The depth of relationships

Relationships are defined as ‘the way in which two or more concepts, objects, or people are connected, or the state of being connected’. It is a phrase we hear on a daily basis in a personal, professional, social, spiritual, metaphysical and environmental context, amongst others. We use this term loosely to describe an entire multitude of situations, contexts and scenarios.

Today I had the good fortune of spending the entire day in the company of Dr Thomas Jackson. Now, here is an individual who has devoted his life to this very cause on a deeply profound level. He can often be quoted using the term ‘connectedness’, a deep seated connectedness which allows him to reach out to a vast array of people and build strong purposeful relationships. It is on this solid foundation that intellectual safety and P4C find the rich and stimulating nutrients to grow and flourish. It has become abundantly clear today that the immense and explicit importance placed on relationships by the academy is one of the, if not the, largest contributory factors to their success. I am of the opinion that too often people skate over the concept of building relationships in the deepest sense of the words. It can often be assumed that it has already been addressed because it is in its ideology a basic component of what it means to be human. It is basic. However, I would like to intercept this narrative with a thought provoking caveat…

Building relationships with our pupils is key as educators and practitioners and we are duty bound to fulfil this criteria to a lesser or greater degree, dependent upon the individual. This is a privileged position we are entrusted with, to connect to another human life and influence it through the art of teaching. It has been observed that an increasing number of pupils receive wraparound care, attending breakfast and after school clubs. The reasoning behind this is completely understandable as many parents feel the increasing economic and financial pressures. However these pupils, including very young children, are spending a decreasing amount of time with parents. As educational and out of school care providers we can create the most loving, nurturing, warm environments for these pupils however, we are restricted  by protocol and safeguarding to comfort or support them for instance in a way a parent might (this is not to say I am opposed to the safeguarding of children and young people in any way, it is paramount that this continues to be a firm focus). This lack of  physiological and emotional interaction at a young age made me reflect on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and pose some interesting questions: are we as a society neglecting the bedrock of essential human development? how will this impact on their capacity to form and sustain relationships in the future? what impact will it have on mental health? what are we as a society consciously doing to address this issue? is the allure of self actualisation inadvertently making us neglect the foundational blocks of safety, love and belonging? if we continue to persist with this trend what will the future hold for the human race as we know it?

Now this brings me back to the work of the Uehiro Academy of Philosophy and Ethics in Education and this is precisely why they are in my opinion at the forefront of leading P4C. Their mantra of not being in a rush sounds simplistic and it is. However, how many of us can honestly and truly say that we embody this sentiment and actively display it in our own personal lives, in our homes, in our classrooms and in our relationships? It seems to me that time is one of those precious commodities that we all seem to have less and less of. We seem to spend the best part of our lives being in a rush: a rush to finish school, a rush to find a job, a rush to accumulate enough money to feed out materialistic wants and desires, a rush to find the right person, a rush to be married, a rush to have children, a rush for our children to grow up … and so it continues. I can’t help but wonder what is the ultimate price we pay for this frenzied state of mind? What are the subtleties and minutia details that we miss on a daily basis? what impact do these have over time?

Imagine then the oasis provided by a place that allows you to do precisely that. Convene, think together and slowly but surely to be able to drill down through the layers of emotions, experiences, hopes, dreams and primal wonders. To have the time to find them, reconnect with them and share them genuinely and sincerely with a community of co-enquirers. This is the sacred experiential place provided by P4C Hawai’i, a joy to behold and an absolute pleasure and privilege to be a part of. I am truly humbled and forever grateful to have had this experience, it is an experience that every child has the right to  access and I have every intention of ensuring that I share this treasured necessity with as many educators as possible in order to make it a reality.

