As part of our continuing efforts to produce a blog that offers real value to parents, pupils and educators, English Guardian have reached out to leading voices in the world of British education to ask them their opinions on a wide variety of issues.
One of those voices is that of Mr Andrew Halls, headmaster of the renowned King’s College School in Wimbledon, London. Founded in 1829, KCS consistently features at the top of the academic league tables; last year nearly 96% of all GCSE grades awarded were A*/A and over fifty pupils gained places at Oxford and Cambridge.
The school has recently introduced ’empathy’ lessons for their Year 7s (ages 11 — 12) that aim to counteract the nefarious effects of screen-time on children’s social skills. We travelled to Wimbledon to meet Mr Halls and discuss these new lessons, and to hear his views on technology, education in the 21st century, the importance of teaching children to code, and a little bit about Brexit too…
My first question is about KCS’ new ’empathy’ lessons, could you tell me a little about where the idea came from?
There’s quite significant research from Professor Sara Konrath in America on a general decline in empathy levels over the past 40 years. Even back in the ‘70s a leading American university was giving all of its undergraduates a questionnaire which provided quite a good indication of empathy levels — participants were asked lots of questions such as ‘if you saw someone looking unhappy would you a) go and help, b) not do anything, c) report it’ etc., and by using the same questionnaire over forty years researchers have seen, generation after generation, a really noticeable decline, particularly setting in in the year 2000. I had often wondered, just as many others have, just what the effect of screen time is on young people, not just teenagers but much younger children, two year-olds, three year-olds, and what screens are doing to the basic construct of humanity, the ability to look people in the eye and talk to them as we are now and so on. Again and again I’ve seen articles and research that say the amount of time teenagers spend on screens has risen exponentially over the past ten years — the figures are vague but it’s now anywhere between five and eight hours – and so I thought that that must be affecting empathy levels. Finding this research from Dr Konrath then was incredibly interesting. I should explain that the research isn’t just based on questionnaires either; there’s a whole lot of other material with everything from pop song lyrics to advertising slogans being analysed, and all of this has created the impression that we live in a slightly more solipsistic or egocentric universe. We probably could have guessed this anyway but it’s interesting to see the stats.
So that led me to ask: ‘what’s to be done?’ I think one of the first things to do is actually say that it’s an issue and put a name on it, and I think ‘empathy’ is a good word for talking about the uniquely human – as opposed to animal — quality of more than just feeling sorry for someone but actually experiencing what they’re experiencing, intellectually or imaginatively. That’s a very remarkable quality and when you start to diminish it you’re going to start seeing issues. So for me it was partly putting a name on it and talking about it. We have a school conference on the subject in October that I’m hoping will get some coverage, and within the school itself we have introduced for our Year 7s ‘Loving Classroom’ workshops run by David Geffen. The Loving Classroom is based on the idea of not just teaching everything that we already teach on the academic side, but also addressing the children the need for human interchange: kindness, understanding of other people and so forth.
To be truthful, though, to me lessons are the least significant part of what schools and colleges can do to keep humans empathetic. The most important thing is that children are involved in activities such as drama and music, play, games, debating, that sort of thing. I went through the state sector in the 1970s which saw a lot of teachers strikes, and increasingly games and trips began to stop at my school, and that carried on in the ‘80s and ‘90s. There has been a huge reduction in the extra-curricular life of state school pupils. In many European countries that wouldn’t matter because there never was much extra-curricular life in schools but it was very much there in local communities; children would join clubs and still do, and that’s very typical on the continent. But in the UK this sort of thing was supplied by schools rather than by local youth clubs, and we haven’t got either anymore, so I think for me part of the issue of empathy isn’t really about teaching lessons. Instead, it’s being part of a debate that will encourage schools to realise that spending time on games and drama and music is good for the kids, good for society and common sense to me because it will improve their results anyway.
What do you think parents can do, along with educators, to encourage empathy in their children?
