Opinion: ‘When children do good, they learn good’

By keeping our children in the classroom during their formative years, are we failing to nurture their resourcefulness and encourage their sense of social responsibility?

Back in 2001, I found myself disillusioned with how my young son was being taught at school. It seemed that the established education system was failing to create curious, competent and empowered citizens by not encouraging children to question knowledge, develop relationships and rigorously master skills. For that reason I founded my own school, Riverside.

Consider this: during their time in education, all that most children see are the backs of other students’ heads. Even schools that claim to be innovative keep their pupils predominately inside the classroom. At Riverside, we said that being good at school isn’t a good-enough reason to be at school. So, we introduced real-world projects onto the curriculum that enable children to really make a difference.

We wanted the children to make the leap from intellectual understanding to enduring understanding. First of all our students started learning about children’s rights through lessons and case studies. Of course they had the responses that might be expected: they shook their heads and declared how awful it all was. But it was only when they went through the experience of child labour themselves – in one specific example rolling incense sticks for eight hours – that they experienced a shift in understanding that was immediate and enduring.

'We have to expand the concept of awareness and make it contextual and culturally relevant for all of our children – be they in the desert, or in Manhattan’

The fact is that when children do good, they ‘learn good’. With the teaching system we use at Riverside, the pupils’ entire being is involved in the learning process – experiencing, learning, prototyping – and through that process, a broad range of skills is developed, not just academic skills but also the 21st-century skills of collaborative enterprise, agency, empathy, problem-solving and critical thinking. Those skills aren’t nurtured as much in conventional education because they cannot be quantified.

I am a firm believer in a civic approach to education. By nurturing our young people, we create good citizens. Education should be about teaching children that if they can be excited about subjects like maths, literature and science, they can be equally concerned about issues such as childhood abuse, freedom, and the environment. This type of approach creates a citizen who is concerned, pro- active and empathetic. Education should never be an ‘either/or’.

Because of issues such as climate change, there is an argument that today we should be nurturing a generation of global – not just national or local – citizens. And you could say that, in education, we are no longer restricted by mental borders, and that we are all connected thanks to technology. But let’s not forget that there are huge areas of the world that do not have access to technology, so that statement is only true for, let’s say, five or 10 per cent of the world. But that overall concept of being informed stays true – so I can be informed of my locality, my community, my village, my area – and I keep increasing that concept of being informed because the moment I am informed is the moment I start to care. And as soon as I care, I need the tools to enable change – to make that situation better if necessary.

It is a step-by-step process. You first make something visible, that becomes accessible, that becomes replicable, that becomes sustainable. That state of being aware is not just about global citizenship, but can also be about your community. But you have to get out of school to understand that. We have to expand the concept of awareness and make it contextual and culturally relevant for all of our children – be they in the desert, or in Manhattan.