By: Matthew Savage
I recently rewatched Tim Burton’s gothic reimagining of Alice in Wonderland, and, amid what The Guardian aptly described as its “hydrocephalic nightmare” and “funkily crepuscular mood”, the eponymous hero offers a profound insight into the shared experience of children and young people, then and now. “From the moment I fell down that rabbit hole I’ve been told where I must go and who I must be. I’ve been shrunk, stretched, scratched, and stuffed into a teapot. I’ve been accused of being Alice and of not being Alice, but this is my dream. I’ll decide where it goes from here…I make the path.”
Reading another in a steady flow of articles about the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the young, I am left painfully aware that, now more than ever, a whole generation is being “stuffed into a teapot” of others’ making, and risks “being ‘catastrophically’ hit by the ‘collateral damage’ wrought by the crisis”. Governments are panicking about curriculum time lost to the lockdowns, and desperate to plug learning gaps aplenty, without realising that the real cost to schoolchildren is one not of learning but of wellbeing.
I have been fortunate to work with hundreds of school leaders from across the globe this year, and the message I have heard, again and again, is that it is students’ attitudes and wellbeing that we need to measure, and with students’ attitudes and wellbeing that we need, critically, to intervene. Students who once were brimming with confidence are now hesitant and wary, and students who used to feed hungrily upon positive relationships with both teachers and peers are now experiencing something akin to social malnutrition.
The main thrust of my consultancy is assessment, and data is my bread and butter, but I, too, have shifted my lens and not just moved the goalposts but relocated to another pitch altogether. I have long since argued that attitudes are everything, and that, if we can only grow and embed positive attitudes and mental good health and wellbeing, the achievement and progress we all want for our students will oftentimes follow naturally. Burton’s movie finds Wonderland “plunged in gloom”: “The tea party is still going, but all the dishes are wrecked, the cups have sprung leaks, and the event itself is sited in some wasteland, like a depiction of the Somme.” Watching footage and photos of schools reopening this year behind masks, sneeze screens and bubbles, I can’t help but sense the gloom too.
However, as teachers we are optimists and opportunists, and, for every bleak news headline, I have seen examples of heart-warming ingenuity, as our profession has sought to rescue the emotional world of a generation, and shine a warming light on them once more, even under the constraints of remote schooling. Increasingly, I am seeing schools realise the importance of daily check-ins to make sure that no child is left out or left behind, and by far the most popular training request I have received this academic year is about the assessment and measurement of students’ attitudes to self and school.
PASS (Pupil Attitudes to Self and School) is a quick and easy mechanism for identifying the needs and challenges which can be a critical obstacle to positive wellbeing and, as a result, achievement and progress too. The data from this survey enables schools to look, through multiple lenses and at different levels, at the attitudes their students bring with them to school every day. I have helped schools from every corner of the world to understand these attitudes, and we always begin by looking at what I call the three attitudinal “domains”: self, study and school. I have seen a fascinating picture develop in numerous countries in which, typically, students had previously exhibited much lower Domain 1 scores than in Domain 3, sacrificing their own wellbeing at the altar of high parental and societal expectations, natural deference to adult authority, and a shared language of learning to which their own stage of English acquisition gave them insufficient access. These students are, for the first time, showing a noticeable dip in Domain 3, the effect of a socially distant, or physically remote, education taking its toll on what was once the area of greatest attitudinal strength.
As a result, schools are, finally, putting attitudinal interventions before everything else – reviewing and rebooting their wellbeing curriculum and coaching and mentoring students’ attitudes to self and school, in a paradigm shift in priorities, and one which is long overdue. Many of us will have read of Hattie’s work on the effect of school closures due to the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, in which he concluded that “students’ performance actually went up in the final exams”. Therefore, evidence shows that students can easily weather the storm of lost learning, but the damage to student wellbeing, and the attitudes which will determine their learning outcomes for years to come, could, indeed, be catastrophic, if we don’t do something about it now. However, with the right interventions, we can rescue and reinforce those attitudes and, in so doing, enable this vulnerable generation to “decide where it goes from here”.
Matthew is an internationally acclaimed education consultant, and founder of #themonalisaeffect®, a pioneering approach to personalising learning through student-level data. Matthew works with schools, and school groups, worldwide, helping them to make effective use of a ‘triangle’ of data to enhance wellbeing and maximise achievement and progress. To find out more, visit monalisaeffect.me, or contact Matthew at firstname.lastname@example.org.