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Thursday, September 29, 2022

The most important skill for children to learn? Compassion

Last year, a programme called Covid Learning and Support Scheme (CLASS) was put in place to help schools manage the adverse impacts of COVID-19 on student learning and wellbeing. The €50 million one-off Government scheme has now ended, despite ongoing concern among parents and educational experts.

Cutting the funding seems like a poor move to me, but it’s also possible that when it comes to national trauma, money shouldn’t be our only answer – rather, it should have more to do with a coordinated, national shift in curriculum and focus.

This week I had the great fortune to speak with Professor of Education at Auckland University and Director of the Centre for Arts and Social Transformation, Peter O’Connor. He is doing ground-breaking work on an international scale. He is also critical of our government’s response to Covid.

“It broke my heart to see Ireland’s response to Covid in classrooms. It was right back into the pressure to prepare for exams. I couldn’t help but think, haven’t these students had enough?”

O’Connor is an expert in how to respond to societal trauma having developed an impressive range of arts-focused resources for schools to confront and process the trauma of Covid. Indeed, he has resources to support students following any kind of trauma. 

The educator views the arts as integral to building resilience and empathy, describing it as a ‘bridge towards possibility,’ both individually and collectively. His practical experience is vast, having worked in a range of contexts, from teaching Palestinian children on the Syrian border to working with educators in the aftermath of terrorism in his own country.

“Our world has changed, and we should see that in our classrooms. When the gap widens between real life and school, we lose students and that’s when we should worry. The most important skill for young people to learn in a 21st Century context is compassion; if we don’t build their capacity for compassion through the imagination, and create critical, creative thinkers, we have no defence against the rise of populism and threats from the far right.”

In response to naysayers who might fear a fall in academic standards, if the focus in Irish schools were to shift towards the arts, he has this to say: “It is always presented as a binary. It’s not. It’s not either/or, it’s actually and/and. People present a false dichotomy when all the research suggests an arts-rich education yields better results in both numeracy and literacy.”

Given his experience, I’m more than inclined to believe him, to sit back and listen. I’m not alone. His resources have been downloaded half a million times. He has trained 60,000 teachers in 140 countries.

“We learned it in Christchurch after the earthquake. The government talked about catch-ups in literacy and numeracy and that’s what they ordered schools to do. Schools ignored it. They went back and focused on the arts and wellbeing. And guess what happened? Grades went up.”

Interestingly, the New Zealand government is listening fully to O’Connor now and the country, similar in population to Ireland, is changing their policy accordingly.

In fact, returning to school after lockdown, the Minister for Education sent a letter to every principal instructing them to go back to the arts, to support the children emotionally, building compassion and empathy, encouraging reflection and healing.”

I can’t help but feel downhearted, considering my own context here in Ireland. Here, our minister continues to make curricular choices against the wishes of experts, seemingly in isolation, as is the case with the movement of English and Irish papers at senior level.

O’Connor echoes my sentiments; he shares with me that he often hears about a poverty of vision in the Irish education system – a focus on a narrow set of skills that are increasingly less important.

He speaks with a kind of urgency, suggesting that life is too short to do anything that isn’t of great importance.

In a recent paper he describes “an urgency to build classrooms as contained, anchored places of belonging and solidarity, grounded homes that hold space for our troubled knowledges and mutual vulnerabilities; that invite us to empathise strategically and critically not only with others but also ourselves.”

O’Connor’s resources are called Te Rito Toi.

There is no direct translation for the Maori words, he tells me. Toi relates to the arts and Rito is a seedling.

“It’s a metaphor. It describes seedlings surrounded by leaves. It’s about keeping the seedlings safe.”

O’Connor seems to suggest that our education system is capable of far more than we might think. I agree with him.

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