We often hear about the dangers of cyberspace, where cyber-bullying is rife and children are vulnerable. Now imagine for a moment the relief of reaching the ultimate refuge. Temenos is a Greek concept that describes a sanctuary, a space of absolute safety and harmonious balance, where individuals uphold an immutable self-respect and where criticism and judgment are suspended.
Enshrined in the liberal arts, the principle of temenos allows an idea to be fully explored, expressed and scrutinised. Commitment to freedom of expression is important because the nuances and finer points of an idea are likely to subtlety unfold towards the end of the process. The idea can then be better appreciated and understood.
An embryonic form of these creative principles can be found in classrooms: children are encouraged to share and express their experiences, but subconsciously they are also developing an awareness of how others are learning, building friendships and regulating impulses. Teachers patiently foster an atmosphere that enshrines socially desirable values.
This matters very much because school and home environments often offer children a jarring misalignment of values, ways of being and expectations of behaviour. For example, there is parity between academic expectations of girls and boys at school and equality of opportunity for children with disabilities, whereas the home environment is not necessarily attuned to these principles. English is the language spoken at school and it is there that children learn that they must listen when others speak to them and to respect others, even if they disagree with them.
Many urban schools celebrate incredible diversity. With more than 30 languages spoken in some schools, it is essential that children interact with their friends, their teachers and grow to know themselves as an important part of their school community. The school powerfully and sensitively shapes the child’s social development beyond the curriculum in fundamental ways, from teaching children to speak English, providing a hot meal in the middle of the day, accessing basic needs, ensuring a safe place to play, to run, to sing, to dance, to write poetry, as well as to let off steam. Schools can have a profoundly positive influence on children’s well-being and emotional security every single day.
The child’s desk in the classroom is an important vantage point from which they experience a multimodal, dynamic environment that is responsive to their social and emotional needs. If they are uncertain about something, help is at hand. There are flows of information, laughter, ideas and inspiration as well as discipline and firm boundaries that provide the necessary respect for all of this to work so beautifully. It is within this consistent structure that children learn to discover who they are and who they might become, particularly when they eventually leave their home environment.
School is a safe and potentially sacred space where children discover who they are within the school community, and more broadly within society.
In London the coronavirus lockdown has been relaxed and some schools have opened to reception, year one and year six. I understand the reasoning, but err on the side of caution. Life is so fragile and my heart is with you if you’ve recently lost someone precious.
In these strange times, we have no live arts. Our social gatherings take place without hugs and we crave connection. Apparently, this virus cannot survive in sunshine, though it has barely blinked during the sunniest month ever recorded.
With the beginning of the new normal emerging gradually, Rhythm for Reading is strikingly perfect for the smaller class sizes that are being introduced for social distancing. Offering a holistic boost to reading skills and spontaneous waves of happiness, it seems particularly appropriate for these times. However, along with enthusiastic group singing, Rhythm for Reading is one of those delicious things that we must wait for.
A new online Rhythm for Reading teacher training programme is coming out in July. If you’d like access to three free introductory training videos, please let me know via the contact page.
Still in COVID lockdown, today is my younger daughter’s 28th birthday and I’m particularly missing those wonderful years when I had my girls at home with me. Back then, when they were at primary school, I became a part-time student and juggled the necessary hours of study with family life and career for a good ten years. The sheer pressure of getting so much done while at home was tremendous and it often meant prioritising work and study over spending time with my children. This went against all of my nurturing instincts. I’d thank my girls every day for being so considerate, but there were times when my heart felt red raw with guilt. Surprising things happened from time to time and I thought I’d share some of these with you.
I had found a quiet cosy corner to do an immense amount of reading. Armed with few cushions and a cup of tea, the hours passed quickly. I was thrilled that I’d had so much peace and quiet. The next day, a competition erupted. My children, who had never been inclined to read a huge amount suddenly wanted to spend hours reading in ‘my’ reading corner. Intrigued by this, I agreed to share ‘my corner’ fairly between the three of us - incredibly I never had to remind them to read a book again.
