Opening cocoons

Rachel Musson, founder of ThoughtBox, has been re-thinking education from the inside

What is the purpose of education? Is it to nurture our children in the art of creative inquiry or to train them to be successful in passing tests? To encourage them to ask questions or to instruct them on how to think in a particular way? Is it a form of enlightenment; encouraging a thirst for inquiry with skills to challenge and question the very nature of the world around them, or a form of indoctrination, asking our children to submit to order and not question the world around them?

Whilst working on a teacher-training project in schools across Pokhara, Nepal a few years ago, I was struck by the absurdity of some of the pedagogical practices. Many schools had recently migrated over to ‘English medium, but had neither the time nor the funding to rapidly train teachers in language proficiency. What I observed was overworked teachers teaching students vital information in a language that no-one really understood. The students were then examined on their learning and were (impressively) passing their examinations with flying colours; primarily through a system of rote-learning sounds and words. Comprehension of what was being taught played second fiddle (if even given any role at all); regurgitation was all that mattered to gain credits. Thus the students were not being asked to think about, challenge or reflect upon what they were being taught; simply to remember it and repeat it upon demand.

If you scratch the surface, this same pattern is happening in our own schools; producing what William Deresiewicz recently coined “Excellent Sheep” in his publication of the same name: flocks of very clever students – well trained within a system to pass exams – yet whom are frequently unable to think for themselves. Ideally, education should liberate, not indoctrinate; enhance, not diminish and allow our children to bloom not be cocooned. Yet so many of the systems we are using across the world seem broken; insulating children and gradually eroding all sense of self and wonder about the world. I call this the Butterfly-Caterpillar effect; an almost reverse sense of development and growth.

Having worked as a secondary English teacher in the UK for many years, I left mainstream teaching a few years ago to learn about different education systems across the world, teaching in places as diverse as Tanzania, Nepal, Peru, Borneo, India and Australia. I have heard the same stories being spoken by pupils, parents and government officials alike: we need to allow our children to learn to ‘think’ in order to thrive in this ever-changing world. Yet in the education systems in all of these countries (and beyond), thinking is not really a requisite within the curriculum. More and more systems are falling into the trap of standardising, testing and pressuring students to conform to an expectation of success; a standard that in many countries is totally abstracted from the surrounding environments.

Rachel working in Tanzania

Beyond the extraction of meaning for many of the children within these systems, nowhere in any of these curricular are students being asked to think. The UK may have introduced “Critical Thinking” into the curriculum, but if you extract thinking from learning (by teaching it separately from everything else) then all other learning that is left to happen is simply absorption. More and more we are simply requiring our students to absorb and regurgitate, rather than to think, challenge and question.

In a rapidly globalising world, we are on the one hand encouraging our children to interact with people, problems and environments far away from their own; yet at the same time not allowing them to learn and develop core skills of empathy, critical thinking and tolerance they will need to thrive successfully in this ever-changing world. The Department for Education recently introduced the promotion of ‘British Values’ into our schools through SMSC teaching. Although a positive recognition of the need to promote these skills, again (as with Critical Thinking) it seems an ‘add-on’ to learning and an artificial way to encourage our children to care.

In response to my experiences and learning, I set up ThoughtBox; an online learning resource for schools, promoting critical thinking, empathy and ‘unlearning’. The aims of a ThoughtBox education are not to find answers but to ask questions; challenging students to think beyond what they think they know (to ‘unlearn’) to allow new understandings of seemingly familiar issues to emerge. Each month a new ThoughtBox opens, with resources encouraging debate, discussion and unlearning surrounding a particular topic relevant across the world. Curriculum content uses stories told from the other side of the fence; allowing a fresh approach to learning through discussions in which there are no ‘right answers’. By using an online platform, students are given the opportunity to connect with other schools and communities across the UK and the wider world; with the technology removing any limitations to who can use the resources or where connections can be made.

The global village is constantly beckoning us inside, and it is important for students to learn about, respect and understand the many different versions of life that exist out there. Understanding that there is often no right way to see something is part of empathy building and a way for us all to learn to tolerate difference in opinion and belief across the globe.

Rachel Musson is a secondary English Teacher currently living between the UK and Tanzania and is the Founding Director of ThoughtBox.