By: Deborah Hill Cone

For his silliness, John Cleese believed in the power of an active mind. Photo/supplied

This week our daughter started at her new school.

Our mornings have a different route now – up Symonds Street.

“Did you go to that university?” she asked on the way. I said yes.

“How long did it take to get your degree?” I answer three years. (We are stuck in traffic) “That’s soooo long!” I guess it is a long time when you’re 12. “Well, you don’t have to go, ” I said. “Really? You mean going to university isn’t compulsory?” She was shocked. “Oh. I thought it was like school.”

I am slightly horrified about what this says about her sheltered experience of the world. “So, what happens if you don’t go?” I resisted the urge to give the kind of answer my parents would have given (You’ll be living in a cardbox box)

“Nothing much,” I replied.

And ta-da. Here is how I find I agree with Mike Hosking on something. (Earth tilts off axis.)

Last week Hosking applauded the one hundred New Zealand companies who signed an open letter saying that tertiary qualifications are not required for a range of skilled roles in their workplaces. Instead, they say they are willing to do the harder work of assessing the real skills, attitudes, motivation and adaptability of candidates.

Take a bow those insightful businesses, which include Xero, ASB, Fonterra, Microsoft and Vector. Hard work and creativity are what really count.

This is the message I want to send our kids.

Since last week, both of them have opted out of the mainstream schooling system.
I’m not even quite sure what goes on at their unique school. (I’m not naming the school because it likes to stay under the radar and I wouldn’t want to annoy them.) Both of the kids love it and can’t wait to go every morning.

One thing I do know though: John Cleese would approve. Because it’s a tortoise enclosure.

Cleese credits the book Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind for his theory of creativity. The idea is that we have a quick-thinking, logical part of our brains which is good for solving logistical or mathematical problems.

But we also have a slow-thinking, contemplative mind that can work out complex problems, and produce creative work.

It’s important to give your contemplative “tortoise mind” a safe space and the time it needs to work: the “tortoise enclosure,” to let your creative unconscious roam free.

The trick is to allow creation before evaluation. This isn’t just for arty types. Sir Bob Jones also used to talk a lot about the value of having time to create and he seemed to translate that into financial success, if that’s your bag.

At our kids’ school there are some very strict rules about safety. But within those boundaries they are free to be as creative as they like.

They eat when they like. They do their own work. They have what growth mindset guru Carol Dweck would call “intrinsic motivation”. From what I’ve seen it reminds me a bit of art school. (Sniff. I always wanted to go to art school.)

The way I see it is that the mainstream school system is pretty much one-size-fits-all. Which works well for lots of kids. But if you have an outlier kid – on either end of the Bell Curve on a range of measures such as sensitivity or expressiveness- being forced to fit in can do more harm than good.

That’s because mainstream schooling focuses on compliance, competition, status, achievement and testing. Oh, I know our schools will say they teach critical thinking but I’m sceptical. Look at Blockhouse Bay Intermediate which last week made students apologise for asking valid questions of visiting speakers, and then told parents they were not allowed to criticize the school on social media. We encourage critical thinking. Yeah right.

And even when schools try sincerely to teach critical thinking, sometimes an atmosphere of judgment will undermine these genuine attempts. That is because when we are judged we feel under stress. Studies of humans and other animals show that chronic stress is toxic to the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s reasoning centre.

I suspect you need to be a bit gobby to choose to opt out. Fortunately I am. Our father used to remind us we come from a family of rebels. One of our ancestors was hanged at Schlachter’s Nek in South Africa for trying to lead an uprising. I’ve never been good at doing what I’m told. I might have oppositional defiance disorder, except that I’m so contrarian I don’t put much store by mainstream diagnosis and labels.

When you opt out there are no blazers and badges and cups. You have to have the strength of character to believe you are someone without the outward approval of being a prefect, getting high grades, being popular.

You have to learn to give yourself a stamp of approval, rather than waiting for one from the powers-that-be. You have to believe you have value as a human being simply because you exist, not because you have letters after your name or power or status. This is harder, but I believe it’s worth it. And despite writing a column bagging university, I am loving being back there myself this year. Life is full of contradictions, eh.

Source: NZ Herald


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