Please hold while we try to connect you, your life is important to us
dis: the lack of, not…
We live in a time when increasing numbers of children are becoming disconnected from their world. Too often, circumstances and events act to disconnect disadvantaged learners, who become increasingly disillusioned and disenfranchised from society and school; pushed to the fringes. As children become disconnected their status, sense of belonging and self-esteem diminishes, encouraging retreat.
We live in a time of increased disconnection and social inequality, that is tipping life and opportunity away from increasing numbers of children who are presently disadvantaged. Disconnection is an ever-present thread, a process, through life, accentuated by key events that chip away at a child’s belief in what is possible. This is an on-going and sometimes catastrophic erosion of agency over time that encourages children to step back and not forward into opportunity.
“Disconnection is a fearsome state for a social animal to find itself in. It is a warning that its life is failing and its world has become hostile: where there’s no connection, there is no protection.” (Will Storr)
Looking through the lens of disadvantage we can see the circumstances and experiences that create disconnection and accentuate disadvantage. Almost none of it is purposeful, but we are inconveniently complicit through our actions and collude with practices that disconnect. The failure of a child to connect positively time after time, increases the likelihood of disconnection that drains the joy, the ambition and colour from life, profoundly harming well-being. Once disconnection leads to disillusionment, children find themselves on the outside, where return is possible, but rare. The powers of education are weak at this distance, too often any existing connection irretrievably snaps.
“…loneliness can quite literally make us sick? Human beings crave togetherness and interaction. Our spirits yearn for connection just as our bodies hunger for food.” (Rutger Bregman)
We can counteract and remove these “forces of disconnection” and create better climates and cultures that enable children to grow, to belong and to have more agency. Only then will children feel like the hero in their story through life. Heroes that need equity for their quest, to be privileged, to not be let off and to be held by high expectations worthy of hero-status. We do, however, need to meet them there and up the bandwidth of connection to reach out and say you belong here.
The pandemic is the greatest “disconnection event” of our time and it has entrenched and exposed a world that is already riddled with disconnection. A world where connection systematically weakens over time for increasing numbers and gaps become chasms between those that have and those that have not. The following explores just a few examples of disconnection.
Alternate realities | schools hidden within schools
Alternate reality: a self-contained separate world, coexisting within the real world.
Schools are navigated entirely differently by each child. We may like to generalise provision, but children are the only real experts of their experience. The reality for too many is that they attend a school within a school, disconnected and parallel to the best provision. These alternate realities hinge on a range of factors: levels of attainment, timetable, staffing, setting, banding, reputation, pathways, peers, groupings, pre-conceived ideas, expectations. Typically, high attaining children experience a privileged route, whilst lower attaining children endure a less privileged route; different reality, same school.
“The last thing a fish would ever notice would be water.” (Ralph Linton)
The decisions we make about how we organise provision, have consequences for learners, that create or deny connection, systematically over time. We have come to accept the alternate realities, where those presently disadvantaged are disproportionately represented in the less connected, lower performing, under ambitious, alternate reality. They do not often feel the privilege of the high attaining reality.
“What provokes our outrage depends on what surrounds us – on what we consider normal.” (Cass Sunstein)
Lost in Transition | mind the gap
Children navigate many transitions as they move through their education. Advantaged children leap confidently across these transitions, whilst disadvantaged gingerly and uncertainly step across; this is not for me. Whether it is the summer break (any break), moving schools, moving years, options or pathway choices, advantaged families step forward, stage manage, resource and guide readiness and decision making. At the same time disadvantaged learners get lost in transitions and lose connection, disconnected from seizing opportunities. In these transitions they are reminded that this is a world that happens to them, they step back, not forward and the gap widens, on repeat. We need to stage manage and connect children so they find (not lose) themselves in transition.
We assume too much | pedagogy and teacher that connects children to what is possible
Classrooms should build connection, not just between peers or with adults, but also with the joy of learning and the richness of subject. A connection that enables children to feel clever, to build knowledge and understanding that opens their eyes and inspires them to feel enfranchised and empowered; connecting and giving them access to the world.
