Many of you will have read about Pop, the Swedish two-and-a-half-year-old whose gender the parents are refusing to reveal. Pop is given a range of toys from which to chose to play, dressed in a variety of outfits both masculine and feminine, and always called Pop, personal pronouns being avoided.
Pop’s parents have made the decision to follow this route to avoid the constraints of gender moulding and prove that gender is a social construction.
“We want Pop to grow up more freely and avoid being forced into a specific gender mould from the outset,” Pop’s mother explained to Svenska Dagbladet newspaper in an interview in March. “It’s cruel to bring a child into the world with a blue or pink stamp on their forehead.”
In line with this, the Times Online this week reports on the ways in which the “princess stereotype” could be harming girls’ futures. The argument goes that the Disney princesses whom little girls idolise emphasise the importance of a traditional western beauty, low ambition beyond “happy ever after” and dependence on the arrival of Prince Charming to save them. Even recent, subversive offerings fail to shake the overall stereotype: Princess Fiona may be a martial-arts-kicking Ogre, but she’s not averse to being saved from the bad guy; Giselle may climb after the dragon to save the man of her dreams, but not before he has saved her from the grasps of death with true love’s kiss.
It’s true that there are strong, female roles in some Disney films, but these independent women are not the characters little girls choose to associate with. As Dr Melanie Waters, lecturer in English literature and specialist in feminist theory at Northumbria University explains:
“Mulan… discovers that she’s happier in warrior garb than in a dress, but in the images that are merchandised, she’s always wearing the very restrictive feminine dress. The films may show gutsy, tough heroines, but it’s a shame a lot of that is negated in the way they are promoted.”
So, how does this gender stereotyping translate into the classroom? How do you encourage the girls in nursery to leave the fairy wings in the dressing up box and reach for Bob the Builder’s protective helmet instead, to put dolly back in the home corner and help to build a lego pirate ship by choice. More importantly, should we be encouraging our children to step out of their gender roles – surely the best thing to do would be to avoid influencing them at all?
With the emphasis on equality across the board, it’s difficult to allow children to make their own decisions. We talk about redressing the balance within subjects such as maths, science and computers, but an attempt to redress inequality by encouraging girls to participate in one of these subjects specifically can be construed as influencing their choices. Girls are innately better at communication, boys at logic; this we accept, as we do the fact that there are exceptions to this rule. Is the same not true when it comes to play? Is the fact that girls like princesses (in dresses) and boys like cars not innate also?
In the modern classroom children are not afraid of the teacher. They do not behave under threat of a visit to the headmaster’s office, or share underpants and compare welts from their last meeting with the cane (a school-boy’s tale I was told more than a few times around the dining room table growing up). This is because we have recognised not only that corporal punishment is difficult to monitor and generally harmful, but that condemning bad behaviour in general is no longer the most effective way to manage school-age children. Praise is the buzzword of the day.
When I was in school – not all that long ago, truth be told – our good behaviour or hard work was recognised and rewarded with house tokens. As a high-achieving teacher’s pet, the trip down the corridor to post my tokens in the box bearing the house shield was at least a weekly occasion. I was in yellow house, and as someone whose athletic ability has always been somewhat below par, was relieved that I could count on having made my contribution to the winning of the school cup without the humiliation that was the egg and spoon race. The system worked – everyone got a chance at achievement, those who struggled both academically and athletically were safe in the knowledge that their teacher knew this and, if nothing else would reward them occasionally for effort, assuming they put some in…
Then the house system went out of vogue, the “all must have prizes” attitude became order of the day and suddenly no-one was allowed to lose. Consumerism and materialism have grown enormously even since my childhood, and the promise of glory or team success is no longer as appealing a reward as an actual treat. Fun size chocolate bars are far more appealing to children than house points or stickers, all be they a lot more expensive too… and in some schools teachers are even struggling to keep up with their peers in the reward department, with promises of school trips, toys, gadgets, even prizes such as bikes becoming the order of the day.
