Episode #52 Living to Learn: transforming education with Rachel Musson of ThoughtBox
Suppose we all learned three things at school: empathy, critical thinking and systems thinking… imagine how different the world would be.
Suppose we learned how to think clearly, how to communicate, how to understand our own feelings and express them without feeling the need to trash other people just because we were hurt, or angry.
Rachel Musson, founder and educational director of ThoughtBox, a radical, new co-learning programme speaks of her journey to create the system, and how it’s working – in over a thousand schools and fifty four nations across the world. Rachel believes in co-learning: no more lesson plans, but a classroom of peers who take the core of a topic and build on it together. The result is a flexible learning environment where everyone thrives, where each individual is given space and encouragement to grow to be the best of themselves.
Imagine a world where this is possible. Where it is happening. Where it is growing…
Manda: My guest this week is an inspiring global thought leader in education, and a friend. Rachel Musson is founder and educational director of ThoughtBox which is a whole new concept in how we teach young people – in fact, people of any age. Rachel describes herself as a speaker, a writer, an educator and a social entrepreneur with a passion for rethinking education. She believes that what we need in the 21st century is children who have been taught how to think, not what to think.
As you’ll hear, she set up ThoughtBox to do just this, and now it’s reaching around the world to 54 different nations, thousands of educators, and millions of children. I got to know, Rachel, when I was studying at Schumacher in Devon. And Devon is one of those places where my soul feels genuinely at peace. I love it there. Which makes it all the more frustrating that I can record podcasts with people from around the world and they’re fine, and then we try to record from Devon and the gremlins get into the system, and eat the technology. And it happened again. Caro has done her best as ever to make this beautiful for your ears, and any faults are mine. But the sound is less than perfect, and I do apologise. So with that in mind, people of the podcast, please welcome Rachel Musson. So Rachel, welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast. I gather it’s finally got sunny down there in Devon.
Rachel: It’s beautiful.
Manda: Wonderful. Devon is one of my favourite places in the world, so I’m deeply envious. And so we’re here because one of the areas that we keep coming to in Accidental Gods that everybody says needs to change is education. And you and ThoughtBox are right at the leading edge of how we can change education to be part of the solution instead of propping up the old system. So as a start, can we have a little bit of who Rachel is and how you got to be the person who created ThoughtBox?
Rachel: Well, I will take you back probably to East Africa, and and spending a lot of time watching ants. I use that as the analogy of where ThoughtBox grew from. So I was a teacher for many years. I was a secondary school English teacher almost from university until 2012, and during that time sort of settled into the pleasures and the pain of mainstream education, and fell in love with the idea of teaching and learning and exploring the world with my students, and just found myself constantly pained by how the system was perpetuating so many of the issues that we’re now facing. So I ended up leaving in 2012. I spent several years travelling, and I’d been travelling many years before that, and really then got very interested in the link between education and culture and the climate crisis, and looking at the clear polarities in the links, and also thinking about how a global Western education had in a way contributed to a cultural erosion and to an escalation of separation from people and planet, and spent some time researching and writing. I was going to do a PhD at one point on sustainable education and culture, which brought me to Schumacher College in Devon for some discussions. I ended up not doing a PhD. I realised I didn’t have the funds, they didn’t have the funds, I didn’t really want a PhD. I just wanted to learn.
And so I went back out and lived in Tanzania, in East Africa for several years, and just spent a lot of time studying and reflecting and connecting with different educators from my own communities, and learning from the the the shoulders of giants of the educational world who’ve been writing for decades. And from that, ThoughtBox emerged as an idea of what if children got to explore the world through other other perspectives? What if children started to feel those connections again between themselves, between themselves and others, and themselves and the natural world? And what if we could reconnect to education? And so the beginning of ThoughtBox came. I mentioned ants earlier, I spent a lot of time watching ants, partly, I guess, as a meditative practice. My house in Arusha, Tanzania, was infested. There were plenty of ants to watch. One of the biggest blocks, I think, in education to flourishing is the speed at which everything happens. There is very little time for children to to slow themselves into the space of connexion, to slow themselves into into dreaming, into imagining, into reflecting, interconnecting. And I found having been teaching in London before I left the mainstream, I found that time incredibly precious. And so I really feel forever thankful to those ants for allowing me to have that slowness.
Manda: And are these big soldier ants? Are they scary ants, or are they little friendly ants?
Rachel: No, they were the tiny, beautiful little brown ants, very, very exquisite, that just loved eating the house. I guess it should have been seen as a sort of infestation problem. But really, I found it a meditative practice. And I guess I didn’t own the house, and my lovely landlord, who I’m still connected with, he perhaps didn’t love them so much.
Manda: It sounds gorgeous, actually. And when people talk about emergence from complex systems, one of the examples they make is ants crossing a chasm because apparently they’ll mill around, mill around, on one edge looking over and going, gosh, that’s deep. We can’t get across there. And then spontaneously, a bridge of ants will arise. They’ll make their bodies into a bridge as if they suddenly realised how to do that, and then all the other ants can get across, and then the bridge hauls itself to the other side. The system reaches its point of crisis where they either fall into chaos and extinction, or they emerge to a new system, and the bridge is the emergence to the new system. And I thought was so much of a metaphor of what we need to do in our world is make of our bodies the bridge to the new reality.
