I’m not afraid of a twitter scrap – or any scrap to be honest – but you have to think carefully before you take on people who you a) respect and b) suspect are cleverer than you are. And so I’m not sure if I was foolish to question the defence of the practice of finger clicking as a collective show of approval by Harry Fletcher Wood and Laura McInerney. But I did, and now I have to explain my concerns as some of the twitterarsy joined in with complaints that my concerns were ‘ridiculous’. Perhaps they are. But here they are:-
Before I start, if you have no idea what I’m talking about, you may want to read this really interesting account of a visit to King Solomon Academy in London by David Didau. When I first read it I thought it just sounded weird and cultish but then someone tweeted a link to a video clip (which I can no longer find, so please supply if you have it) and I have to say it looked very sweet. When a child says something or does something admirable, the rest of the class clicks their fingers softly in approval. It looks like a little cloud of butterflies as their hands lift into the air and they, well, click. I was almost seduced – what harm could it do? But then, I’ve tried to train myself to look beyond what is sweet in my teaching and to ask “Why?” and “What could possibly go wrong?”
Culture is a complex adaptive system – an eco system of sorts, in which each element is more than the sum of its parts and in which there is constant emergence and growth. We’re not talking chaos theory here – I’m not suggesting that those soft little butterfly clicks are causing havoc in the Caribbean right now, but that we need to think really carefully about how cultures grow, read each other and inter-relate. In KIPP schools, where clicking originated, and there, at KSA, there is a strong drive towards developing a micro-culture within the school with the power to over-ride the external culture of the child. Within this culture, there is a strong drive towards group identity and belonging. Shared missions and goals. For these schools, the goal is to get to University. And there is no excuse for being poor. The results are impressive, and as David’s blog suggests, the buy in to this micro culture is universal.
It’s hard to argue against a drive towards this goal (well, actually it’s not, but that’s for another blog) – or at least to argue against schools who try to create purposeful climates and shared belonging for their pupils. Most strive for it. But there are some difficulties with making this so pervasive that normal human signals, signs and gestures are reprogrammed to create shared identity.
Firstly, in multi-cultural schools, such as these, children are already assimilating a minority culture into a majority set of norms and values. Navigating this is tricky and understanding the similarities and differences of those cultures is essential in securing future stability. The work of balancing different cultural needs, values and signs can be stressful for children. So there may be temporary relief in being drawn into a new, inclusive micro-culture in your school. It could be so attractive that it becomes necessary to you. And leaving that culture – moving on into a world in which no-one understands your clicking for example can lead to a feeling of isolation. You know that feeling when no-one gets you? Well multiply that by 100 when you arrive at your destination – never doubted – University, clutching your examination results and you try to fit in. What children need, is not simply to be driven to the door, but to be helped to understand how the world on the other side operates. People on the other side of that door tend not to click (unless they are highly impatient and want to get your attention – imagine the cultural gaffes; there’s a comedy sketch in there somewhere).
The 50% drop out rate of pupils from KIPP who make it to college is well publicised. In fact in 2012, the schools secured a $3.6 million grant to find out why. The reasons will be complex of course – but given the financial support, the academic level of qualification and so on, KIPP kids should be better equipped than most FSM kids to see it through. I suspect that one element of this research will discover that not feeling that one fitted in was a key factor. School cannot be a pure sanctuary for kids – lovely as this sounds – it’s a passing place; a ceremonial preparation for life. If we rewrite the codes and cultures of life, I worry that we simply create children who miss the old ways, who struggle to understand how others communicate their approval/feelings/routines and who fall out of step.
The other concern centres more around the impact of the body on the mind. Embodied cognition is a relatively new field of study and new discoveries are coming along all the time. But what is clear is that children become incredibly adept at reading other’s gestures in order to decide whether or not they are to be trusted (Hattie and Yates, 2014), and in order to better understand what is being said (Goldin-Meadows et al 2005, 2013). Add to that the findings of Masson Bub and Newton-Taylor (2008) and Glenberg (2008) in which the body is seen to react and prime to verbal cues even in abstract sentences (for example the words ‘delegated the responsibility’ led to the muscles in the hand priming themselves for a gesture of giving) then we have to carefully consider the wisdom of reprogramming the gestural codes we have established over millennia. If we accept the research that children will quickly and subconsciously read and respond to minute gestures and that these gestures create strong physiological responses, then should we be creating small numbers of children who carry completely different physical and psychological codes? What misunderstanding might occur? Who knows.
It might all be fine. Sweet. But we don’t know. And so for now, just to be on the safe side, I’ll stick to smiles and nods and applause.
Trailer:- Next week’s blog. “Hey You, Poor Person. I am Here to Save you From Yourself.” Or something similar.