Children need trust, positivity and mutual respect to learn effectively

It was the end of the 1970s when Pink Floyd were at Number One in the charts with a song the lyrics of which spoke of “dark sarcasm in the classroom” and included the cry “Hey! Teacher! Leave them kids alone!” The accompanying video was no less provocative, with its Gerald Scarfe-drawn caricature of a bullying headmaster, his cane flailing menacingly, and its image of children being fed into the sausage machine of education. Forty years later and the debate about the state of behaviour in schools and how to manage children’s behaviour effectively rages as fiercely as ever. Life-based learning, as the name suggests, is about children’s learning not about behaviour per se. But on one thing we can surely all agree: effective learning only takes place in an atmosphere of trust, positivity and mutual respect in which every child feels valued and adults are constantly striving to build their pupils’ self-confidence and self-esteem.

Some of our most frequently visited blogs — like How were you taught when you were in primary school? — involve looking back at education in decades gone by. In his blog Effective learning needs a positive dynamic between teacher and pupils, Michael Mac, the originator of life-based learning, said this about the character of Teacher in the Beano’s Bash Street Kids cartoon strip:

Although Teacher himself was a figure of fun, his mortar board and cane symbolised an approach to learning that was also very much of its time: the omniscient authority figure dispensing knowledge to pupils who were expected to silently take it all in. It was, literally, ‘chalk and talk’. To question the teacher was to cross a line. The cane was not just part of the costume. It had a real and painful purpose.

You might argue that the last few sentences are as much a caricature as the Bash Street Kids comic strip itself. Of course it is the case that many children in the past benefitted from wonderful teaching delivered by caring, humane and inspirational practitioners. Sadly, however, what I described really was the reality for many of us. I still remember one particular teacher terrorising the primary school class that I was in. We were just 9 and 10 years of age, and we lived and learned in constant fear of her strap.

Michael Mac, Effective learning needs a positive dynamic between teacher and pupils

Michael goes on to talk of the importance of the emotional dynamic in the classroom: “Progress in learning depends on children feeling safe, welcomed and valued by the teacher.”

A key element of life-based learning is ‘brain-targeted teaching’, such as the approach developed by Dr Mariale Hardiman at Johns Hopkins University. In very simple terms, stress impedes learning, so the six elements of this approach include paying careful attention to the emotional climate for learning and the physical learning space.

Michael has also written about the idea of ‘win-win’ as a key element of the classroom dynamic: “The best teaching ensures that everyone in the class is a winner, including the teacher. Children learn the key concept that ‘win-win’ is good for everyone involved.”

Maryjane Ikeakaonwu describes herself as “a passionate teacher that believes in every child, and that education is for all.” She lives in Nigeria. Education there is very different from education in the UK, but her message is a universal one.

Michael Mac said: “Maryjane is an inspiration. She mentors trainee teachers in her local area, going in to schools once a week to help them — only three weeks trained — learn to teach.

Her blog is an example of behaviour management in very different educational and schooling circumstances to our own in the UK. For example, she works hard to convince teachers that corporal punishment is not the way. She promotes a positive message — “Increased motivation … Joyful students … Boosted self-esteem” — that focuses on building effective relationships based on warmth, trust and mutual respect. Her emphasis on pupil involvement and on rewards systems stands out. I particularly like the ‘homework pass’ idea!”

Maryjane is one of our Changemakers, our growing directory of people interested in education whose ideas on provision for primary-age children [5- to 11-year-olds] resonate with the life-based learning approach.

Image at the head of this article is by the nineteenth-century caricaturist George Cruikshank. It features on this webpage.

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