Rachel: Absolutely. And actually, just just that bridge metaphor really sits with with the work I’m doing. And I use it quite a lot because certainly in this work, I’m working between worlds and paradigms, and have one foot in what is, and one foot in what ifs, almost every day in conversations. And I find it very… what’s the right word, very energising actually, to be able to dance in those spaces and to empathise and to recognise where we are coming from, where we wish to go, and the blocks and the possibilities. And I think that that bridge work, as you said, is so vital in this space. And the bridge people, I think, are so necessary.
Manda: And you’re clearly making of yourself a bridge person, along with Rob Hopkins and his ‘From what is to what if?’ So you’ve spoken a little bit about the what is, about we have a system that punishes students and teachers and is always very, very fast and doesn’t give people chance to slow and enter the dreaming, or enter the meditative states. So having identified those as the ‘what is’ and not what we want, how did you set about moving towards the ‘what if’? And then later we’ll look at what the ‘what if’ actually arises as.
Rachel: I suppose the foundations of the ThoughtBox framework and all of the processes is relationships, and really inviting healthy relationships into a classroom space, into a school space. I think I mentioned earlier this idea of reconnection. So the work of Otto Scharmer has been very significant in shaping ThoughtBox as has the work of Joanna Macy, I called Donella Meadows, looking at where we’ve become so disconnected in our world, looking at disconnection from self, other, and the natural spheres that we live in. And so relationships is always at the heart, starting very simply, relationships in the classroom.
So how can we invite conversation into the classroom where children are listening to each other, not just hearing each other, but actually actively listening and welcoming in to that space the diversity of opinion, the diversity of belief, the diversity of being? And beyond that, how can we welcome the relationship to flourish between the teacher and the students, so that we lose or we blur those lines of hierarchy, and we enter a collective learning space where both teacher and students have a learning mind, and are exploring together. And so that was really a sort of foundational framing, to be encouraging those healthy relationships, and conversation is at the heart of all of the work that ThoughtBox does.
And within that space, we then really focus on three core practices: of critical thinking, empathy, and systems thinking. So, again, I guess with the empathy space, just really welcoming the human to human connexion, coming back to ‘what is’ in our education system. We’ve created, understandably so, typecasts or labels that go within a classroom of, you know, you’re the lazy one, and you’re the bright one, and you’re the one who always hands your homework in late. And part of that is the sort of pressure I feel that teachers have to get through a curriculum, that doesn’t allow time to recognise the 20 or 30 individual people in that classroom, the little humans with all their complexities, because that gets in the way of ‘the learning’. And yet, if we do welcome in those relationships where we see the human first, it has a cataclysmically beautiful relationship to the learning. Because actually, neurolinguistically, we learn well when we feel well, and when we’re feeling welcomed, and we’re feeling seen, we’re feeling recognised in that learning space, cognitive functions heighten and a capacity to learn develops.
And so it’s beneficial for all to have a healthy relationship in that classroom. And we can start that with empathy. We can start with allowing children to empathise with each other, with children empathising with the teacher, and vice versa. What ThoughtBox tries to do is rather than enforce that into the classroom, we subtly embed it through these learning journeys that we create of all the curriculum, so that children are practising the skills of empathy, without necessarily understanding or appreciating that that’s what’s happening.
Manda: They’ll be hit over the head with: ‘You will now be empathic…’which doesn’t quite help the neuroscience. So can we take a little bit of a step back? Because I want to see where this is going, but some of the listeners won’t be familiar with Scharmer or Joanna Macy; if they’ve listened all the way back, a bit with Donella Meadows, but let’s assume they haven’t. So tell us a little bit about what for you, starting with Otto Scharmer, what he gave you that you then incorporated.
Rachel: So I suppose with a lot of the work the Otto has done, in the concept of Theory U, and transition… again, using Rob Hopkins’ framing approach ‘What Is to What If’, the transition between where we’ve come to and the grief work that we perhaps need to go through to get to the next stages of transition, I think with Otto’s work, I was always very struck by the three disconnects, or the three divides, that he has built on. And again, this narrative has emerged through the generations that he really builds on in his work. And looking at those three divides that have come through human evolution.
The first one being, we’ve become very separated from ourselves, we’ve become separated from the sense of spirit, the sense of spirituality, being in wonder, too, with the life that we live in, very separated from our own emotional resonance, and what that means in daily life. And there’s a plethora of reasons as to why not just the social systems that have been constructed, but cultural wisdom, ancestral wisdom, so that separation from itself always really spoke to me, I think personally as well. I’ve always felt very homeless in my life, not just literally, but metaphorically, mystically, spiritually, whatever else it might be, until I allowed myself to reconnect with who I am. So that’s always resonated, that separation from self.
The second of the three separations being a separation from each other. And again, looking at the history of how this has emerged, this narrative of competition, this narrative of ownership that perhaps started to emerge as far back as the agricultural revolution, but certainly fuelled in the industrial revolution, and a world built more on competition rather than cooperation, and separation rather than collaboration, has led us to become quite polarised.