As a professional musician, I’d prioritised their music lessons. Practising as part of our early morning routine had worked very well when they were young, but not so much as they grew older. One day, I made a few adjustments to make my own practice more efficient - using a timer and a notebook. It was fascinating to see that the mirroring began again - my elder daughter copied me and started to practise the same pieces of music, writing down comments and timing her practice.
My younger daughter meanwhile, had discovered a love of cooking and as a teenager had become a very confident little chef, able to make beautiful lunches and cakes. While writing my PhD thesis, she’d regularly bake cakes and bring me one with a cup of tea. (Cleaning the kitchen was all I had to do!)
Having ‘together time’ on a daily basis was also very important and sometimes urgent - whether for listening, solving problems or having fun. Looking back, I think that my studying helped them to value what I valued: persistence and passion. Today they have their own careers. I see in them a steely resilience and desire to keep going no matter what. For everyone juggling roles at home right now - your children are learning an enormous amount as you show them how to stay focused no matter what.
‘We’re all in this together’ - To some extent this is true, but I think we’re all having very different experiences of the lockdown. Many people are suffering the agony of losing loved ones to the disease. Many are facing hunger and hardship in the days and weeks ahead. Many feel the anxiety which hangs in the air.
How can rhythm help us? Here are a few suggestions and I’m sending you love and light as you read this.
For frustration and anger: Play music with strong rhythmic patterns and invite some movement from any part of the body willing to respond - perhaps start with a small nod of the head or tap a single finger. A critical voice may speak up. The music is simply our gift to ourselves - no inner commentary is necessary. Stay with the music and allow the patterns to weave their way through the body and mind. When it feels possible, allow the body move a little more until all the physical tension has melted into the music.
For anxiety, panic and grief: Play soothing, gentle, slow music to help ease the breath and the heart rate. Breathe deeply into the stomach to a count of at least six, several times a day is very soothing. Eat small amounts of food, chewing very slowly. Allow the sighs to move through the body like a balm. Comforting hugs from others may not be possible at this time, but I am sending you a hug right now as you read this. Our dreams are always available to us and sometimes we need to create new ones to move forwards again. When the right moment arrives, try drawing or writing about a new life in the future. By sharing our dreams with the page, we allow our hope and faith to grow stronger.
For procrastination: The rhythm of the body in a visualisation can help to overcome procrastination. Visualise doing the task that needs to be done, from getting started to bringing in the physical details of the place in your home where this is happening. Consider the time of day, the feelings of satisfaction and self-worth during the stages of this task. Focus on the joy of finishing; then create the scene for real. Are there any cushions? Is there a cup of tea? Bring everything that is necessary to complete the task. Make a start - simply get started by doing something small. Keep going and focus intently on the joy of finishing. Background music or background voices (perhaps in another language) are helpful for some people. Experiment with the volume to find the level that best supports focus and concentration.
For routines: Setting up a family routine is admirable and will be most successful if everyone is on board. Remember to build breaks into the day and to keep the goals small enough to be achievable. At weekends make sure that the days feel less structured and be sure to celebrate the wins week by week. A star chart is invaluable for creating a growing sense of accomplishment (adults need them too) and will help to pump-up the momentum of each day.
Language: Rhythm in language tells us what people really mean. We are all dealing with different levels of stress at the moment and it can be helpful to be prepared for tricky conversations.
Say this sentence aloud - first very quickly, and then very slowly, ‘Mary cried’.
Vowel sounds (italics) that are uttered quickly, tell us that the person speaking is delivering information, perhaps having already analysed or evaluated a situation. The speaker is coming from a head-centred, judgmental space.
Vowel sounds that are uttered slowly tell us that the person is probably feeling compassion and cares about the situation. This person’s voice signals that they are coming from a heart-centred, loving space.
In tricky conversations, it may be easier to keep the communication flowing if we slow down the vowel sounds. By saying, ‘Oh’ and ‘Ah’ and ‘No,’ very slowly, we can programme ourselves for compassion. This could prove invaluable, should a tricky conversation come along. Take care everyone.