So what happened to good old-fashioned verbal praise? Why is it no longer enough to be told “well done” or “I’m proud of you”? Have words become so devalued in our schools, teachers so disregarded, that only items with material worth signify actual success? And just how far does this tie into our job-satisfaction and the increasingly common discontent suffered by the working masses – if you’re not being rewarded (paid) highly (enough), it isn’t worthwhile?
Praise for praise’s sake is wasted on children. The smart ones quickly see through being congratulated upon every little thing they accomplish – be it sitting in their seat or holding their pencil correctly. But praise for achievement is an entirely different matter. The TES Magazine cites Redscope Primary School in Rotherham as an example of praise done well:
“The School rewards children by sending them to the “praise pod” – an appealing egg-shaped chair facing an integrated computer webcam reminiscent of the Big Brother diary room. There, the pupils record and report their achievements to a parent, teacher or governor manning the webcam. The footage can then be recorded and distributed to family, pupils and other members of staff.”
This is a modern, innovative approach to praise – and one with which children engage to a far greater extent than stickers, chocolate treats or even mountain bikes. It allows for positive behavioural reinforcement from any staff member, be it a teacher, the caretaker or a dinner lady, and does require a consistent approach, but is a model that eventually effects changes. And where praise is concerned, change is essentially the end goal.
A couple of weeks ago I attended a consultation conference on curriculum reform. Most teachers will have heard the latest buzz words around the “creative curriculum”, “learning outside the classroom” and so forth by now. The problem facing education at the moment is that everything is evolving far too quickly. If we teach children ICT today we know full well it will be obsolete by tomorrow – and this goes for anything we can currently teach.
The workforce of the 2020s will be living in a world so different from ours, so far ahead in every possible way – many of the job roles we currently perform will no longer be required. Teaching children knowledge is verging on pointless – we need to teach them to learn, to want to learn, and more imperatively, to automatically learn, to subconsciously evolve with and in response to the changing world around them.
To a degree, this skill has to extend from involvement in clubs and community, from taking things on and following them through, from keeping the brain engaged as much of the time as possible. We have to find a way to keep those brain-cells kicking, to immerse children in society in a way that allows them to keep in the know, in touch with change without having to work too hard at keeping up.
Research shows that children who are encouraged to participate in clubs from a young age, and children whose parents actively participate in activities outside the home, are more likely to be involved in external clubs and activities in adulthood. But many parents are unhappy about letting their children loose on the dangerous streets, unable to afford extortionate club fees, or simply unaware of the facilities available to them. Increasingly families do not even know their neighbours, let alone their neighbourhoods. I guess this is where that other buzz-phrase comes in – “community cohesion”.
Community cohesion is about taking a step back in time to the days when the school was a central part of the local community. It’s about being involved in local projects and getting community members involved with the school – essentially, and in-keeping with the current locally-produced eco-drive, using the resources on your doorstep, whatever they may be. We need to encourage children to be part of a wider consciousness, and that consciousness needs to start in the school’s backyard.
As far as I can see, the best we can do is to lead by example. If we show children that involvement is standard, a typical part of everyday life, they will automatically find themselves involved. The more involved they are, the more opportunity they have to learn – and the more that learning will come naturally.
It’s like throwing spaghetti at a wall – the more you throw, the more will stick!
In a recent interview with the Guardian on the subject of creativity in the classroom, Anthony Browne, the new children’s laureate, describes a trip to a primary school. He expresses concern that the children at this particular school seem to be confined in their freestyle drawing to prescriptive shapes. He raises alarm at the lack of pure creativity, at the fact that “Art for art’s sake [is] nowhere to be seen.”
As we return to topic-led teaching methods this will be an obstacle we’ll inevitably face. Parents and politicians alike have expressed concern over the abandonment of classic subject teaching in favour of cross-curricular creativity. But need art really stand alone?
Art has never been purely about “art”. The Mona Lisa, for example, has always been about philosophy – what is she thinking, what is the artist hiding behind the mask? Throughout history, artists have used their methods to explore religion, politics, boundaries and expression. These subtexts are what create depth.
What’s more, the subject of a work of art allows us an insight into the creator’s subconscious. Psychologists have often used children’s paintings to analyse their mental and emotional state, just as they use adults’ inkblot interpretations for the same purpose. These insights are far more useful to us than the direction of an artist’s paintbrush stroke.