I mean, we can see this in our election system, very recently with the US, and we can see the ways that we even construct neighbourhoods with fences between houses, rather than shared communal spaces. And we’ve gradually separated ourselves in this space so that we’ve ‘Othered’. And that ‘Othering’ is creating, I feel, a ripple effect of so many of the social dysfunctions and sort of disintegrations happening around us. And we have infiltrated into that space the sense of fear that also comes with an Othering. And so that is a second element, of separation that very much spoke to the kind of subjects that we look at with ThoughtBox to help children to start to see the humanity first rather than the separation first, and look past the labels and look past the divisions, and see the collective humanity as a way to reconnect.
And then the third separation, which really is hand in hand and part of the other two is a separation from the natural world. And again, this physical separation: we’ve gone from fifty thousand generations of living as hunter gatherers and spending 90 percent of our time, if not more, out in the world, to living in boxes, separated from the world around us. I’ve read a study recently by the National Trust that the average UK citizen spends something like three minutes a day outside.
Rachel: Yes. They go from house to car, or house to train or house to bus, bus, car, train to office, and then back again. And it’s just those in-between minutes, in getting into the car or going to the bus stop and then leaving, going to the office. That is the outside space. So it’s not even time in nature, it’s literally just time outside.
Manda: Just really, walking on the pavement, or a road.
Absolutely, yes. It’s surrounded by concrete often, yeah. No feet in the mud, in those two, three minutes. What does that do to our humanity as well, that physical separation from the natural world? And again, this is where the wisdom of giants really speaks to all of the work that ThoughtBox is bringing into schools, because we can go hundreds of years back, and look at the gradual separation from nature, and what this does to us as animals, as species of the Earth, and how we find ourselves in spaces that don’t feel whole. So I say that this is the three divides, but in a way, the separation for the natural world, it’s part of everything. But really, going back to the question about Otto Scharmer, those three elements really felt very invitational to help to shape the work of ThoughtBox in this reconnection space. So, again, our work really is to help reconnect to ourselves, to others in the natural world, and help children to develop those healthy relationships to themselves, to others, and to nature. And using the work of Joanna Macy again, thinking about the different practices, the reconnection, and how we can build these healthy relationships, and how we can learn to find what’s in us, to help replenish those spaces.
Manda: So have you incorporated The Work that Reconnects, Joanna Macy’s Work that Reconnects whole? Or have you taken parts of it, taken the essence of it, and and reconfigured them for the classroom situation?
Rachel: Yes, the latter. So we sort of weaved it through surreptitiously and gently, but wholesomely embedded throughout the programme. So we use practises, different processes throughout the programme. And really, you know, I sometimes talk about ThoughtBox as just being an organisation of common sense. And I don’t mean to belittle myself and our work, and I also don’t mean to belittle others – but what we’re doing is nothing new. It’s just very innate. And really what we’re welcoming is for us to remember our humanity, and to remember what is in all of us, and actually what we get taught out from us.
Rachel: And I think, you know, when I first started Thoughbox, I used to call at an ‘unlearning programme’, and I soon recognised, Rachel, no one’s going to want to put that into a school, because that’s way too controversial.
Manda: A big thing in business, though, unlearning apparently is. We talked to Mike Raven, and there’s a huge unlearning. But you’re right, it’s probably not the best branding statement to take into a school. So what do you call it now?
Rachel: But it is great, and it’s getting trendy. So unlearning and remembering are the two foundation blocks. I call it now the Learning Journey, because that’s a known phrase that’s very welcome. But, yeah, unlearning and remembering are really foundational books, because we’ve got, on the one hand, this process of taking off what so many of our social structures, including mainstream education, are putting on to our ways of being in the world.
And at the same time, we’ve got a sense of remembering, because what is being welcomed back is what is actually already in it. It’s just been hidden away, or it’s been pushed down or quietened. And I get tremendous inspiration, joy, energy, enthusiasm from very young children, and really recognising that this is so innate, and it’s alive in them. This natural wonder for life, this openness to being connected to others, to the natural world, to themselves. Children have a completely beautiful emotional vocabulary, a real sense of spirit and wonder and possibility and openness to diversity, and difference and a total joyful connexion with nature. Then depending on where they grow and where the learning comes in, it’s sort of almost shamed out of them at some point, and that separation begins.
Manda: That process of domestication that we put them through, to make them adequate citizens for what we think we want them to be in the 21st century is terrifying, frankly.
Rachel: And it just really resonates back to us, to what I was starting to think of with this cultural erosion, and how looking at the history of colonialisation and empire building, where we had sort of a British – I’ll use British as an example – of British education system being forced into different cultures and communities, with this idea of civilising the children into an acceptable way of being. I mean, there’s so much I could unpick there, just the notion of taking communities and cultures whose ways of being were so whole, and putting them into systems that are so broken and so marginalised and so disconnected, and then spreading that across the world under the story of progress and success, it feels beyond criminal. You know, what saddens me the most is we’re still pushing this now and and we still have our school systems built in a model that ultimately separates us from our capacity to flourish.
Manda: And is still built so much on a sympathetic element. I remember listening to Sugata Mitra and The School in The Clouds, describing a system which took young men, exclusively, put them under extreme pressure and ensured that they could function in terms of being able to write something that could be read anywhere across the imperial system. They could add up columns of numbers and they could follow orders while under extreme stress so that when you went out to the colonies, and the people who lived in those colonies were objecting to the fact that you were turning them into wholesale slaves, basically, you could still function in spite of the fact that missiles, weapons and fire were all being thrown at you. You were still going to be a good cog in the imperial wheel. And at every level, that just seems so broken. And exactly as you said, from what we know of neuroscience now, putting people under pressure is the opposite of what they need to be able to flourish and grow and have imaginations. We need to be in parasympathetic balance and dominance for those things, to happen. And yet we haven’t let go of it. I’m wondering, therefore, so you say you start with very young children, or that you have a good response from very young children. How young is young and at what age do you begin to see the impact of this stress based school system beginning to take away from them their capacity for awe and wonder and dreaming and creativity?