In this post I’ve blended ideas from several inspiring books, listed below. History, in my view is often cyclical, rather than linear. As we move rapidly into climate crisis, artificial intelligence (AI) and a school curriculum, dominated by science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), I wonder how relevant the curriculum of today will be in five years, given the fast-pace of change.
Since the introduction of the English Baccalaureate, (EBacc) the place of creative disciplines in the school curriculum, which provide an arena for critical debate, rebellion and the development of radical ideas has been devalued, and I wonder, to what end?
Transition from a Pagan to a Christian worldview
During the formation of the Holy Roman Empire, huge cultural shifts came into play. The suppression of the arts in society, regarded as pivotal in the enforcement of Christianity stemmed from the perspective of Saint Augustine. He wrote extensively on music, claiming that rhythm could be classified into four levels from the highest which was spiritually-aligned, down to the lowest level level, that stimulated the flesh.
Monks of the order used physical force against ordinary people who celebrated pagan feasts with music and dancing. Music with a strong beat was strictly banned, as was dancing (Blaukopf, 1992). Intellectuals were persecuted. for example, Hypatia - a mathematics scholar in Alexandria had been lynched in 415 CE for her ‘blasphemous’ study of ancient Greek texts (Rovelli, 2007). By the end of the 5th century, the Great Library at Alexandria had disappeared, and in 529 CE the Platonic academy in Athens was closed by decree of Christian emperor Justinian (Pieper, 2020).The significance of the Great Library was that it housed all of the books in existence, as well as being part of a hub for scholarship, achieved through practices of reason, logic, rhetoric and academic freedom. The achievements of the Greek scholars at Alexandria were impressive. For example, Eratosthenes, in 235 BCE calculated that the world was round, giving its circumference and its diameter; Heron of Alexandria created the world’s first steam engine.
Fanatically, the Christian authorities set to rewriting the knowledge and wisdom of the pervious (pagan) era, notably maintaining that the Earth was flat. Within this context we find Boethius (c.470- c.524 CE), a classically-educated statesman and philosopher, keen to find the middle road between reason and faith. He was executed for treason, shortly after having resolved the schism between the early Christian Church in Rome and Constantinople. Boethius wrote Consolation of Philosophy during his imprisonment, and this text became the foundation of medieval scholasticism (Shiel, 2020).
Appropriation of Greek scholarship
After 500 years of teaching and intellectual activity in cathedral schools and monasteries, early medieval universities were chartered by a Papal Bull. Each university was founded under different circumstances:- at Bologna (1088), Paris (1150) and Oxford (1167), and with differing levels of academic freedom. Highly influential across Western Europe, the liberal arts were taught, although the Christian Church had appropriated ancient Greek curricula for its own purposes, retaining only the structure and main elements of the system (Bernstein, 2000).
Medieval scholasticism, light on rigour and politically-inclined, attempted to reconcile classical reason with traditional early Christian dogma, but with limited success. Students taking the first part of the degree, the trivium, were taught word-related principles: grammar, logic and rhetoric, before taking the second part, the quadrivium which explored the physicality of the world through arithmetic, astronomy, geometry and music.
The trivium of the time had strong religious connotations; similarly, the corresponding quadrivium was adapted to suit the dogma of the day (Bernstein, 2000). For example: music was taught only through the disembodied, polyphonic rhythm (rather than the Greek rhythmos) and in astronomy, students were taught that the Earth was flat (Blaukopf. 1992).
Renaissance and reading
The tension between traditional Augustinian dogma and the classical texts of Boethius eventually gave way in the early Renaissance. Music, dancing and decorative arts, along with academic freedom in scientific thinking had been suppressed for at least a millennium across Western Europe and quickly reappeared.
Music regained its metrical ratio-based system; its integrated rhythmic nature was reinstated and dancing immediately became fashionable. The publication of articles promoting the rise of the importance of the vernacular supported the spread of reading, which soon became widespread, further weakening the authority of traditional Christian dogma.
