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Prospective education

There is a saying that goes: “Never trust a man who says ‘trust me’.” Maybe there should also be a saying that goes: “Always beware a man who says ‘Beware’.” We are, after all, rather suspicious of those who try to predict the future, be they prophets, astronomers or forecasters.

By Tim Middleton

In education we have our predictors — how often do teachers write in end-of-term school reports that a child is not fulfilling his potential? We see what a child does and we consider what they can do — in some cases we make bold predictions.

Of course, there is a real problem with predicting the future, as any of us who uses predictive texting will know. Predictive text brings up some humourous examples of predicting going wrong. One mother texted a friend to say she was “Taking the kids to see Satan” — when in fact she meant Santa! Another worker texted a friend telling her about the “Tuna in my underwear” when in fact she meant “Tuna in my tupperware”. Even the facility of “auto corrector” is predicted incorrectly, among others, as “Auto cucumber, auto crustacean and auto carts.”

Someone has written that “whom the gods wish to destroy, they first call promising.” Sadly, that appears to be very true. A talented youngster comes along and immediately the media or the school pronounces this is “the next Peter Ndlovu” or “the next Tendai Mtawarira”. Whether it is because the youngster hears the “prophecy and believes it himself and finds the pressure too great or lets it go to his head and wastes his talent, or whether it is because the child has only excelled at a young age because of his early development (people seem to forget, as the Philistines did, that children, like Samson’s hair, grow!) or fortunate circumstance, the promise or potential is often not fulfilled. “Talent” is easily changed to being “latent”. Education must not become predictive.

Neither should education become prescriptive, as it often does. It may be that the parent decides that the child will enter a certain career because he the parent is in that field or because he thinks that it will be a good career for the child (probably meaning that it will bring in lots of money), even though the child’s interest and ability do not suit it. It is the same with sports coaches who decide that a child at a very young age is a centre-forward or a prop and so the child remains in that position forever — the coach says that that is his position so that must be his position. Many years ago, I had the privilege of representing my country in hockey as a sweeper but for the 10 years at school and two years after that at club level, I had played as a wing or inside-forward (I told you it was many years ago!). A current England rugby hooker started off playing as a centre!

It is the same with teachers or parents who may tell a child that he is “useless”. The child fulfils the prophecy. They are either hoodwinked into thinking they are something that they are not or are brainwashed so that they believe it after being told it so often. We have to be careful what we predict or prescribe of our children.

Instead, education should be prospective. People look for oil, gold or other valuable minerals in the ground and will invest in ways to unearth, purify and round off the finished article. Modern technology helps such prospectors to determine more accurately the potential yield in advance but it is a process, a long process. The same is true of educating children — we may see great and valuable potential in a child but we must be careful how we go about bringing out the good in the child — if we are not careful, we might destroy it entirely. In that regard, therefore, we must be wary how we make promises about our children — or else they will never trust us. We have seen how perspective is vitally important in education; now we must understand how important it is to be prospective but not prescriptive or predictive.

After all, the only finished article is this one!

Tim Middleton is the executive director of the Association of Trust Schools and author of a book on “failure” called, Failing to Win. He can be contacted on e-mail: ceo@atschisz.co.zw or visit website: www.atschisz.co.zw

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