I think that slowly families are starting to realise that too much screen time isn’t any good; after all most of us were caught on the hop by the total explosion in teenager smartphone use, and I can personally attest to that given that it’s happened in the lifetime of my own daughters. Where families can help is by realising that putting kids on their dad’s iPad at the age of two isn’t an achievement, by telling kids not to take anything electronic into their bedrooms after 10 o’clock at night, and by just recognising that there are issues that children have that their parents never had, problems such as sleep deprivation, too much screen time, massive anxiety about body image, all of this arising from the constant presence of phones. Families can help in these ways, and obviously when children are young enough, up to the age of about 12 perhaps, most families can determine an awful lot about the way a child lives his or her life. So getting outdoors, being involved in sport — not in terms of trying to be the captain or get Grade 3 distinction on violin, I’m not talking achievements with tick-boxes – just getting them involved in stuff. The more families can do activities like that, and encourage their children in face-to-face play, the better. The other thing that I think is also relevant is encouraging children to read, and to read worthwhile fiction. I’m aware that all of this is incredibly old-fashioned, but I think that we have lost some of the virtues that we once had.
You mentioned there the extent to which parents can direct their children’s lives; do you feel that potentially one of the causes of the kind of empathy malaise that we’re seeing is down to parents offering their children too much autonomy?
I think there’s too much loneliness for children, too much autonomy in terms of them being left to their own devices by busy parents or separated parents that don’t quite have the time for them anymore, or, let’s face it, families where the children don’t mean as much as they should and are treated as encumbrances. This can occur in very wealthy families or very poor families. Those children who might once have spent the day playing out in fields or on the street have parents that are dimly aware that playing outside like that isn’t allowable anymore, and so think that the best way to deal with a child they’re not that interested in is to let him play computer games or watch TV all day.
One of the ways of helping children that are isolated or neglected is through an external community, something away from the family that brings children together. Would you advocate a discussion about some kind of national community program for children, something equivalent to the Scouts but where it’s compulsory for children to be involved?
Here at King’s we have a partnership program for kids aged 14 and above where children from this school go and help with children at 27 local state schools, both secondary schools and primary special schools which are particularly rewarding. So we have 350 pupils every Friday afternoon doing exactly that kind of community work, or partnerships as we call it. That’s a really positive thing so the thought of bringing that into children’s lives across the country is fantastic. It’s worth saying though that no-one would be able to introduce a compulsory thing like that but if you think of the scouting movement that was around up until the ‘60s and ‘70s and the Duke of Edinburgh movement since then, those have been incredibly popular. Maybe there is room for another, slightly different, approach now; Duke of Edinburgh was very much about being outdoors, getting your rucksack and going hill-walking, and maybe what you’re talking about is something slightly more urban and 21stcentury.
The whole issue of empathy is to do with interacting with other people and reading their faces and feelings and simply developing that emotional maturity that they don’t have. If you think about children playing Call of Duty at three in the morning with someone in the Far East, there will be a sort of cross-continental friendship from that because they talk to each other, but it’s a very two-dimensional world, a friendship group composed of friends you haven’t met, so if a national scheme could help bring children together in the real world that would be a really positive thing.
Let’s move on now to the impact of technology inside the classroom rather than outside of it. Given that computers dominate the adult workplace does it make sense to make working on computers an integral part of school life?
Well, it depends. If by ‘integral’ you mean something that you can’t get away from then I think it doesn’t make much sense, because although computers dominate work-life, they dominate children’s lives anyway. It’s not as though kids don’t know how to type – they might not know how to perfectly but they know what they’re doing. Of course, computers are part of many lessons here at King’s, for example the Geography department issue Google Chromebooks and they’ll use those probably more than an exercise book. I am personally quite old-fashioned and so I’m not great on this topic – if you look on my desk you’ll see the exercise books of the Year 9s that I teach English to, and I make a point of saying ‘I want you to write in handwriting, I want you to use fountain pen’ and all these old-fashioned sorts of things. I think the more they are surrounded by computers, and the more those computers are an inevitable part of their lives, the more it is important to offer them ways of thinking that are not quite the same. So actually given that, as I’ve mentioned, teenagers get five to eight hours of screen time a day, I think it’s quite important in schools that we use computers quite sparingly, and that we really know that we want them in a lesson before we use them. So I’m not going to suggest that all Year 7s are issued with iPads as many schools – good schools – do. In fact I think it’s more important to find as many opportunities to not introduce iPads as we can.
