Good Childhood? Learning Stinks

I wrestle with the future the faces my son and heir, @ethinkingjnr. I have no idea what might become of him, I just hope each day that he develops his backbone and learns to stand up for what is right. This was brought home this week when I attended a seminar outlining the work the Children’s Society has done on the well-being of children and how this has led to them to facilitate good childhood conversations around the country.

One interesting outcome of the research was a study of young people’s views of their own well being. It turns out that boys are happier than the girls in Liskeard. I must note the comparative here – One can only assume that both genders are pretty miserable and perhaps a better articulation would be that the boys in Liskeard are less miserable than the girls. Anyone who has spent anytime in Liskeard will have concluded that the best thing to come out of it is in fact the A38, which is one of the most lethal and god forsaken roads in the UK. Liskeard is an anagram for Dark Lies… to be fair anyone living there is fully entitled to be miserable and be quite happy about it.

Now this has caused me to wrestle with a long held and carefully nurtured hatred of the phrase well-being….. which often seems defined as a right rather than an outcome. Do kids have a right to a sense of well being on its own or the right to opportunities and challenges to develop a sense of well being as a by product of success? Educators allow people to feel OK about stuff they shouldn’t feel OK about: ‘I’m not very good at maths’ is an oft heard lament – the logic here is that its OK not to be good at maths so long as I’m not distressed by it. If I try hard then my teacher wont be upset…or more accurately ‘if i sit down and shut up and puff my cheeks out a bit then the teacher will think I am trying my best’. The truth is that in my world, if you are not good at maths and are intending to inflict yourself upon a group of children as their teacher, you had damn well better get good at maths and had better be pretty unhappy about the deficiency until it is fixed. Not, as one student recently entreated me, to take a register so that ‘I would know that they were trying’. They didn’t seem too thrilled when I explained that I didn’t give two hoots how much they tried…..they should be the ones wrestling with that given the money and sacrifices being made for the fees to be on the course. Some of the failings of the behaviour management tools of the teaching trade were outlined at the #tmbehaviour teachmeet run by Students here in Plymouth, how the rewards culture leads to children performing for rewards not because it’s simply the right thing to do. One of my students blogged a report here.

Here’s the truth, learning stuff requires your sense of well-being to take a hit……… here’s a diagram of it in the picture below. I am certain that many educators are complicit in enabling so many children to ‘grow a wish bone where they should have a back bone’ to quote an ancient Chinese proverb.

So we allow kids to get a sense of well being from trying hard, which is a bit like saying ‘its ok to be crap, so long as you work really hard at being crap we wont give you too much of a hard time’. The truth is that learning is a dirty business and it makes you miserable sometimes. The truth is that if you work hard you get a better outcome and that you should work hard and learn dirty to gain a sense of well-being – not a smiley sticker.

I don’t want this celebration of mediocrity for @ethinkingjnr. What I want for him is a community of all those who work with him and care for him; his parents, teachers, extended family, parents of his friends, his rugby coaches, the nice bloke on the hoe walking his dog (who isn’t a pedophile despite being a stranger and therefore dangerous) and random students that touch his life. I want that community to treat him with ‘loving authority’ to celebrate with him when he achieves, encourage him (not praise him) when he tries and challenge him when he fails or falters. Which brings me back to the Good Childhood Conversation from the Children’s Society, this strikes me as being a huge opportunity for communities to engage in the very important debate about how to raise the next generation, given that our children’s lives are ‘under assault’ as Hilary Clinton put in ‘It takes a village’ from all kinds of threats and misery. Now I don’t live in a village, I live in a city, but I have two pseudo villages to nudge into this discussion, his Rugby Club and his School.

I have to empower those around him to turn him into the kind of man he is capable of becoming, and not a self indulgent, risk averse token collector that the education system is designed to create. Then he will go on to achieve ‘greatness’ and a sense of well-being every now and again.

10 thoughts on “Good Childhood? Learning Stinks

  1. Very interesting blog post – One thing i would like to say is that do teachers need to be good at ‘everything’ to teach children – No one is good at everything and i personally think children need to understand this – Trying their best is not a bad thing – Any sense of achivement even if small will impact on a childs wellbeing – I cant spell and my grammer is shocking but does that mean i shouldnt teach children when i might make more of an impact on a child’s life than someone who can spell… As long as i know my failures and do something about it and dont let it impact on the childrens learning there is no issue!! I always ensure my spelling and grammer is correct in the classroom!! I think that learning is a life long process and all teachers learn from children everyday!! I enjoyed reading your post thankyou!!