Licensed to be critical

‘Critical thinking’ – now here’s a phrase that is widely used in job adverts, school portfolios, reports and academic literature to name but a few. It is especially used within the wider spectrum of ‘thinking skills’. Critical thinking is highly valued in the generic sense of the word and rightly so, it is an integral component of our ability to think effectively. However, I feel it should be used with care, genuine sincerity and above all appropriately. Adopting critical thinking comes with a responsibility that should not be disregarded or taken lightly. SAPERE’s conceptual framework for a community of enquiry consists of the 4 c’s, these are categorised as: caring, collaborative, critical and creative modes of thinking. Within this framework the critical lens is only one of four that can be applied to aid the development of the enquiry. This was bought to the forefront of my mind this week as I witnessed Dr Ben Lukey use the philosophers toolkit with a range of classes at Waimanalo Elementary and intermediate School (WEIS).  Although I had seen the toolkit in action on my previous visit, there were noticeable differences in the way it was being accessed in the classroom. Dr Ben Lukey started each session by presenting the initials for each tool and the pupils would recap what each initial represented and how it could be used in an enquiry to improve the breadth and depth of enquiry:

R – What are the reasons for…?

T – Is it always/sometimes or never true?

A – Can I assume that…?

W – What do you mean by…?

E – What are some examples of…?

C – Are there any counter examples to the idea or claim that…?

I – Can I infer that…?

The explicit methodology deployed to teach young children how to use these tools encouraged them to apply collaborative, caring, critical and creative modes of thinking in a highly sophisticated manner. Although the specific vocabulary itself differs there is a shared understanding of the importance of all these facets of thinking because it is only then that we can create rich, stimulating and safe school environments for these students to truly flourish. This practice reaffirmed my staunch belief that through programs such as P4C we can mediate change on a whole school level and beyond by focusing on the culture of a school. If critical thinking was the only type of thinking we applied it would have a catastrophic impact on human society and civilisation as we know it. So yes, critical thinking is important but we must teach our students to use it with caution and responsibility.

Later on in the week Dr Ben Lukey and I were discussing the wider issues associated to critical thinking specifically in the domain of system leadership and accountability. It bought up many questions about the association between critical thinking and school improvement: do advisors and specialists feel they have to be critical in order to help the school move forward? Is this the same as genuine comments for improvement or does it frame the need to be critical in order to be effective? does an over emphasis on critical thinking lead some individuals to seek out problems/issues in schools? does this lead to fair and honest judgment or is it seen to be a prerequisite for working effectively in school improvement in any capacity: inspection, advisory or consultancy?

The Tyranny of Now

581 days, 22hours, 41 minutes and 43 seconds later I am sat here once again to archive my inner dialogue and to somehow articulate the privileged experience of working with the Uehiro Academy of Philosophy and Ethics in Education here in Hawaii. Having spent the past week in the company of Dr. Ben Lukey has not only been a refreshing trip down memory lane but has allowed me to observe the strides of progress the academy has made since my previous visit (i’ll save the details of that for a later blog post). As we sat there discussing the rationale for the second phase of this project, I explained my interest in exploring the synergy present in using P4C in conjunction with other pedagogies to further enhance learning and endorse active pupil engagement. I have been sharing Carol Dweck’s Mindset Theory with the academy to present my findings on integrating the two approaches.

This led to an in-depth discussion about the immense pressure faced by both teachers and pupils. At times insurmountable pressure to succumb to SMART targets, league tables, school ratings and the list goes on. I’d like to make it very clear at this point that i’m of the opinion that there should be school accountability, it is absolutely essential in order to monitor, evaluate and develop schools. However, too often I have come across individuals and whole school communities who seem to be in a constant state of perplexed anxiety fuelled by a constant stream of pressure, to the extent of practice becoming detrimental for the very pupils whom we aim to support, nurture and develop. Part of the struggle lies on the exaggerated emphasis on outcomes. In some instances, this goal orientated mindset cajoles a fixed mindset and doesn’t give pupils the essential opportunities to reflect, persevere and become not only resilient learners but resilient individuals. We owe it to the pupils in our care to provide them with ample opportunities to experience ‘failing’ in a safe environment. Their first experience of failure can not and should not be at the age of 16, 18 or 21. As educators we bear a responsibility to equip our children and youth with the vital life skills they are going to need in order to thrive and contribute to an active social community in a local, regional, national and international capacity. This is one of the reasons I feel so strongly about the importance of ‘not being in a rush’. We live in a world which is becoming increasingly ‘instant’ in multiple ways. In an academic context it can be perceived as an intellectual or social weakness if new ideas, thoughts or concepts are not understood straight away and all too often we are constrained by the tyranny of now.

In my opinion P4C and mindsets theory are some of the ways in which we can combat these issues at school level and beyond!