In May 2011 there were reports in the papers about the discovery of the so-called happiness gene. The gene, called 5-HTT, is responsible for how well nerve cells manage to distribute serotonin, a chemical produced by the pineal gland in the brain which helps control mood. People with low levels of serotonin - itself nicknamed the 'happiness drug' - are known to be more prone to depression. Two long genes inherited from parents increase the likelihood of being happy with your lot in life, two short ones and you may be less happy.
In the Observer Review on 1st January 2012, there was a report on the work of Tali Sharot, a research fellow at UCL Wellcome Foundation, into what she is calling the optimism bias. This appears to suggest that some of us are primed to look on the bright side and the optimists appear to overcome hardship and illness more easily, achieve more and again, are likely to be happier.
Andrew Curran, consultant paediatrician, writing about “All you need is love” on the Independent Thinking website, writes about the impact of a chemical released by the brain, dopamine, which encourages the intake of information, supporting learning. His very interesting article can be read on http://www.independentthinking.co.uk/Cool+Stuff/Articles/289.aspx
So what has all this to do with schools? I became a headteacher in 1990. There was a group of like-minded recently appointed headteachers who were all seeking to establish the detail of their Teaching and Learning policies in such a way that they could develop their schools over the following five years. The first task that we set ourselves was to consider our response to the starter, “Children learn best when they........” The majority answer was “...are happy.” The subsequent discussion went on to tease out what contributed to this sense of happiness.
- Confidence in themselves, as people and learners.
- Awareness of the world around them, locally and wider, showing sensitivity, an enquiring approach, and a developing sense of awareness of themselves as spiritual beings.
- Capable of working in many different ways, with different grouping of others, and be able to sustain effort when required
- Solve problems with different, but developing, levels of independence.
- Think creatively and reflectively when appropriately challenged, organising their needs, and being able to talk clearly to anyone with an interest in their activities.
- Accept guidance to achieve the best they can, with a clear understanding of their strengths and areas for further improvement.
Much school time, largely through so-called assessment activities, can be spent identifying what children cannot do, so that it can be remediated. Reinforcing the negative reduces the dopamine levels, heightens negative chemicals and thereby become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Learning is about what you know and what you don’t. What I know makes me happy and I can get on with that. What I don’t, I still have to learn.
There is a systematic confusion embedded in the transition to Secondary education. Using levelness as an exemplar, Primary schools may have sought to get their children to level 4, or better in mathematics and English. Formerly there was also a desire to match this in science and the non-core subjects. A number achieved at level 5. On transfer to secondary there is often, in year seven, a desire to ensure that they are all really at these levels and to make sure that the level 3s “catch up”. Conversations with Secondary teachers can sometimes be premised around the content, rather than the capability. It is often expressed that children can’t be level 5 unless they have had specific subject content. The National Curriculum level descriptors do not appear to be determined by subject content, but have a clear description of the learning processes.
If we premised the learning journeys of children on their capabilities, celebrating what they can do, with clear descriptions, understandable to them, of what they need to do next, with teachers capable of systematic and sustained supportive engagement and intervention, wouldn’t the children enjoy learning? They must become the producers of their own learning, instead of consumers within a potentially limited diet.
Gervaise Phinn, in “The Road to the Dales” wrote about his schooling:-
“The teachers were not scholarly or highly qualified, they didn’t walk the corridors in academic gowns, but they were first rate educationalists. They created an atmosphere where the pupils’ curiosity could, where we were allowed to think and question, where classrooms were cooperative, good-humoured places, where learning was not derived by the acquisition of a few arid facts but from and understanding and appreciation of the material. It was a child-centred environment well before the term was widely used by the progressive commentators of the 1960s.”
So to quote Monty Python, “Always look on the bright side of life.” Try to develop the phrase, “You can’t do...” into “You may not be able to do... yet, but I can help and you can try.”
There appears to be a song for every occasion. In the 1940s, Johnny Mercer and Bin Crosby sang the following:-
You've got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
And latch on to the affirmative
Don't mess with Mister In-Between
You've got to spread joy up to the maximum
Bring gloom down to the minimum
Have faith or pandemonium's
Liable to walk upon the scene
Be well and happy.