Head’s Blog: The Importance of Perspective

Educators rightly talk lots about giving children subject knowledge, numerical, communication and digital skills and opportunities to develop inter-personal qualities such as teamwork, problem solving, creativity, leadership and resilience. However, perspective rarely features in such lists.

Some might argue that perspective is a by-product of a rich and rounded education in that if you learn lots and have many experiences you will gain perspective. However, treating perspective as something implicit, which is incidentally acquired, risks leaving perspective to chance and perspective is too important for that.

By perspective I mean both the ability to make sense of situations and judge the significance of events and the ability to see other people’s perspective and thus to empathise.

We all need a sense of relativity in our lives. Relativity comes from both experiences – if you have seen events before you are better placed to make sense of them – and external reference points that help us gauge the magnitude and meaning of issues.

On both these counts students can struggle. Young people lacking life experience can be uncertain about their self-worth and place in a community. This can lead them to make unhelpful comparisons with others. Social media has made such flawed comparisons easier as teenagers equate ‘likes’ and ‘followers’ with their worth. Many teenagers need the perspective of a trusted adult to help them truly recognise that all is not what it seems on social media and that we are defined by our values and behaviours not other people’s clicks.

High achieving schools have particular perspective challenges to address. In environments where most students achieve the top grades at GCSE (7, 8 and 9) it can be hard to persuade a student with a 5 that they have gained a ‘strong pass’. Yet in the national grading descriptors, ‘strong pass’ is the Department for Education’s official definition for a grade 5. There are many advantages of being educated in a community of high achieving people where bright pupils and staff spark off one another. However, it is also important to step outside of such communities and look from the outside in to gain a true sense of perspective. In national terms, all pupils at The Perse are very high achievers.

Teenagers have always found it challenging to talk honestly with their parents about some life events, and parents can be too close to their children and the life events in question for objective discussions to occur. However, because children lack life experience and external reference points, it is vital that they can find a source of helpful advice and perspective in school. As such, it is very beneficial that both the amount and quality of personal, social, health, relationships and sex education in schools has increased markedly in recent years.

However, even with professional PSHE and RSE programmes delivered by specialist teachers, children may still seek out peers on social media for advice and guidance. As with many things on social media, the tendency can be to seek out those who are more likely to agree with you and thus instead of having views contextualised by different thinking and experiences, they can be reinforced by an echo chamber, and in the case of young people, an inexperienced echo chamber. This can make it even harder for adolescents, coping with hormonal surges and cerebral rewiring to make sense of their experiences and find perspectives, understanding and peace.

Seeking out those with different viewpoints and listening to a variety of perspectives is essential in the development of understanding and empathy. At the heart of many arguments are different approaches/reactions to the same issue. If we just retreat into a predetermined position and fail to engage with other perspectives, differences will never be bridged and arguments could become more heated and divisive. For the good of personal relationships, workplace teams and wider society, it is vital that we educate children so that they can be understanding of different viewpoints and engage in diverse thinking. When young people disagree, we need to find ways to bring them together so that both talking and listening can occur and common ground can be found.

The tribal and polarised nature of modern politics mean there are fewer examples of positive, collaborative and unifying leadership for young people to follow. This is a pity. Archbishop Desmond Tutu spent decades reaching out to others, including those who tried to persecute him, to heal South Africa’s apartheid divisions and bring communities together. The ‘Arch’ used his wonderful sense of humour and engaging personality to create opportunities for dialogue and understanding. As he famously said “enemies are always friends waiting to be made” and “when we see others as the enemy, we risk becoming what we hate. When we oppress others, we end up oppressing ourselves. All of our humanity is dependent upon recognising the humanity of others”.

We need perspective to make sense of our own lives and to understand others. It is an essential ingredient of a good education and vital for a positive, healthy society.

Ed Elliott


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