When character is forged

The unique bundle of character traits and proclivities known to me as ‘Andrew Hammond’ was assembled and packaged up in my early childhood. It was in the jostling precinct of primary school where my likes and dislikes, hopes and fears, talents and failings were hammered into shape and case-hardened. My perception of the world and my place within it had set in my subconscious mind by the time I had reached eight years old, I am certain.

Here I am, aged forty-eight, and though the receptacle may shows signs of aging, the character it carries hasn’t changed one bit. The same strengths and positive traits continue to bring me fulfilment, just as familiar frailties and fragilities bring me the same old anxieties. These drivers and characteristics coalesce to create what I recognise as ‘me’.

Like most grown-ups, I profess to being in control of my decision-making, of the choices I make and the routes I take. In reality, I am driven by a fusion of sub-conscious lessons I learned forty years ago, back when my malleable, impressionable inner-thoughts coalesced to form the blueprint of me. Since then, I may have picked up some knowledge and developed some new skills and competencies, but there are many things I have had to ‘unlearn’ about myself in order to progress.

Primary schools are the engine rooms of learning and growing, where the most value can be added, but also where the most damage can be inflicted. A good school is built on love and mutual respect. A caring culture allows strong foundations to seed, but a loveless, stressful environment for young children is toxic: brain energy that would otherwise be used to build synapses and make connections is diverted to coping with trauma instead, and so healthy development in memory, thinking and feeling is stymied through synaptic pruning. Difficulties we experience in later life can often be traced back to sub-conscious lessons we learned in childhood in response to traumatic experiences endured.

I was lucky. I have no recollection of significantly stressful surroundings, either at home or at school. But I have taught many children who have not been so fortunate and it continues to upset me when I see students forming negative impressions of themselves which may lead to poor mental health in their adult lives.

It is a school’s culture, not its curriculum, that has the most powerful effect on the way children view themselves and the world around them. It is culture – the way we do things around here – that shapes and case-hardens character.

When middle-aged educators like me furrow our brows and think hard about how we’re going to prepare children for an uncertain future, we like to use fashionable phrases like ‘the future of skills’ and ‘21stcentury skills’ (now twenty years old). We like to codify and systemise the preparatory steps needed for a time when our students are forty and we are eighty. We need a road map so that we can create a future-proofed curriculum with schemes of work. But discerning which skills will be most in-demand and which will have become obsolete is almost impossible, such is the pace of change and technological advancement.

What matters more is the climate we create – the caring culture in our schools – in which joy abounds, curiosity is untrammelled, challenge is embraced and creativity is allowed to prosper through a playful approach to learning. For the sub-conscious teachings children pick up in school about themselves, about each other and about what learning actually means, are the real obsolescence-proof lessons and the determinants of future success and happiness, more influential than the discrete skills we teach or the knowledge we deliver.

The question for me, forty years on, is not so much what I would say to the eight-year-old Andrew, but what he would say to me, if I listened to him. It would be unfair of me to expect him to offer a full exposition of the optimum learning conditions for a child, not least because he is only eight, but also because the really significant lessons he is learning are sub-conscious and won’t have revealed their impact to him yet.

If I could get him to sit still for a moment, I think Andrew would say, with excited eyes, ‘We’re havin’ a fun time. Have you seen the robot I made? You can make one too. Gotta go… bye.’

And I’d be happy with that.

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