Category Archives: Nicholas Alchin

Brexit: People and Perspectives

Like so many other issues, Brexit was essentially a matter of identity; who do the British people want to be?

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What can we learn form the Brexit fiasco?

The Leave side was seen as taking the higher ground by appealing to the identity of the British as proud and independent.  The Remain side forgot it’s own story, and ended up appearing to quibble about numbers, laws and details. As we know, the narrative about identity prevailed.  It usually does, and the result was a staggering and perhaps historic result.

Writing as a staunchly Remain British citizen, I feel pretty glum about the whole affair.  Not (just!) because I was on the losing side, and not (just!) because of the total lack of respect on both sides for reason and facts; but more because I realize how little effort we have put over recent years into the ‘United’ bit of United Kingdom.   That, of course, is why there was so much surprise from markets, media and politicians who did not look outside the London bubble.  So while it was impossible for me to imagine ourselves as anything but increasingly integrated with our neighbours, that really reflects more about my own identity and perspective than it does about anything else.  Others felt exactly the opposite for similar reasons of identity.   Regardless of whether Article 50 is ever triggered or not, both sides probably still do not really understand each other’s attitudes and feelings.

Understanding is, of course, the business of education, and there are important reminders here for teachers and parents, regardless of nationality (the same issues play out in many, many countries –  most obviously the USA at the moment).  Not just that the content of what we teach our students has to be relevant, but also that to have a lasting and profound effect the learning has to be more than academic learning; it has to resonate with our students’ values and identities.   Having an explicit and consistent focus on school Missions helps; so does talking to students (in an open, not didactic way) about who they want to be and what they see as important in life and how we need to better understand people with different views to work together.  If we get it right, they will be able to engage in important issues in an informed, positive way that seeks to connect constructively with others.  The many commentaries that insult the Leave voters’ intelligence or motivation reflect a failure of imagination in some parts of the Remain camp.  We must avoid this polarisation, and schools have to play their part.

The Joy of Text

I’ve argued in the past that the evolution of languages – including texting –  is an inevitable feature of human societies and we need to adapt and educate, rather than deny or lament (Like, get over it!).

Screen Shot 2016-06-12 at 11.34.29 amI had imagined that adaption means being aware of the choices we make when we use different discourses; and choosing the right ones for the right occasions and the right people.  But I have recently come to see that while this is an important aspect of language, some new media present genuinely different opportunities for conversation.  I’m thinking of texting here – and I surprise myself because my skepticism of the value of texting for anything beyond the trivial was only slightly less than my in-principle irritation of Twitter.

I remain a Twitter-skeptic, but this TED talk from Nancy Lublin was, for me, totally compelling.  She points out that the apparent vices of anonymity, distance, and facelessness of texting can be virtues; that they can be precisely the reasons that we can sometimes open up new, profound and vital conversations; conversations that are otherwise too intimate, painful and hard to face.  In particular, she is talking about conversations that are not mediated by embarrassment, tears, or fears when they are conducted by texted rather than in person.  You see, Ms Lublin runs texting helplines across the USA, and has been collecting data about who texts for help when, in what circumstances.  She noteswe spike everyday at lunch time — kids are sitting at the lunch table and you think that she’s texting the cute boy across the hall, but she’s actually texting us about her bulimia. And we don’t get the word “like” or “um” or hyperventilating or crying. We just get facts.

So it seems that people may be more likely to seek help by text than by phone, or in person.  Perhaps it’s the lack of the need to speak; perhaps it’s simply the pared-down nature of texting language; or the tech-mediated character that mobile technology brings. In any case, it’s a crucial difference, and  the reason doesn’t really matter.   We have to meet people where they are, not where we are.

I’ve learnt that perhaps foregrounding face-to-face conversations over other modes of communication isn’t always as good a principle as I had thought, and I’m trying to be a little more flexible.  Now when a student emails (emails are a little different, but I think the same may apply) I’ll try not to react with my usual please come and see me in person until I have made some space for disclosures that might not otherwise emerge.  Similarly for my own kids.

I wonder if our doubt over the roles of new media in conversations will seem quaint in years to come.  In Victorian times, folk wondered if it was disgraceful to chat on the telephone while improperly dressed.  For me, that’s salutary.  I may even re-visit Twitter.

Choking for words, she just asked “Why?”

One of my daughters was reading a powerful novel set in WWII, and had followed the protagonist though appalling circumstances; his compassion, warmth and courage made him an immensely likeable character whom she felt she somehow really knew. His sudden brutal, quick and surprising death came as a shock; and Millie was powerfully moved, almost to tears.

Not the most cheering of sentiments, but important ideas emerge, and we owe them due consideration. I have been reflecting on many of our schools Mission statements about leaving the world a better place, and the extent to which this goal can be addressed when our days are largely taken up with a fairly traditional academic curriculum. If we want to educate for peace then should we rip and throw away the regular academic classes? Should we join those who see traditional academic education as prolonging an outdated system that was really set up for the industrial era?

I think you will see where I am going; that I am somewhat skeptical of the need to start again. Not, of course, that we cannot do better – we can, we must, and we are always striving to do so. But in our unswerving dedication to improvement, I sometimes see a tendency to take for granted the goods that we already have. And having students clearly moved, emotionally connected to far away situations and people – who are very different to them – has to be one of these goods; and a small but powerful step towards educating for peace.

So I am seeing the value in traditional literature, though that runs contrary to some Departments of Education around the world which seem only interested in more obvious and quantifiable returns on investment. Not that there is not a place for the quantifiable – I also believe that maths and science can help us understand possibilities and probabilities in the widest arena of human affairs; and that history, psychology, politics and so on should help an engaged citizenry weigh up the costs and benefits of war. But short of experiencing war itself, perhaps the arts of literature and drama are the closest we can ever get to understanding what those costs truly are. I can attest to the profound effect it had on my daughter.

That seems to be a defence of an intelligently designed, passionately delivered, broad and balanced traditional academic curriculum, with a central place for the Arts. Academics are not everything, for sure, but properly done, they contribute as much to the holistic and emotional growth of students as anything else.