Rachel: You know, every year I would say the number comes down, and gets younger. Because certainly in the UK we have now testing for five year olds, but actually it’s before that. There are sometimes interviews to get into kindergarten.
Manda: Good God, that’s insane.
Rachel: Yeah, and there’s waiting lists for schools before children are even conceived. We laugh at the idea, but I know that the reality is there. And again, this competitiveness of humankind to become something, to fit into a mould before it’s even grown into a person.
Manda: Before you’ve even been born!
Rachel: Yeah, which which is extraordinary. And again, you know, I feel very blessed sometimes to have allowed, given myself the space and time to stand back from what we’re doing, to look at it and to see it in its absurdity. Because there are so many things in our educational systems that we do that actually, I think if we all just stood and looked out for a moment, we’d recognise the brutality of them, and the inhumanity of them, and the absurdity of them, because it doesn’t make sense. And my office here overlooks a primary school, overlooks a primary school playground. And I find it just an infectious space because, I mean, right now in the background, I can hear children screaming and shouting and playing and giggling, laughing, and you can hear the life. And I spent most of my teaching career in secondary schools, because I was teaching English to 11 to 18 year olds. And yes, playgrounds are places of noise, but the noise is not joy. The noise is not love and and vitality. The noise is a very different sort of noise. And I used to call it the butterfly to caterpillar effect, to coin what our education systems did to children.
And the idea that when you start at school aged four or five, slightly older in other countries, you fly into that playground, you know, with wings. You’re running in to learn, you’re open and excited to sort of jump from flower to flower, or whatever the metaphor might be, to suck up as much pollen as you can get. And your eyes are wide open, and your vocabulary is just full of that wonder, and that question: why, why? And yet as we grow, and and as the education system makes you sit down longer, and stay inside for longer, and to ask fewer questions, and to listen more and speak less, and to slow down your imagination and your creativity, we start to see this cocooning of children’s imagination and creativity into an almost redundant state, because the real role is to absorb.
And I’m not I’m not going to pretend that schools don’t try and balance the two, they do. But the predominant narrative is still one of conformity and compliance, and an information based pedagogy. And so by the time children leave at 16 or 18, if they stay on, their steps are slow and sluggish. And they have evolved into this caterpillar style space of learning, where the joy has perhaps been eroded in favour of the seriousness, and the wonder has evaporated in favour of the solemnity of responsibility that now comes with getting a job, and being a success, and having that career.
And actually, I had a really interesting conversation with Gavin Dykes yesterday from the Education World Forum, and he was saying how often in schools children leave at 18, and they’ve never actually been asked, what do you want to do with your life? Well, and I was saying, you know, more than that, I feel children leave school and no one has ever asked them, who are you? And again, you know, just as we were mentioning earlier, to be in a space day in, day out, where you’re not seen? How does that make you feel, in these pivotal years of growth?
Manda: Especially if you’re not seen at home, as well.
Rachel: Yes, yes.
Manda: Because a lot of kids aren’t, and school might be the one place where they can flourish. But if they’re just being hoovered through an exam system, particularly an exam system where the school is under pressure to get good grades, because then it gets more money and the sorts of things that schools need, then they’re just going to cram you through, to tick the boxes.
Rachel: Absolutely. And I feel – just really quickly on that, and maybe I’ll come back to this later – it’s really painful for teachers. They’re under just as much pressure, that teachers are under this immense pressure to get through a curriculum that is heavy, very content heavy, very time restricted, and to bring everybody in that classroom to the same level. I mean, that in itself is an absurdity that we think we can do that, we can take 20, 30 or more individual minds, hearts, souls, and make them all the same. And so the very structure of education means that at least half the children in that class are going to fail before they even start, because there are not hundred percent of A stars to hand out. So we’re never going to all…
Manda: No, it wouldn’t work, would it?
Rachel: So that structure’s flawed, but that for teachers there’s that immense pressure to get through the curriculum. But also, you know, most teachers go into profession because they care and they like children, hopefully, and they really enjoy the notion of helping young minds to flourish. And yet to be able to do that is a battle. And so you have then this struggle, I feel, to be bringing in the ideology of passion and energy and enthusiasm for educating with a very rigid curriculum. So trying to have that balance is so difficult for teachers, and so many extraordinary teachers out there are trying to really nurture the individual and develop this sense of flourishing, well-being, but being constantly limited by the time factor of the curriculum. And also the notion that their pay sometimes is dependent on the number of successful grades in their class, and so it’s down to them to get children academically successful. That’s the core of success in a class. So I really feel for teachers just caught between a rock and a hard place.