Art is everywhere. Increasingly losing its elitist structure, it can now be seen in unmade beds and spliced open carcasses, in half-finished projects and video-footage of rotting fruit. Banksy’s rising popularity has allowed graffiti to take its place as an expression symbolic of community status and ownership, to evolve from a sign of anti-social behaviour to a minor political statement. Banksy’s art may be far more accomplished and politically aware, but is really simply an extension of frustrated politico-social reaction. (What’s more, for schools in urban settings, graffiti art is readily available on the doorstep – an ideal starter for learning outside the classroom activity.)
So why have we now begun to teach art for art’s sake? Jamie Oliver’s School Dinners may have shocked the nation when uncovering children who couldn’t recognise a courgette, but why should we be equally shocked by children who cannot recognise The Mona Lisa? We don’t teach children Dulce et Decorum Est without touching on the reference point of trench warfare in World War One; why would we teach Guernica without touching on the Spanish Civil War? Why should children be expected to recognise Van Gogh’s Sunflowers without knowing what a real sunflower actually looks like?
Obviously, not all art has a historical setting, but every artist is trying to capture something in their work. Whether it’s emotion (the despair of The Scream), devotion (The Sistine Chapel bounds to mind), beauty (Michelangelo’s David), patriotism (anything by Constable capturing this green and pleasant land!) there is bound to be a link, with PSHE, with geography, with RE, with literature, with science…
As we drift back into a theme-based cross-curricular approach to teaching we have to ask ourselves, why did we stop teaching this way to begin with?
There is no doubt that picture books are magical. Some – The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Where the Wild Things Are, for example – transcend time and language to become part of a greater consciousness. Others, such as the utterly modern (and adorable) Charlie and Lola books, are very much of their time. But most adults will have a handful of favourites that are personal to them alone. I would imagine that while many will share my love for Peepo and Each Peach Pear Plum, very few people will feel as close an attachment to My Uncle Charlie, The Cow who fell in the Canal and But Where’s the Green Parrot?
The biggest misunderstanding surrounding picture books is the idea that we grow out of them, that they are for parents to read to very small children, or slightly older children to read to themselves. In fact they are the ultimate short story – inspiring through illustration, feeding the imagination but not over-riding creativity and often punctuated with a moral slant. For small children they inform upon the joys and fears of everyday life, while for older children and adults they provide a nostalgic reminder of a previous existence, a nod to the pleasures to be deduced from the mundane. A well-written (and well-illustrated) picture book is an effective learning resource across ages.
Successful picture books are often as much about the formation of the language as the pictures themselves. On asking colleagues about some of their favourites, many had forgotten the names but remembered a key phrase. “Rumpeta, rumpeta rumpeta!” rumpeta-ed one, “Oh no! I can’t stand this!” intoned another. Repetition, intonation and rhythm are as important to content as the words themselves are to the story – just as they are to the widening of vocabulary and the learning of speech patterns within our children.
Of course, not all picture books include text. Pure picture books have long been used in the classroom environment as prompts for storytelling, and are especially relevant to the current Talk for Writing programme. Talk for Writing emphasises a child’s need to be able to talk or tell a story before they can contemplate writing one – they cannot, after all, use a language they do not actually have. Using pictures as prompts for storytelling in the classroom can yield fruitful (and original) results.
Altogether, this suggests that new children’s laureate, Anthony Browne’s quest to teach children and adults to learn to read pictures could prove very successful over the coming years. Time to dig your old box of picture books out of the loft…
LCP’s favourite picture books:
Clare, Editorial: Tadpole’s Promise
Nick, Marketing (to read to daughter Libby): The Gruffalo
Libby (Nick’s daughter, 10 months): Aliens love Underpants
Lucy, Editorial: Rosie’s Walk, The Elephant and the Bad Baby
Lucy’s kids: Anything by Eric Carle or Tony Ross, Who’s in the loo by Jeanne Willis
Doug, Warehouse Manager (to read to the kids): Jan Pienkowski, Haunted House