    • Hi Becy – I agree people don’t need to be ‘good’ at everything, but they do need to be good enough to be a teacher – I guess whats the QTS tests are aiming to achieve. Whats important is that you don’t add to the misunderstanding of the children you work with….I have read your blog and know you are fighting your own battle with dyslexia, which underlines why you are not one of the inert, you have a difficulty and you are fighting to overcome it. I imagine your self esteem and sense of wellbeing has taken a bit of hit ( maybe when you hit the rock bottom bit of my pic)

      I agree a sense of achievement is important, what I’m saying is that trying hard, without the context of it going towards something is not enough to receive praise, its enough for encouragement, not praise…….they are different.

  2. I fully agree with the celebration of achievement, encouragement of effort and supportive challenge of failure. To do otherwise nurtures dependent, risk averse children – plenty of research to back this up! (Dweck, Deci, Kohn, Amabile).

  3. A very interesting piece, with a complex range of issues!

    To take your attack on the term ‘well being’, I suspect this one of those examples of phrases we educators are great at subsuming into our conversations and assuming that we are all talking about the same thing when in reality we rarely actually define what the term means.

    I understand your diagram which relates learning to well being, and agree that there is a continuum here within which attitudes and frustrations change as the learning process progresses. However, I am not sure ‘well being’ is the right term to be using.

    When you are learning something your levels of frustration and effort do of course vary, but I am not sure it affects your fundamental well being. In fact, someone with a high level of well being is more likely to be able to weather the storms of frustration as they move through this continuum and result in an effective outcome. That does not mean they will feel totally happy as they move throughout the scale, but it is the fundamental sense of well being that allows them to work through frustration and unhappiness and towards the outcome.

    Ferre Laevers has done research on well being (, and as a result has developed the ‘Lluven scale’, a toolkit for assessing and supporting learning. His toolkit requires practitioners in early years settings to monitor two things: children’s level of well being, and their level of involvement in activities or the environment. He has shown that you don’t actually need to measure outcomes, but that if children have a high level of involvement in what they are doing, and a high level of fundamental well being (not short or medium term frustrations, but fundamental sense of being valued and supported), then valuable learning will be happening.

    To my mind this is echoed in Csíkszentmihályi’s work on ‘Flow’, the concept that with focus and immersion then learning will be happening. It is not possible to be engaged and fully focused on something that does not have sufficient challenge, and when immersed in something with challenge then learning will be happening. Whether this learning is that which a controlling figure such as a teacher intended is another matter…

    Much of what I have read about well being sites it in experiences that traditionally would be seen to come from the immediate family, and family community that children experience. In this sense perhaps well being does not need to have a place in school; if the home is a place of nurture and developing well being, school can be a place of challenge.

    The problem with this is that in our present society many children do not come to school with that sense of well being having been nurtured. In his work, Laevers suggests that these children need additional work with adults in their school context to develop this fundamental well being, otherwise they will not be able to engage successfully with the learning potential in the environment and achieve that ‘Flow-like’ experience of focused learning, where challenges are seen to be surmountable, despite levels of frustration and short term happiness fluctuating.

    I find it hard to square the implication (which I think I have drawn correctly, but please do correct me if I am wrong), that the amount of effort put into something is meaningless unless the outcome is achieved. In some contexts you are right, and in terms of training for a specific job such as teaching this is often the case. If you cannot achieve the goal of being good enough to lead the education of children then there is no point nurturing and supporting you. However, the difficulty comes when we consider how we might define the vague notion of ‘good enough’.

    Throughout my education I worked at things that I would never achieve the bottom line for. Sport, playing a musical instrument, writing novels. Just because I didn’t get there in these instances doesn’t mean I didn’t learn something useful from the process (I did- although, again, possibly not what the teacher in control intended).

    I think you make some good points about challenge and happiness. I think supporting happiness in exchange for providing useful challenge is not what education (or schooling) should be about, and is actually an aspect of some of the right wing, ‘back to basics’ argument which actually has something going for it. Excuses don’t get results, nor do nurturing dependence or supporting failure, that is if the ‘failure’ is down to lack of engagement- but then we are back to the complex issues of what needs to be in place for engagement to happen…

    I think the issues around well being are deeper and more complex than you suggest, but you are right to advocate for high levels of challenge and expectations. The question is how do we support those high levels of challenge and expectations coming from the people who make the biggest difference to outcomes; learners themselves.

    • Blimey – you do go on…….

      Quick reposte: at the root of all of this is the need to approve of effort – I too am a monumental failure as a sportsman, in terms of achievement, though you may have heard that I recently scored a spectacular left footed goal in 5 aside football. (that’s an in the workplace in joke) I spent many happy hears chasing an egg around a pitch, knowing I was terrible but enjoying the teamwork and feeling of having tried my best. This was always within the larger framework of knowing my limitations and being as good as I could within them.

      My concern is that we allow kids to grow up thinking they are going to play for England when they should be enjoying five aside against colleagues. Absence of truth = deceit. We are deceiving kids – they think they are great when they are trying hard but are ultimately average. Trying hard builds your backbone – it isnt worthy of praise – it deserves encouragement to continue to achievable goals

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