas and to have the self-awareness to know what they are going to need to be able to do to accomplish something. This means that they can pursue tasks in the full knowledge of what they’re going to have to go through and aware that there will be set–backs that they have to achieve.

Now, how does all of this relate to problem solving? I hear you starting to ask. Thank you. Because having a very strong internal locus of control means that a person is far more likely to be motivated to take on tasks.  Knowing that they alone are responsible for applying effort, evaluating their failures and persisting in working to achieve their ends gives them the most important tool of all – the understanding that they are capable of achieving anything to which they are willing to apply effort.  Knowing that you have power over the outcomes of your decisions means that you are more likely to take on new tasks, pursue new interests and feel satisfied that you will be able to control your outcomes.

A problem solver needs, firstly, to understand that they will be capable of solving a problem. Even though I’m a staunch pacifist, I don’t think this position is summed up more neatly than i Sun Tzu’s Art of War, where he states “Every battle is won or lost before it is ever fought.” Knowing that you are going to be able to do what you are setting out to do is the fundamental first step to being an effective problem solver. 

A child beset by doubt, insecurity and fear won’t tackle new problems because he knows it won’t work out for him. A child raised to value their worth only by the value that someone else places on them is not able to see for themselves all of that which they are capable.  A child who has always needed to check in that what they have done is ‘good enough’ will never know for himself that he possesses all that he needs to determine whether he has achieved something of significance.

No one who has ever done anything really great or successful has ever done it simply because he was attracted by what we call a “reward” or by fear of what we call a “punishment”…. Every victory and every advance in human progress comes from an inner compulsion.

Maria Montessori

(The content of this article is drawn from my latest work How to Nurture a Problem Solver which currently does not have a publisher. So if you’re a publisher or agent who likes my work, feel free to get in touch!)

These blogs are being written and are free for you to enjoy, read and share. If you feel that you can donate please do, but if not please don’t feel obliged. A simple share on social media is great for getting the word out!

Process Over Product

This is a concept that will not sit well with a lot of people who are used to the traditional system of getting good grades, landing that perfect job or finally getting to marry the woman of their dreams. Our society is so heavily entrenched both in setting our sights on and reaching goals that sometimes it feels like our entire existence is based entirely on the acquisition of something other. Denial of the importance of the process of creation in exchange for the hope of something more shifts the focus of thinking away from the imagination and towards the predetermined goals of the mighty curriculum.

Early childhood educators have made good inroads in challenging the traditional product-driven style of education. Play-based learning, freedom to explore and a trust in children’s natural ability to learn are concepts  that feature heavily in early years programmes in a range of countries. However, ambitious, exam focussed, academically driven pre-schools continue to have a strong foothold in many places so the concepts here will still be a challenge to the notion that a child must achieve to succeed.

The interesting thing about success is the way in which individuals choose to define success within their own families, and the variation in how that ends up looking on a more global scale.  I’ve worked with children and families for over 25 years and during that time have encountered rich and poor, educated and not, liberal and conservative families. I feel that my exposure to different beliefs is quite diverse and yet, through all of those years, few have been the times when I have met a parent who wanted anything other for their children than for them to ‘be happy.’ 

In fact, I was so blown away by this apparent contradiction in parental ambitions and more global manifestations of product-based value, that I secretly conducted a bit of informal, unscientific and definitely not double-blind research. Whilst working in a school where the pupils were exclusively the offspring of wealthy, educated business people, I snuck into my conversations with parents a question about what it was that they ultimately wanted for their child.  Almost entirely without exception, they all said that what they really wanted for them was to be happy.

Why is my entirely unscientific research relevant to a discussion about the value of process over product in a problem solving context? Because almost unilaterally, a product-based education does not include ‘happiness’ as a metric for success. We know that living in the moment, enjoying the experiences of the here and now and finding value in that which is available to us are the fundamental behaviours of happy people. Instinct alone teaches us that children who work within a system that accepts intellectual diversity, which values creativity and where a fear of failure does not drive decision-making are more likely to engage with their own academic pursuits.

