Imagine that you are walking down the street and you bump into Ruby, an 18-year-old who left your school two years ago. She button-holes you and thanks you for the wonderful education that your school gave her.
You remember that Ruby left with only a few mediocre GCSEs, so you suggest that maybe she’s referring to the friendships she made. True, she says, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I mean the real education you gave me. You ask her to explain. What do you imagine she says?
How do we describe a great education that did not result in good grades? Exams are a competitive game. Standards are deliberately adjusted so that not too many people get As or A*s, and roughly half of all 16-year-olds do not achieve five “good” GCSEs including English and maths. The latest measures of individual performance set the bar even higher.
So what exactly is Ruby, a “loser” at the Examination Game, grateful for? In our book Educating Ruby, my co-author Professor Bill Lucas and I argue that schools ought to have a proudly and fluently proclaimed answer to the Ruby question.
There has to be another way of “winning” at school – a “second game”, if you will – that makes every young person, whatever their attainment, a Ruby. It should not be a matter of luck whether they went to a school that valued the second game as highly as the first, and pursued it systematically and effectively.
The second game is, of course, what has come to be called The Character Curriculum: the deliberate cultivation of really useful, transferable habits and attitudes.
We know from research, without a shadow of doubt, that characteristics such as resilience, “grit” and curiosity are powerful predictors of life-long flourishing and fulfilment (read Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed if you haven’t already).
We know that the extent to which an 11-year-old is already an habitual and enthusiastic reader predicts their life success when they are 30 – not their ability to read but their love of reading. And we also know that these traits are perfectly capable of deliberate cultivation – or of being undermined and ignored.
Grades get you through some of life’s critical gateways, but they are much less important when it comes to flourishing on the other side. It is no use teaching people how to pick the lock to the swimming pool if you forgot to also teach them how to swim.
We call Ruby’s set of these habits – the valuable residues of her 12 years in school – the Seven Cs.
She is grateful for having been helped to build Confidence: the feeling that her thoughts and interests are worthwhile even though they were not academic. She values her Curiosity: her courage to try new things and “have a go”.
She likes being a good Collaborator and a kind and trustworthy friend. She really values her abilities to Communicate and to enjoy reading.
She feels Creative, able to engage imaginatively with all kinds of challenges. She learnt to Commit herself to difficult, worthwhile things and not be frightened of hard work and struggle.
And she takes pleasure in a sense of Craftsmanship: putting in the effort needed in order to feel the swelling pride in a job well done, whatever that may be.
She is saddened by how many of her friends, at different schools, came out quite differently: disengaged, deadened and defeated. Or brittle, angry and anxious in their response to anything that falls outside a narrow circle of friends and interests.
But the Character Curriculum is not just for the low-achievers. There are many students at Oxford and Cambridge who lack those seven Cs. They learned only to feel good about themselves while they were winning at the academic game, and feel a constant subversive undertow of worry that they might be about to be unmasked, revealed as unworthy of their place among the dreaming spires.
As work gets harder and assignments pile up, they feel inadequate, and many of them slide into anxiety and depression. Instead of feeling a personal failure, they ought instead to write to their old school’s headteacher, pointing out ruefully that the way they were taught has left them unprepared to teach themselves – to know how to plan their time, to have the courage to ask their lecturer when they don’t understand something, to form successful study partnerships with their peers, to be powerful, self-organising researchers, and so on.
Building the habits of effective learning is a gradual process that requires sustained attention to many different aspects of the school culture – especially the classroom atmosphere and activities routinely created by teachers.
The emphasis is as much on the way things are done, as on what is being learned. You can teach the Tudors in a way that builds dependency and credulity, or in a way that builds creativity and curiosity.
Both can get good results; only one also fits students for life. It requires clarity of direction and an effort of will to turn the ship around.
Where this is not happening, it is not the fault of individual teachers or heads; it largely reflects an obsession by government and its inspectorate with just one half of the job they ought to be doing.
The concern with the fine details of pedagogy fails to register on the conventional radar of most politicians and policy-makers. They want things they can control, like mandating set texts, introducing “Progress 8” or setting up new kinds of school. Their constant re-arranging of the structural furniture distracts teachers’ attention from where it needs to be: on the mental qualities that are quietly being incubated in the classroom.
They also want things they can measure and count, and which have the appearance (though only that) of “objectivity”. And the gradual development of learning habits is harder to track than factual knowledge; not impossible, just somewhat harder.
The good news is, there is a great deal that schools can do, if they have a mind to, to strengthen the character curriculum, despite the lop-sided pressures from the top.
There are many shining examples of schools that do build 21st century character – as well as getting good marks on their SATs or EBacc. Ruby went to such a school, and there are hundreds around. But they are still too few and far between. Some heads are understandably nervous, and worry about apparently “taking their eye off the standards ball” and blips in results triggering the unwelcome interest of Ofsted.
Proposals that schools be judged on rolling three or five-year aggregates of results, not on single years, are to be welcomed, so that possible teething troubles can be smoothed out and innovation not strangled at birth. Overwhelmingly, though, the evidence shows that more confident, creative learners do better on the tests, not worse. It’s a win-win.
Confident heads are the pioneers of 21st century education. But the knowledgeable support of parents and governors for what may seem, to start with, like an unfamiliar direction of travel, is a vital asset.
Educating Ruby aims to take this debate out to parents and families, so they can see what is being done, why it is essential, and how they can support their children’s schools and put pressure on local and national politicians.
With the 2015 General Election behind us, we want politicians to be in no doubt that in five years’ time they will feel the hot breath of electoral defeat on the back of their necks if they don’t wake up and support the evolution of schools like Ruby’s.
Further informationEducating Ruby: What our children really need to learn by Professors Guy Claxton and Bill Lucas is published by Crown House Publishing at £9.99. You can find out more and register your interest at www.educatingruby.org
Professor Guy Claxton is emeritus professor of the learning sciences at the Centre for Real-World Learning, University of Winchester.