Monday, 18 March 2013

Are stupid children happier?

Last week, I joined a group of parents and teachers who were talking about homework. They were a fairly representative bunch, in that they were mostly teaching at, or sending their children to, state schools.

"The kids hate it. Teachers never have time to mark it. Parents don't want to spend evenings arguing with kids about it. DOWN WITH HOMEWORK!!!!"

"I want to know who is this parent who allegedly keeps complaining that their child doesn't have enough?!"

"Parents [like] that don't want to spend decent time with their kids."

"Luckily, the teachers my two have aren't that bothered about homework. Both have stressed that the kids work hard at school and need a balanced life and to do other stuff, like talk to us, when not in school. Homework is just a big battle of who has the strongest will."

"All this pushy parenting and anxiety about how well your kids are doing, we all want our kids to do well. Being 'successful' doesn't make you happy or likeable. You concentrate on the person, not the academic results. I feel sorry for those that can't see that."

The conversation was also representative of an opinion I'd noticed amongst many teachers in England: that the pressure to succeed academically may be damaging to our children, and teachers should protect pupils from their parents' misguided ambitions. I disagree with this view as it favours ignorance over wisdom, barbarity over civilisation. In populist terms, they are saying Forest Gump was happier because he was stupid. There is good evidence that homework is strongly correlated with academic achievement, but these teachers and parents seemed to be suggesting that academic success was in some way antagonistic to happiness. What felt treacherous from my viewpoint is that this dogma is more prevalent amongst teachers in the state sector than in private schools.

Their argument goes something like this. We can't force children to learn; we can only provide an environment which will encourage them to explore the world with a sense of adventure. Children are only happy if they are free, and any external repression from parents or teachers will introduce inner hostility towards those in authority, which may also be turned inward and become self-hate.

The logic of this is inevitable, if rather depressing. Schools are no longer places where teachers teach and children learn; they are instead protective environments where children grow at their own pace. The aim of schooling is no longer an academic education, but happiness and personal development. If you think this sounds like an idea that would be promoted by the flower-power generation of the 1960s, then you'd be correct, but actually the roots of the idea are a bit older.

In the early nineteenth century, the Romantic era, a commonly held view was that children can learn all things naturally. This came from the observation that children learn to walk and talk without any tuition, so it seemed a logical extension to assume that any truly important human skill could be learnt through natural curiosity. Children are like flowering plants. If they are just planted into good soil, they will naturally grow and blossom.

Of course, this was before the era of mass education, and so it wasn't until the early twentieth-century when US educationalists took these Romantic ideas and turned them into what became known as progressive education. Learning must be an extension of play. Psychological development must take priority over academic study. Competition between pupils must be eliminated. Hard work and boring tasks have no place in the classroom. Vocational subjects such as mechanics and cookery were introduced into the curriculum.

Similar changes were taking place in the Soviet Union, and a mixture of the US and Soviet systems inspired British educationalists through the post-war decades, until it became the accepted model for English state education during the 1970s and 1980s.

My problem with current thinking is this. There is no evidence that children learn best with this model of education. Nor is there any evidence that children are happier in progressive schools. Those Romantic thinkers of 200 years ago were just, you know, overly Romantic. For a hundred years, many sensible people have pointed out that roughly zero children would learn long-division if given the choice, and most of what we call culture or civilisation is based upon a framework of knowledge that can only be taught, not discovered.

I'm painting an overly simplified picture, to be sure. Teachers are individuals with varied opinion. Progressive educationalists in England have moderated their views, especially in the past decade with the forced re-introduction of synthetic phonics as the main method of teaching reading. But still, there remains a widespread view amongst teachers that academic study is damaging to the emotional and psychological development of the child. I repeat, this is a view backed up with no evidence whatsoever; it is simply the ghost of the overly romantic notions of childhood held by nineteenth-century thinkers.

What is clear, from ample evidence, is that a traditional education is more successful at delivering a testable curriculum to children. Those privileged pupils in the private sector, and those in the top state schools that remained immune from many of the progressive ideas, have achieved consistently better examination results.

What is also clear is the lack of understanding amongst parents of these issues that affect their children's future. While most adults know that teachers no longer rely on rote learning, few parents would be able to tell you how lessons are structured in their local school. I can also guess that many parents, given the option of having a highly educated child who is less happy, might ask the question: "How much less happy?"

To which, any truthful teacher would have to reply: "I don't know. They might be even more happy. It's just a theory I have, with no supporting evidence apart from my own convictions and those of my colleagues."

After that, the choice becomes an easy one. Unfortunately, there is little hope in changing the long-held beliefs and practices of the English teaching profession.


  1. In general I totally agree.

    From the experience I’ve had in Scottish schools I wouldn’t necessarily agree that the aim of schooling is happiness and personal development – one of the schools I spent time in on placement has a very strong ethos of academic achievement and exam results targets are high. The most recent school I was at is at the other end of the spectrum - their academic achievement in terms of exam results is much lower, mostly because it is in a very deprived area (and there is huge evidence demonstrating a link between attainment and deprivation/poverty). But despite lower levels of academic achievement it is in no way sidelined, they are setting ambitious targets for exam results this year

    Neither school , however, is focusing on academic achievement at the expense of vocational activities or personal development – both are valued. There’s a real focus in Scottish education on the individual needs of a child – and on providing them with the learning they need to be able to be successful in whatever they choose to do.

    This drive in Scotland has come from the development of the new curriculum for ages 3-18 – the Curriculum for Excellence ( – which promotes a flexible learning environment where the focus is on experiences children have and outcomes they achieve rather than rote learning and testing. The aim is to teach the skills which can be then used throughout their life – eg critical thinking skills – and produce children who can take responsibility for their own learning. Maybe in this way the new curriculum could be seen as based on progressive values and it is probably more so than previous curricula in Scotland (it’s certainly miles away from the one-exam-fits-all strategy which Michael Gove would like to implement in England) but it doesn’t negate or sideline academic achievement, assuming that is right for that child.

    For me, if it came down to a straight choice I would always go for academic achievement over happiness - but from what I’ve seen in schools achievement (whether academic or not) can create happiness, by opening up opportunities which might not have been available before.
    Nor does this mean that education or learning can only be created by sitting in rows and learning by rote. I was visiting a residential unit for looked after children (in care) today and their experience is of small group informal learning in a way that engages them totally – and these are some of the most disaffected children in Scotland. This isn’t progressive – there is still a focus on achievement, but it comes from a perspective that education is something that will hugely improve the lives of these damaged children. I know that many of the children I have taught (or tried to teach) so far would benefit hugely from a situation like this, but the reality is that there’s just not enough resources to provide this for all but those children most at risk in the mainstream environment.

    I think you’re also right that parents don’t understand what goes on in schools, and that’s something that frustrates me hugely. Education isn’t something which takes place from 9-4 Monday to Friday, and if you want to give your children the best possible start in life I totally believe that parents need to work in partnership with schools – they can’t just think that the school will sort it all out for them. (that doesn’t mean I believe in homework, however, don’t get me started…)

  2. Today's Telegraph continues this debate, with an attack on Michael Gove's plans by a long list of academics, followed immediately by a repost against child-centred education from Harry Mount.

  3. Fiona, your blog concerning parents working in partnership with the school, to achieve the best for the child does not always work.

    I have asked a number of times with help for my boys with homework for guidance with phonics and maths, but they have never offered me any help - how do I know if I'm teaching my children correctly. So, have taken it upon myself to do the research and find the best books on teaching children.