To educate kids better, we need to broaden notions of success

An interview with Lucy Clark, a senior editor at Guardian Australia.
Published in Neuroscience
To educate kids better, we need to broaden notions of success

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Lucy Clark is a senior editor at Guardian Australia. She is a journalist and editor with 30 years’ experience in newspapers and magazines in Sydney, London, and New York. Her book, Beautiful Failures, combines personal experience and journalistic investigation to challenge accepted wisdoms about schooling and question the purpose of education.

Your book, Beautiful Failures, is dedicated to and begins with your daughter. What was her schooling experience like?

My daughter's early school experience was great, but as she got older and the pressure grew, she started shutting down. She couldn't deal with the competition and the rankings and the rules, it made her anxious. She was a square peg in a system that only has round holes, so it was really difficult for her every day. Ultimately she failed to hit every mark you're supposed to hit on your academic journey; she failed most things. When people kept saying, "Oh well, school's not for everyone," I started questioning this and thinking that school should be for everyone. As a mother I wanted to find out what went wrong for my daughter, but as a journalist I started asking questions about what is going wrong for so many kids – that's why I wrote the book.

In your book you give some evidence supporting the benefits of delaying the age at which children commence formal education. Can you talk a bit about, for example, the developmental importance of play in children, or the studies in New Zealand that looked at reading development and formal literacy lessons?

Yes, this was really interesting. Because education has become like a race, everyone wants to get a head start for their kids. So somehow we've come to think that academic enhancement for four-year-olds is a good idea. I came across some really interesting research and many experts who maintain that play-based learning in the early years is the best start for kids, and that they learn so much about themselves – and about literacy and numeracy, too by the way – through imaginative play. One New Zealand study found that kids who started formal literacy learning at the age of five were not only no better readers than other kids who started later, but they had less positive attitudes to reading by the age of 11. So not only does it not benefit them in the long run, it can actually hamper their enjoyment, and we want our kids to enjoy reading, right?

You write that children at school now undergo more parental and systemic pressure than they did a few decades ago. What effect do you think this has on students today?

Kids are suffering. You can't turn around without hearing about more children cutting themselves or starving themselves – we seem to be in the grip of an anxiety epidemic. And now that kids specifically report that school pressure is one of their main causes of concern, we can no longer refrain from connecting the dots. In my book I have lots of stories of kids and the ways in which they suffer because of school pressure. It's unbelievable. But instead of looking at ways to cope with pressure, we should be looking at ways to reduce that pressure.

In your view, is there too much emphasis on standardised testing?

Without a doubt, there is. There is so much emphasis on the data, on the outcomes, that we've forgotten what education should be about. We've forgotten about the process. Standardised testing means that all kids have to fit a cookie-cutter view of what academic success means, usually via multiple choice testing that encourages rote learning and not critical or creative thinking. It encourages box ticking, gaming the system, and teaching to the test because the outcome becomes the most important thing. It also means that the people who do well might just be really good at taking tests, too. And we categorise kids because of these tests, and put them into boxes and keep them there. Doing well in standardised tests doesn't necessarily mean that you're really smart. It might just mean that you're good at sitting tests. Also, kids shouldn't be standardised. There are so many ways in which kids learn, in which kids are smart, and standardised tests only measure a small part of this.

Should we broaden how educational outcomes are monitored? Should non-academic factors, such as student engagement and enjoyment, be taken into account?

We should definitely broaden how educational outcomes are monitored, which also means broadening our notions of success. Right now we have a very narrow view of what academic success looks like, which means so many kids are made to feel like failures. If kids aren't engaged in the learning process, if they aren't enjoying it, what must the quality of their learning be like? This affects all of us, not just our own kids. We are heading into an uncertain future in which we'll be faced with great challenges – we need great thinkers, not box tickers!


Lucy Clark's book, Beautiful Failures, is published by Penguin Random House Australia.

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