Why, if every parent just wants their child to be happy and happiness is firmly entrenched in the opportunity to explore one’s own ambitions, do we have a system that is so intent on cramming children into a way of being which makes it so difficult for them to be happy? Rigid, time-dependent curricula, emphasis on results and the eschewing of creative subjects for ever-higher attainment in those ‘academic’ subjects deemed most worthy leaves no space for a child to pursue their own interests or develop their own unique passions. The end products of entry into a better school, better results and a better degree have become the markers of an educational programme’s success rather than the well-being, satisfaction and personal engagement of the individuals within it.

We have created a high-stress, exam-driven series of increasingly-complicated hurdles for children to jump in the pursuit of academic ‘success’ whilst paying little to no attention to what they are gaining from the experiences of the present moment. Are we asking ourselves why ever-younger children are being diagnosed with stress-based emotional disorders and suicide rates amongst teenagers in the developed world climb steadily higher? What is the correlation between increasing academic pressure, an increased emphasis on outcomes through growing national and international testing regimes, an increase in the emphasis placed on the importance of doing things now so that you can have more later, and the fact that children are less likely now, than ever, to be happy with their lives in the here and now?

This is precisely why I advocate a style of problem solving that focuses on the process rather than the product.  Of course we often end up with products at the end of a lot of the activities that we do – this is only natural. But our emphasis, whether it is in discussions, debriefs or the planning of an activity, is always on what the children will get out of taking part in the activity itself, not in the completion of it.

We place equal value on an idea conceived but not carried out as a fully-functioning model of the inside of a whoosimawhatsit.  The ability to focus on what is being done, taking the time to test and modify ideas, not worrying about getting things done for a deadline or whether there is going to be an A grade at the end of it mean that we are encouraging children to dream big and not let their imaginations be bound by the fear of failure.

This is always, exactly, the point where some smarty pants pipes up with something along the lines of ‘well if they aren’t made to finish things and they never have to think about reality when developing their ideas, how are they ever going to learn to function in the real world?’ OK, first of all, for a child of 3, the next 15 years of their life is the real world so arguably that child should be given the opportunity to live in that world rather than spend that 15 years preparing for the next phase of their lives.  Pretty much everyone can see the sense in that, so I’m not going to labour the point.

But here is the important bit – those 15 years are the years in which we are giving the child all of the tools and equipment that they need to function in that next phase.  Raise your hand if you’ve applied the Pythagorean Theorem even once since you left school. Apart from those three people who just raised their hands, the rest of us never used that piece of information once we regurgitated it on a test designed to ‘prove’ how much we knew.  Therefore, it should not be too difficult for us to agree that knowing the Pythagorean Theorem is not a life skill.

Now raise your hand if, in your adult life, you’ve ever been called on to apply common sense, humour or creativity to get yourself out of a difficult situation. Raise your hand if you’ve ever needed to dig deep to find the self-confidence to address a boss or a difficult co-worker. Raise your hand if you ever needed to start over when the project you were responsible for wasn’t turning out the way you planned.  Did your A in your 10th grade Roman History test get you out of those predicaments, or did you need to rely on your ingenuity, strength of character or resilience to succeed?

Focusing on the process of creating, imagining and believing, gives children resilience, the ability to adapt to change and the self-confidence to know that they are capable of eventually coming up with a workable solution. A child who has learned to present their ideas with the confidence of knowing that they aren’t going to ‘fail’ if it’s not a good idea is more likely to be the sort of person who presents ideas in the first place.  Understanding that things might not go to plan and that is okay, will prepare children for a real world in which things often do not go to plan.

I appreciate that participating in the activities within this book will not be enough to overthrow the established pedagogy of our modern system of education. Further, I am not suggesting that you ought to deny your children the cultural capital of those As that they will need to get into university and then to get a job, etc etc. But by remembering what a child needs to be satisfied in the here and now, by providing opportunities for them to participate in a process-based form of education and by creating an environment that it a little more geared toward sucking everything possible out of the current moment rather than always striving higher for something else, we are giving them the one thing that every parent says they want for their child – a way to be happy.

(The content of this article is drawn from my latest work How to Nurture a Problem Solver which currently does not have a publisher. So if you’re a publisher or agent who likes my work, feel free to get in touch!)

These blogs are being written and are free for you to enjoy, read and share. If you feel that you can donate please do, but if not please don’t feel obliged. A simple share on social media is great for getting the word out!