Previous negative experiences in education. Many young FE students had a less than positive experience at school and feel disenfranchised by education. FE is about creating a climate of possibility. All of our students have faced challenging times and now more than ever, they need our belief, support and reassurance to try to keep positive and motivated.
Mental health issues. For a long time now, generations of students have suffered from depression, anxiety and low self-esteem, with a fear of failure and a natural aversion to taking risks, which sometimes manifests as a cautiousness towards opportunity and a preoccupation with what other people might think of them. The online space can be a really big source of anxiety and unhappiness for a lot of young people. Social media is not going away and is not helping. In the short-term, we need to remind students to look up and switch off.
Fear of public failure leading to lack of resilience. Winston Churchill once said that if you haven’t failed, then you haven’t tried hard enough. Just like risk though, it is easy to mitigate against failure by taking the easy option. Churchill also said that success is going from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm. I help my students enter international competitions, encouraging them to submit work for potential exhibition in prestigious galleries, even though it’s a long shot. They’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Limited money leading to lack of experiences. There is endless research showing how teens that grow up in disadvantaged circumstances have less chance of succeeding in life. Many students but by no means all, do not have the opportunity for regular foreign holidays or even day trips to areas of outstanding natural beauty. Some students have complicated home lives. How can we equip them to thrive, even when life gets hard as it inevitably does? With the demise of Erasmus, we need to provide new ways of funding wider international exchanges which bring improved outcomes (as students are more engaged and motivated), employability increases (it can go on their cv and personal statement), retention improves (they want to be there and often continue into higher education). I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I had 100% retention and achievement last year after taking students to India, Poland, Derbyshire and London all in 3 months.
Kindness is key – we need to set the tone. This can be as simple as giving regular encouragement to all and praise whenever deserved. Students mirror our behaviour, values and attitudes. We need zero-tolerance for put downs or mockery between learners. Don’t accept absence – phone straight away. Create more time for one to one.
Set ambitious targets from day one. I say to my students: “don’t take the PISS” (explaining the acronym as ‘Pass isn’t sufficient, seriously’). I print the assessment criteria out with the pass criteria blocked out in red – ‘it’s taken as red.’ Instead, I say, ‘let’s go ‘MAD’ (Merits and Distinctions).
So set big goals and ambitious projects straight away. We need to be using the pandemic to push for something we would not usually have access to. I have found that professionals who would not normally collaborate with an FE college are prepared to give their time remotely at present. Since the start of lockdown three, we have organised weekly industry leading visiting speakers on-line. Microsoft Teams has been a game-changer.
Continually provide opportunities to up-grade through additional cross-curricular projects.
Two years ago, for the 2018 Centenary Remembrance, we embarked immediately from September on a very ambitious, collaborative project, making 750 packs of remembrance themed photographic postcards, handed to every visitor at the Town Hall ceremony. Not just poppies falling from the ceiling but a quarter of a million poppy seeds shared amongst the visitors for re-wilding. We had a moving drama performance from our performing arts students, films about war made by our media students, an art exhibition, not just at college, but in a gallery, the town hall and the local park simultaneously. The pride and excitement in this epic student shared venture was palpable. They lifted their game to meet the community’s expectations.
Create a climate for peer review.
Students can feel that they are being criticised even if they are not. We have regular ‘show and share’ sessions where students help each other to show their work with formative feedback from each other. We encourage confident students to enable the shy ones to express themselves through a mentor-like double act. Get the class to put their phones to good use by giving immediate constructive feedback to other students on Teams chat. “This could be even better if…” Emphasis on the dignity of the individual, the importance of everyone’s ideas and celebrating creativity, all help. We need to encourage teenagers to calmly articulate their viewpoint whilst developing negotiating skills. Environments where there is little difference of opinion and no tolerance for arguments, produce teenagers who are more susceptible to negative peer pressure. The trick is to find learners who complement each other and also get along. Facilitate, observe, record and monitor; and only jump in if they are really struggling.
Take a risk. Go outside the classroom. Be adventurous.