Manda: But you’ve created ThoughtBox and I’m looking at your website as I speak. And you’ve got a million students, 1670 schools in 54 countries. And the countries are everywhere from the four nations of the UK to Uganda to Pakistan, to the Balkans, to Croatia, to Thailand, to Colombia. You’ve got a real breadth of different educational systems. And yet presumably you’ve found within each of those 54 nations, teachers, and presumably head teachers, who really want to bring your core values of triple well-being into their schools, in spite of the heavy-handed curriculum that they may or may not be working under, depending on what nation they’re in. How have you got this Trojan Horse in under the radar to flourish?
Rachel: I love that. I use that analogy a lot, the Trojan Horse, because I think it really does sum up exactly what ThoughtBox is. We’re not something that is necessarily known for what we are. I think I was mentioning earlier this dance between the what is and the what ifs. And when I’m working with schools, some schools come to ThoughtBox with a real keenness for the holistic nature of what these programmes can offer, knowing what we are in our fullness. But many schools come because they have to tick a box and teach a curriculum on a particular subject. So I’ve actually played a cunning game in this space, to find ways that we can tick those boxes, but unpack a heck of a lot more in those classroom spaces, whether known or unknown. So some schools come to us looking for something very specific, like a curriculum on identity, or immigration, or happiness, and sort of wanting to tick a box. And there’s a framing in English schools, it’s called PSHE: personal, social, health, education. And we have deliberately crafted all of our curriculum to tick that box, knowing that schools have to find resources to cover in those lessons. So some schools come to us for that.
The reason we got suddenly very well known and used globally was our Changing Climates curriculum, which we launched just a year ago. And this was… I think it’s one of very few curriculums out there, which is a holistic whole school curriculum, introducing climate change into schools. And so teachers, and parents as well, have come to us looking for a way to talk to children about climate change that actually allows them to explore the emotions along with the science. And I say we’re one of the only curriculum that do that… there’s many, many extraordinary programmes out there, but they tend to be either/or, either talking about the scientific element of climate change, or talking about the facts – the feelings, but not doing both. And so some schools have come deliberately because of that. But I’m not naive in assuming that the schools that take us on are able to use this across the board. I know full well that they don’t. We have Trojan Horse teachers. We have the trailblazers who are able to use this in their lessons and the spiral that impact with the students that they are working with and hopefully ripple out from there. We have some very, very empowered renegade head teachers who are really trying to bring systems thinking approach into the school. But it’s not easy because they’re battling an entire narrative around them, which tells them that they’re doing it wrong. So, again, one of the elements of ThoughtBox is really to try and support a movement to shift the entire educational system. So we’re very Trojan horsey. We’re trying to be a gentle curriculum on the one hand, and bring down the government on the other.
Manda: Or at least change the government’s mind. We don’t have to bring them down if they learn to think the way we want them to think.
Rachel: Absolutely, that’s a little harsh. But just to welcome in different ways of approaching familiar issues, and to welcome in a way that isn’t doing more of, it’s actually doing less of. And I think that comes back to this unlearning and remembering space. You know, there’s so much tickboxing and red taping and pressure in schools to do so much. And yet, actually, if we stripped probably 50 percent of that back, the schools would all be better for it.
Manda: And what feedback are you getting? So you’ve been running for a while. You’ve got your renegade head teachers and Trojan Horse teachers, and presumably fairly mainstream schools have just reached out because they needed to tick the boxes. Are you seeing change in the students as they come out, or is it too soon to say that?
Rachel: It’s too soon for two reasons: partly because ThoughtBox was just me the first couple of years. It’s only really this year that we’ve had some funding to be able to grow. And that’s that’s going to impact. I didn’t have capacity to do full impact reports of what was happening. I was so busy making things. And so it’s just this year we started to really begin to measure the impact. And I feel it will be a while to really know what the impact is. But I suppose when we look at the feedback that comes through, from the children’s point of view and the young people’s point of view, they very much welcome spaces in their school to talk about the things that are happening around them, which they’re very rarely given space to talk about, and also welcoming the opportunity to share their feelings. Again, opinions are very infrequently welcomed into a space, unless they have a very clear argument behind them, or they can be ended with a yes or no answer.
And one of the things we’re very clear about with ThoughtBox is that there are a million answers to the questions that we explore, and it’s asking the questions and answers, and sharing your thoughts, and learning, and maybe changing your mind when you hear from other people. And so children, I think, really recognise the pleasure in that, and what can come through that. And from teachers, I think a lot of the feedback is that they just really enjoy being in a classroom space where they don’t have to teach. And again, this is something that we’ve really carefully crafted in our pedagogy. These are not taught curriculum. They are learning journeys that are facilitated by the educator. But the children and the teacher are learning together. And so as an educator, as a teacher, you do not have to do any pre-planning or preparation. You don’t have to know anything about what you’re about to explore. And as some of these topics, this year, climate change or immigration or gangs or happiness and mental health, there is perhaps that fear from a teacher: oh, my goodness, I can’t talk about this because I don’t know. And yet what we welcome is that it’s not about the knowing, it’s about the asking, exploring. And so I think teachers really welcome that space, where they can actually sit down. And we do say one of the best things you can do in these lessons as a teacher is to sit, because the minute you sit, you relinquish that power, the dominance and the control, and you become a connected learner in that space. And then that relieves you of knowing of needing to know the answers, and allows you to ask the questions as well. So I think that’s certainly something that a lot of teachers appreciate.
