After becoming convinced through two decades of research and scholarship that policy for children, young people and families in nations dominated by neoliberal politics was becoming progressively toxic, I have spent many hours debating the case for the creation of more human-friendly policies. This week I was sent a quote from the Dalai Lama that encapsulated the core message in one simple sentence:
'People exist to be loved; objects exist to be used. The world is in chaos because these things are the other way round'.
This brings to mind a set of principles created by Dorothy Law Nolte in 1954, in which she proposes that children who learn with criticism learn to condemn, and children who live with shame learn to feel guilty. Children who are continually assessed and ranked through formal, performance oriented testing from a very young age are prematurely exposed to shame and criticism as they move through this process, and by so doing, they are primed to shame and condemn others.
This process began with the introduction of a neoliberal socio-cultural philosophy into the UK by the Conservative Government elected in 1979 and into the US by the Republican Presidential administration elected in 1980. Neoliberalism subjugates the needs of the nation's human population to the requirements of the national and international economy; money becomes the central consideration, and people's reason for existence is consequently viewed as the generation of profit. From this standpoint, the impetus is to relentlessly assess the 'worth' of each individual from earliest childhood; however, psychologists have been aware for nearly a century that performance on a simulated test is a relatively poor measure of real learning.
Ken Spours, writing in The New Statesman comments:
The abiding metaphor of education is now a race, a global race in which every country and every person has to become ever more competitive.... Along the way we learn to compete and to be in debt. Our children and their teachers become stressed and anxious in this arms race that can never end.
In other words, the society that we created at the end of the 20th century is making people miserable, from the very beginning of their lives. The indications that this is the case are now evident. Mental health problems are increasing, most particularly amongst young people. Media in the Britain and the US have raised concerns about the anger and division in their societies exposed by the Brexit situation and the 2016 Presidential election. Concerns are continually raised about the venom unleashed between people in social media interactions, through which public shaming has become an everyday occurrence.
Is it surprising that so many people feel alone and unloved, in a world that strives to test and measure them in so many ways from very early childhood, and to rank their 'performance' against both abstract, politically decreed standards and the 'performance' of their peers? Such strategies pitch human beings into a very lonely race in their most formative years, and a highly illogical one, when it is considered that the human evolutionary trajectory relied more heavily upon our collaborative abilities than our competitive instincts.
Of course good teachers assess children continually, but in subtle, ongoing ways that do not simply measure 'performance' on isolated tests in order to regularly proclaim each child's measured 'value', but to consider how children use knowledge in different situations, and to plan examples and activities to better develop learning for groups and individuals.
Secretary of State for Education Justine Greening recently announced her intention to instigate 'a longer term, sustainable approach for primary education' including 'the role and operation of teacher assessment.' It is hoped that in doing so, she will take into account Dorothy Law Nolte's observations: that where children live with acceptance, they learn to love, where they live with approval, they learn to like themselves, and where they live with sharing, they learn generosity. In other words, rather than being miserable alone, they learn to be happy together. Given our short human life span, surely it would be more sensible for us to value these qualities above the competitive pursuit of profit and 'performance', not least in the pursuit of producing a more socially attuned and mentally healthy population?
These points are further explored on the More than a Score website