Too often we make assumptions that erode connectivity and deny access, particularly for disadvantaged learners. Each time we assume knowledge, cultural capital, language, vocabulary, ability to attend to verbal and written instruction, resilience, persistence in seeking to understand… we limit accessibility and the ability to connect. Assuming too much over time, disenfranchises learners; there is a limit to how often a child will go back and try to connect.
“Making good use of school time is the single most egalitarian function that schools perform, because for disadvantaged children, school time is the only academic learning time, whereas advantaged students can learn a lot outside of school.” (Hirsch)
Enhancing connection in classrooms:
- Invest deliberately in a Reading Strategy; perhaps the most important enabler for learning, connecting to the best that has been written. Literally connecting a child, forever, to learning and the world around them; fundamentally enhancing quality of life.
- Invest in vocabulary, the keys to language, to comprehension, discussion, building fluency and falling in love with words.
- Invest in oracy; supporting children to find their voice to articulate, apply and explore their understanding out loud, connect to others and have a voice that is heard.
- Tell stories that bounce up and down through the curriculum, reducing assumptions, inspiring, connecting knowledge and understanding in rich retrieval spaces.
- Weave schema nets: really understand the architecture and structure of subject. It is this spine, these key organising concepts that create the net or holding baskets for future learning.
- Keep the curriculum tight, spiralling and bouncing not far from the core spine of the subject. Too much unconnected breadth or arbitrary content disconnects disadvantaged learners; who are much more likely to blame themselves than the quality of teaching.
“The curriculum should whisper to our children, you belong. You did not come from nowhere. All this came before you, and one day you too might add to it.” (Ben Newmark)
Connection lost | attendance first
Looking for the disconnected? they aren’t in. Everyday too many children are physically disconnected from school. If we do not consider attendance first and reach out to reconnect we reinforce disconnection. In our endemic world the forces disconnecting children from their education are strong. There is a growing sense of wider disconnection that is shifting attitudes and weakening the contract held between families and schools. Children need to feel like they belong, that they can succeed, that it is worth attending and that we deeply care if they are in. Belonging is rarely achieved through compulsion or penalty.
Small moments of prestige | interactions can have serious repercussions for the future
“Anything you do could have serious repercussions on future events. Do you understand?” (Doc Brown, BTTF)
Tread carefully, you know not where your influence will lead. Each interaction or experience can trigger a child to connect or disconnect to a new self-image a new sense of whether this is for them; whether they step forward and persist or step back and dissociate. Each positive connection fills a child’s “confidence locker” stacking evidence that they can do.
“An ignition story … when a young person falls helplessly in love with their future passion … a tiny, world shifting thought lighting up your unconscious mind: I could be them” (Dan Coyle)
Small moments of prestige, give status. We all need to feel clever, to achieve something, to be acknowledged, to be truly listened to, to be invested in, to see yourself in the learning, to build belonging and status over time. Every interaction, word, comment, response, expectation, experience builds or breaks a child’s sense of what is possible (often stickily into adulthood). It is too easy for individuals to grow disconnected and to feel the insecure sense of being an outsider.
“To feel a sense of belonging is to feel accepted, to feel seen, to feel included.. to not feel belonging is to experience the precarious and insecure sense of an outsider“ (Owen Eastwood)
Our language and expectations are an expression of our attitudes towards others. Deficit language erodes connection, we need to invest in specific language, in high standards and expectations; if we let you off we let you down. High expectations are an expression care, that connect and include individuals. To grow up advantaged is to be shaped by high expectations.
“My expectations about you define my attitude towards you.” (Rutger Bregman)
“some of us may need to start with bubbles of safety.. when we belong and where we are encouraged or at least allowed to make a contribution, the magic happens.” (Jon Alexander)
Dan Nicholls | March 2023