Manda: Yes. But also with the limited contact that I have with friends of mine who have trained to be teachers, the concept of gaining control of the classroom seemed huge, and a good teacher was someone who could walk in and the kids all fell silent. The bad teacher was someone who walked in and mayhem ensued. And the idea that they would then voluntarily sit down and become part of it, I could imagine for my friends who were training, would have been both terrifying, and deeply frowned on by the system. So how are you negotiating with the teachers that they can make a shift to this co-learning space without finding that the weight of the system is telling them that they’re wrong?
Rachel: You’ve just nailed the biggest challenge I feel that we have in really helping these spaces to be crafted. When I first started, I developed this training programme for teachers that was sort of a prerequisite to taking the ThoughtBox curriculum into schools, which is helping to create these safe spaces to talk about big issues, and these healthy classroom dynamics. I then realised that as an organisation, we can’t limit teachers to have to do the training first. So we’ve created guides of ‘how to’ which is just written guides, and also some short videos. But I’m not naive into thinking that all teachers will do this. I think it does take a certain confidence in your own teaching capacity. But one of the things I come back to in a lot of the trainings I do with teachers is this notion of classroom management. And it’s just what you were referencing there with your own friends who were teachers. When we think of the classroom again with such a dynamic number of children in there with such a complexity of behaviours, it’s always an issue. Because any kids together in a room will be loud, and wild, and you get them to sit down and do some algebraic equations, that’s not as fun as whatever it was that they were doing before.
But relationships come right back to this, the same point. And when I was teaching, I was asked by two consecutive head teachers if I would run a staff training on behaviour management, because it was seen that I didn’t tend to have big behaviour management problems, and I had pretty good results in my classroom. What was I doing to get the children to behave? And I said the same thing to both teachers, head teachers, is that I’m not doing anything. I don’t have reward charts, or seating plans, or systems of control. I simply like children. This is a revolutionary act, that you dare to like them. But I said, you know, all I do, I spend probably the first few lessons when I first meet a class getting to know them. And we do a lot of activities and exercises and them telling me about them, and their likes and dislikes, them getting to know each other, and forming that relationship. And that’s it.
And then for the rest of the year… I’m not saying that I never had behaviour problems, but if you start from a foundation of connexion, you’ve got that trust, that empathy, that respect, and mutual respect that can grow. And it means that learning space is very autonomous for both the learners and the teachers in there. There’s some practical strategies that we share through our trainings now, ‘how to’ guides on creating the space that the of next stage of ThoughtBox is to try and start working with trainee teachers, so that we can really help to share some of these teaching pedagogical skills in their very early years of training as a teacher so that they’ve become embedded in their own practice.
Manda: Right. Yeah, because I’m thinking critical thinking, empathy and systems thinking are not high, as I understand it, on the current curriculum of training teachers. And if you’re going to be able to spread those, then the teachers themselves need to have critical thinking and empathy, and some kind of a systemic concept of how things function. And they need not to be so stressed that their capacity for creativity is crushed under the fight or flight response. So I imagine that if you get this, or when you get this, that the ripple effect within a school of – here we have happy teachers and happy students, people who are peaceful, people who are able to explore things and are dynamic and are fluid, then the evidence of that will spread quite rapidly. And this should be a tipping point beyond which an entire school is able to think critically, and have empathy, and think systemically. Is that part of the What If that you’re aiming for?
Rachel: Absolutely. And again, it comes back to this framework that we’ve labelled as triple well-being, which is a very holistic whole school, whole person, whole community approach really, because we welcome parents into the space as well, that there is this recognition that we’ve got to be welcoming in skills that children are going to need for navigating a very changeable world. And you’re right, those those three skills are not high up on the list at all because they create some somewhat renegade children who might question the system itself. And yet we can just see from lessons of Covid that we we are in need of skills, of resilience and adaptability and collective care and compassion and wider wellbeing in our lives.
Manda: And critical thinking.
Rachel: Critical thinking, absolutely. But I can see that there is only going to become more need for these skills. So I’m very patient. In our work, obviously we’re pressed for time, but patience is also golden because I think this work is going to become more needed, and more recognised in its worth. But coming back to that triple well-being framework, I think it feeds itself, and it’s the same thing with a healthy system anywhere. Healthy systems beget healthy systems. And one of the workshops we do is a systems thinking workshop for kids. We help them to understand systems thinking in a very simple way. How if each individual part of that system is not well, then the whole system can never be well. Looking at what happens if we really help each part to flourish, how does that help the whole to flourish?
And so I’ve started to design this now into teacher training programmes as well. So there is that real recognition that well-being is not something that you can just do on a Thursday afternoon for 20 minutes and tick a box. But actually, it’s something that is a whole school responsibility, but it’s a whole school flourishing that comes with it. And it doesn’t need to be expensive. It doesn’t need to be time consuming. It can just be embedded. So I get very energised by the invitation in this work because coming back to what I said earlier, it’s simple. It is in us all, it’s common sense. It’s doing less of rather than more of, and it’s helping people and planet to flourish. And so I certainly have, within a framework of what’s coming next, we’ve got a lot of baby steps to embed more of this holistic practise into schools by starting working with head teachers and with training teachers. I come from both ends of the spectrum.