Many of the jobs that will be available to school and university leavers in the next ten to twenty years will rely on a knowledge of computer programming. Do you believe that coding should become a core subject?
That’s a good question. We have introduced a non-examined coding course for the Upper 5th[Year 11] and it’s very popular. All schools want to appoint the one teacher that is almost impossible to find: a brilliant, inspirational computing teacher. They’re very difficult to get; it’s much easier to get an inspirational historian than an inspirational computer scientist, not because they don’t exist but because they don’t want to come into teaching, so that’s hard for schools. But I would have thought that most of us are taking coding seriously. You do hear quite different things from computing experts: some say that the curriculum we teach belongs in the Victorian age and we should get rid of it which I totally don’t agree with, and others who are equally absorbed in the world of computers say that frankly you’d be better off learning maths anyway. Frankly I don’t know the answer, but I believe we probably should be doing more. Even though I’d like to encourage children to do a hundred other things before they pick up their phone or computer at school, I think we probably should be teaching coding and that’s why we provide it in the Upper 5th.
There are certain curricula internationally where children are encouraged to pursue information themselves, using the internet, in a sort of project based system. To give an example, rather than being given a topic such as ‘Ancient Egypt’ the pupils are given something much broader, ‘Ancient Civilisations’ for example, in which there are four or five different options, and are then told to choose one and research it themselves on the internet. What do you feel about this kind of approach?
80 of our boys each year come from our junior school at 13, and I sometimes ask them who their favourite teacher was. They often talk about a traditional historian who doesn’t use computers in the classroom but instead sits on the desk and chats with them about Henry VIII. He’s a great teacher — I think the junior school have won a national history quiz more times than any other school in the country – and these boys love the human interchange of a traditional lesson, so long as that’s not all they ever get. It’s important that, as well as that style of teaching, they’re also going into a DT lesson and playing with electronic kit and designing things on computers. Personally speaking I would very rarely set a homework that involved researching on the computer because I think that children are doing so much of that already. Part of the job of a school is to work all of the different cells around the brain, and constantly giving children algebra lessons or simply teaching them Victorian literature isn’t very good because it isn’t stimulating. In the same way constantly giving them the same machinery to work with isn’t stimulating.
To go back to your question about work in the next twenty years, it’s not just factory work and blue-collar jobs that are under threat; a lot of white-collar work will also be replaced by robots. So, in a world where artificial intelligence is playing such a major role, it’s all the more important that human beings preserve the one thing they have that AI will never have which is empathy and the ability to read others. So I come back to the role of schools and parents in making sure that empathy, developed through friendship and working together and not being stuck on a computer all the time, is protected. If all of our day-to-day interaction happens behind a screen people will become quite one-dimensional, and really won’t be any better than the AI that’s competing with them for their jobs.
My final question is about British schools and their reputation internationally. Independent schools in Britain are very attractive to international parents – why do you feel that is?
I think part of the attraction lies in the fact that British independent schools have a fantastic and, frankly, well-deserved name for great academic outcomes and throughput into top universities, and a record of producing pupils who have an ability to cope with the world and have flexible minds. They also produce quite rounded people, thanks to all of these other things they’re able to do like drama and sport. One of the tasks of a school isn’t just to teach people to get a job, but to give them the range of mind to enjoy their life later. If you’ve never done anything more at school than lessons that you hate, it’s going to be very hard for you to see any point in going round the National Gallery, or visiting a foreign city or speaking another language. The independent sector has been very good over the years at remembering the mind is multifaceted and needs stimulation across the whole breadth of it.
To address the international aspect, there’s also the fact that these schools are part of a country that to many international parents has significance in the world. I think people see Britain as a place that’s got rule of law, that has a moral compass, that has good connections across the whole of Europe and America too. Although we’re not the country we sometimes like to think we are, for a lot of foreigners Britain does represent something, and I think one of the fears about Brexit is that it might turn us into a sort of UKIP island, and that reputation might be lost. That’s rather depressing but I hope it doesn’t go that way.
English Guardian would like to thank Mr Halls, Mrs Sara Carrett and King’s College School for the chance to visit and conduct this interview.