Being creative outdoors can help people cope with the challenges of life and resulting personal stresses and strains and is thus closely connected with mental health. Time spent outside stimulates the senses and can recalibrate our thinking. Any green space, even just looking at a green wall lowers heart-rate, blood pressure and anxiety. In the meantime, we must at least provide projects which get students off devices for a while.
Winter 2019 I took 30 students into a WIFI-free zone – the snow-covered Highlands of Scotland. We were literally in the shadow of Ben Nevis, with temperatures of minus ten, negotiating frozen waterfalls and dancing to folk music in the local pub. The results were eye-opening. Students left their comfy cliques to become a supportive whole, helping each other, hand in hand across mountains. Closer to home, during winter 2020, I took 40 students, to Ilam, Derbyshire. Climbing Thorpe Cloud felt like we’d conquered an alp – finally a phone signal – with everyone phoning home to announce their achievement. The sense of cheerfulness, patience and acceptance, evident on trips like these are immeasurable. At the end of each day, they shared their work in an informal critique led by students.
Callum, previously a pass level student from a low income background, accidently dropped his lens in a river due to his exuberance but then the following day fished a small child from the same river, after they had fallen in, away from a parent. That definitely deserved a commendation on his individual learning plan! I sent Callum to Berlin for three months work experience, where he learnt to cook, had work published, swam in lakes and on return offered himself as class rep. He’s now living away from home at Staffordshire University and even wants to be a teacher!
In 2017, I took 30 students to the volcanic wastes of Iceland. James had never left the UK before and couldn’t afford to go. Not to be defeated, I teamed up with Handlesbanken, a Nordic bank in Stourbridge. James was promised that if he made a calendar and framed photographs celebrating the Black Country for the bank and its prime associates, the bank would pay for the trip. To see James swimming in thermal lagoons and standing in waterfalls under the midnight sun was priceless. He’s just graduated from Derby University. That journey can’t be sufficiently measured by data.
Unlike the funding of schools and universities, funding of colleges is very closely linked to success rates. This can have the effect of discouraging us from taking a chance on students who really need us to take that chance. Education can’t be improved just by better data. Our focus on ideal quantitative target-setting accountability can blind us to the real stories behind changing lives.
Post-lockdown, our learners will continue to need our kind, relentless nagging and our gentle, persuasive pushing, in order to feel secure enough to take chances in groups and make mistakes. Empathy and kindness are key. Students need an environment where we can all work together safely, shoulder to shoulder, metaphorically if not physically. The pandemic has shown us more than ever that we are all in it together. Though we are reduced to working more unilaterally than ever at present, teamwork is still where the real magic can happen, and it is where I believe, the essence of growth is.
We learn what we do, not what we are told. Learning to learn will always have value. We need fresh ways of ensuring teachers can be creative in facilitating students’ love of learning. Experiences are at the heart of change and give students cultural capital. When expansive experiences are combined with high expectations, students will generally rise to the challenge and achieve things we could not anticipate. As Godin says, young people need to learn how to lead and solve interesting problems together whilst being allowed to make small mistakes often, in order to really grow. We mustn’t let students’ fear of making a mistake or getting funny looks, prevent them from having a go. We must find new ways to bolster our teenager’s self-esteem in a way that allows them to cultivate positivity about themselves and each other, while possessing the humility to accept episodes of failure as part of life and learning.
We need to prioritise developing students resilience. But what we really need are radical new solutions to help students maintain a robust mental health. Why is much of education still dominated by a sedentary segregation, downwards facing and inward looking. Why were we still teaching almost exclusively in distanced clinical enclaves. We need to look for opportunities to mix things up, in shared spaces with innovative collaborative projects.
Why aren’t amazing collaborative experiences occurring more? When we are allowed back into buildings, let’s take our class bubbles outside. Leaving the classroom is safer, can bring learning to life and makes everyone feel better. Plenty of other nations have even adopted elements of wilderness education successfully. Today’s teens are expected to take fewer risks than any other generation before them. Students are only going to learn to evaluate risk if they are exposed to risk. When it becomes possible again, we need to prioritise collaborative trips. They are not just nice but necessary and can be transformative. On return to a new normality, in FE we need to look forward and outward, with a new creative daring. Instead of being scared of what might happen, we should be worried about what might not happen.
Phil Brooks, February 2021.