Manda: And have you had any pushback politically? Because I am well aware in the UK and this only applies at the moment in the UK, as I understand it, it is now illegal for someone in schools to suggest that there is an alternative to capitalism. And yet you are teaching systems thinking where you are teaching kids that if one part is unwell, then the whole will be unwell, which is the antithesis to capitalism. So you’re not saying capitalism is broken, but what you’re saying is: here is a self-evident reality that is antithetical to the entire capitalist approach. At the point when somebody joins those dots, who isn’t me, they’re going to come down on the teachers like a ton of bricks, I imagine. So I guess your renegade teachers in your Trojan Horses are well aware of this. They must be already trying to think of ways… because it feels very much like Section 28, which is a previous Tory administration, which banned any… what was it, that you weren’t allowed to suggest that homosexual relationships were OK or anything? And it feels the same. And I remember teachers back then finding ways to circumvent that. But the fact that it was there was grim. And this feels grim. So what are you going to do when the inspectors work it out, that whole systems thinking isn’t capitalist?
Rachel: I really welcome it. I think what was interesting when that news broke, it broke a Thursday night. The policy was pushed into the system very quietly, and the news broke on a Saturday, I think. And it’s not a good time for any news story to break. And I came across this and I wrote a blog on the Sunday, and it’s the most read blog of ThoughtBox because I introduced the fact that actually this really is championing a need for children to be critical thinkers. What the government policy was saying is they didn’t want indoctrination happening in the classroom, the children being pushed to see that one way, one system was the right way. Ironically, they’ve they’ve been pushed that way. So really what they’ve done in this policy is challenging themselves in it. And so what I was writing about in this blog, and what I would really welcome when anybody does start to challenge ThoughtBox on this, is that what you’re really wanting is to have critical minds, you’re wanting children to have the skills, the capacities and the competencies so that they don’t just accept blindly what they’re told, but they question it, they reflect on it. They stand back from it and look a little bit more deeply at what is being given to them in that classroom.
Manda: We’ll have another another podcast when the pushback arises and see where we get to, because that particularly that second bit of legislation that bans the concept, was it white supremacy, or was it that white advantage exists?
Rachel: Yes, yes. It was really talking about the notion of privilege.
Manda: That white privilege exists as a concept, which is another of these self-evident things. But now we’re not allowed to discuss it. And I struggle to imagine living in a nation where that kind of totalitarian diktat exists and there’s not revolution, that every teacher in the country is not marching the streets to say, you can’t tell us to not discuss the things that for a significant percentage of our children are a lived reality.
Rachel: Or just to help those teachers. We’ve just, we’re launching on Monday another big free programme on equality and justice. And it’s an invitation to have these conversations, and talk in the classroom space in a way that, again, is empathic, that is critically reflective, that is bringing systems thinking in. Because, again, to shut them out, makes them happen in the quiet spaces. We can’t just say if we don’t do it in school, it doesn’t happen. Children would just be talking about it elsewhere. And so I think it’s such a responsibility that we have as educators, to be offering safe spaces for children to be exploring very big, complex issues that are happening around them. But with the guidance and support mechanisms to have those conversations in ways that can help them to to feel empowered, to feel well, to feel humble, to feel reflective.
And so, again, we’ve been creating this curriculum for six months. And the the legislation was just another confirmation, really, as to the importance of this sort of work and helping teachers to know how to respond when a block comes, and really helping children to feel autonomy in how to have these conversations. Because they are big, tricky conversations, but they’re not going anywhere. They’re only growing. And actually to pretend that they don’t exist, it just feels a fallacy, really. So I’m excited to launch this programme.
Manda: Especially when they’re on social media all around us. I mean, I’m guessing that it’s probably only boomers like me who spend any time on Twitter. But once you’re on Twitter or any other of the social media, those conversations are flowing past, and they’re highly tribal, and having the skills of critical thinking to be able to balance somewhere in the middle and listen to both sides does seem to me the way that the world has to go. Have you brought in any of the thinking of Daniel Schmachtenburger into this? Because he strikes me as one of the keynote critical thinkers of our time.
Rachel: Yes. And again, thinking about the framing of how we’re embedding the practices, we sort of use nuances of different pedagogical techniques and different ways of exploring things. So rather than having a practise that’s designed in a particular shape, we just embed the different frames through through the lesson. So, again, whenever I say what ThoughtBox is, we are showcasing, sharing and and exploring the practices of so many extraordinary practitioners and thinkers out there. So really, what we do is cultivate ideas together, and allow children to explore them for themselves, and then link teachers with different ways, so they can go down more deeply into different patterns. So it might be: learn more about this particular way of teaching systems thinking, or learn more about critical thought here, or learn more about immigration or Black Lives Matter here. There’s a lot of signposting as well in the work.
But really, just coming back to what you were saying there, that the significant value of critical thought and seeing whole systems thinking in all of the practises that are coming against those, really because they welcome them, it’s perhaps just not recognising that yet. And children are going to only fall into those polarities that you just mentioned that do exist already, the us versus them, if we don’t inhabit those skills in the classroom space, because as we can see across our social media networks, those are what fuel the networks, the Othering. And if we want to try and allow more of the collective cohesion of thought, to welcome the diversity and the time for listening to that diverse thought.
Manda: So what are the age groups that you’re working with? Because I see on your website that it’s from five to 18. But I’m waiting for the moment when the young people that have learnt critical thinking, and empathy, and systems thinking are out in the world in significant numbers, and able to begin to have a voice that is heard. Because it seems to me that we need a critical mass of critical thinkers, of systems thinkers, of people who embody empathy, and that way we can begin to change the entire societal narrative. And so if you, Rachel and ThoughtBox are single handedly with some help from renegade teachers, creating a generation of empathic, resilient, adaptable, critical thinking, systemic thinking young people, then when that begins to launch out into the world, we can expect to see significant difference. So have we got a beginning generation coming through, or is it going to take 10 years, do you think?
Rachel: Yeah, I’m going to say that I feel that young people growing up now are actually embodying a lot of these skills themselves without realising the need for them. You know, I just look at these climate strikes that have emerged out of such a space of compassion and frustration. I understand a bit of a polarity in those extremes, but I think children are actually innately holding onto, and not forgetting some of this behaviour that we do need. In terms of the way that ThoughtBox is working, we work with every single school age child from five to 18 and adults as well. But what we do is we take a programme, and we have the same programme for every age group.
And as they move up the years, so, for example, a five year old will do a programme on, let’s say happiness, and they’ll revisit it again when they’re seven, and when they’re nine, and when they’re 11, 13, 15, etc., and each time they revisit they’re coming at it from a different angle, and a different growth level. But they’re also bringing in a higher level of skill. And so we really start with the feelings with the little ones, and really help them to not lose those things, open wide open feelings. So as they as they grow up, they don’t stop the whole-hearted engagement with life. But they’re welcome to keep those feelings alive. And then we start bringing in the questioning skills, and then the listening skills, and then the empathy for others. And then the critical thinking skills and the systems thinking skills. And so these skills and practises are being welcomed in every age group, all the way up, with more levels of nuance and complexity as they get older.
Manda: Yeah, and you’re right, the school climate strikes made a huge difference to people because their parents were part of the old system. And it’s very hard to ignore when your kids have decided to be doing something that’s more active and more necessary than what ever you are doing to pay the mortgage, really. But I’m seeing on your website that you are supported by, or that you’re a supporter of, the Earth Protectors network, and that feels like a very good way of joining up the circle as well. One final question, and this is purely for my own interest. A long, long time ago, I read a book called Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal, who was talking about using gaming theory. So not game theory, but using the principle by which computer games are designed in schools in the States on the basis that the average child at this point, and I think this was about 2010, 2012, spent I think 10000 hours in school between first grade and final grade, whatever American grades are. But they spent at that time 22000 hours playing computer games. So guess where the learning actually came from.
And so what they were trying to do was to create schools such that it felt like playing a game. So you didn’t go home and play a game. You went home and played school, and you could go into the library and open a book, and a magic spell would fall out. And in order to find the ingredients of the magic spell, you might have to go to the chemistry lab and put things together. And that might require that you found somebody in a higher year who understood how to find those things, and could show you how to measure them out on a balance. And, you know, I don’t know, boil things up over a Bunsen burner, and then you would take the results of that, and maybe apply some maths to it and somebody else would help you with that. And then you’d get a power up, yay, because you made the potion or whatever. So has that translated through at all, or is that something that was a bit of an idea that vanished in the 2010s?
Rachel: What happens a lot in primary education, and I’m not saying it’s quite so extravagant and exciting as the potions but a lot of prime education is really focussed on project learning, and learning that is is holistic. So it’s not just, we’re doing this in a Maths lesson, you’re looking at an idea or an enquiry, and you’re moving with it, and you’re moving through place and time and subject and different environments, and seeing that learning come to life. And I feel that there’s many schools across the world that have this as a framework, and they’re not necessarily the mainstream schools, but they’re recognising that this way of bringing learning to life needs to be taking it outside of compartmentalised boxes, and putting it into a more sort of fluent system. So I’m sure as well there’s probably schools out there that do use a gaming model, in terms of learning is online.
But actually, I think it excites me even more to to think about having that model, I want to say in real life, if you know what I mean, you know, an actual classroom space, and see what that can be. Because, again, I think so much of the apathy that comes from learners as they grow up in school is it doesn’t make any sense. The learning that’s happening in that small 35 minute lesson doesn’t make any sense to the world they’re living in. So really again, if we harness those skills of connexion, the learning will always be connected to the life that’s being lived. So I hold a lot of time and space for any platforms that can be reunited with the way that learning actually helps us to thrive in the world.
Manda: That sounds beautiful. And just so that people know that ThoughtBox exists, that this kind of way of helping young people to thrive and flourish in a world that is thriving and flourishing, that we can focus on your triple wellbeing of educational well-being, social well-being and environmental well-being, and bring those together in a way that’s holistic and where we understand that systems are whole things. It feels so inspiring. So is there any one last thing? Is there anything I’ve forgotten to ask or that you really wanted to say that we didn’t?
Rachel: I suppose one thing I will invite is that we’re trying to really welcome a movement of educators into this space, so that people don’t feel that they’re the lone wolf renegade teacher in their school, but they’re part of a collective. And so we’ve just designed a whole free membership platform that anyone can come: teachers, parents, and join this network and support each other. And I think a lot of the empowerment comes from feeling that you’re not alone and that you are one of many who are championing these ideas.
Manda: So that’s it for another week. Huge thanks to Rachel for opening up a world of creativity, inspiration and genuine hope for the future of the world. If we all learnt empathy, critical thinking, and systemic thinking, the world would be a different place tomorrow.
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