Transition from post-industrial to digital
There is a linear feel from the Renaissance and Enlightenment years, through to the present day. However, in the contemporary devaluing of arts subjects in the school curriculum with the advent of the English Baccalaureate, we seemingly appear to be cycling back the dark ages with the curbing of academic and creative freedom.
Many young people face a bleak future following poverty in childhood and also having been deprived of an opportunity to develop a creative outlet for self-expression. At the same time, many communities have been impoverished by austerity.
Given that global hubs such as London are the economic areas towards which a disproportionate amount of the world’s digital enterprise, wealth and wealthy have been attracted, the transition to digital has created sharp economic inequalities between the digital hubs and post industrial regional centres, which acutely lack investment and have suffered chronic deprivation.
Alongside the glitz of digital, there is a mindset that blindly accepts what appears on the screen with too little criticality. At best, the data-driven positivist perspective on knowledge is no more than instrumental, because its influence is dependent on the empirical tools and the technology of the day. At its worst, positivism commits the grave error of confusing the ends with the means, because it is not contextualised and it is not subject to critical debate (Rovelli, 2007).
The ‘knowledge economy’ promised a fiscal flow generated by the unlimited availability of knowledge via the Internet. The quality of such knowledge is often very poor, as has been shown by its influence on voting behaviour in democratic elections. Unscrutinised, low-grade, data-driven knowledge that supports the spread of technology in relation to health, education, trade and food supply puts society at risk of sub-standard ideas and policy.
The true nature of science is critical, exploratory and visionary (Rovelli, 2007). As such, science is grossly limited if it is reframed through positivism as a mere producer of testable predictions. To protect our societies from positivism, disciplined creativity is essential if breakthroughs and radical thinking are to flourish in the ‘knowledge economy’.
Creative thinking is best nurtured in the domain of the arts subjects, an arena where it is essential to take disciplined risks, to implement ideas and to work through creative issues.
Disproportionate emphasis on STEM
The dominance of STEM subjects in the school curriculum will train our young people to think logically, but in order to solve the substantial problems facing us all in the coming decades, they also need the courage to think creatively, to make cognitive leaps rather than continuing to step slowly in a linear fashion, outpaced by AI.
What is taught in schools today will be out of date by the time pupils start their careers, so the disproportionate emphasis on STEM is seemingly short-sighted. It is only with a greater emphasis on disciplined creativity in the curriculum, that pupils will have the confidence to invent, innovate and implement the solutions, breakthroughs and radical new ideas that are needed for the future.
Bernstein, B. 2000 Pedagogy, Symbolic control and Identity: Theory, research, critique, Revised edition, Lanham, MA; Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc,
Blaukopf, C (1992) Musical Life in a Changing Society: Aspects of Musical Sociology, Amadeus Press
Pieper J. (2020) ‘Scholasticism’ in Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Scholasticism, accessed 29.2.2020, at 10.37
Rovelli, C. (2007) Anaximander, trans. Marion Lignana Rosenberg, Yardley, PA., WestholmePublishing
Shiel, J. (2020) ‘Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius’ https://www.britannica.com/biography/Anicius-Manlius-Severinus-Boethius accessed 29.2.2020, at 10.57
Scientific knowledge is best developed in a context of free speech. Arguing for free debate, where being mistaken or wrong is integral to scientific discovery, Rovelli, in his wonderful book, ‘Anaximander’ charts the link between the history of the Greek alphabet and the beginnings of scientific thinking.
The earliest writing
The first form of writing, known as cuneiform was invented in 3400 BCE in southern Iraq, as described by art historian, Zaineb Bahrani. According to Bahrani, the earliest writing was pictographic, which was straightforward enough to decipher, but expanded when the signs for ox and fish and so on came to be used for unrelated objects and ideas, based on a system of association via similar sounds and meanings. This partly phonetic and partly pictographic code became abbreviated into cursively written wedge-shaped signs on tablets of clay, which were systematised and adopted throughout the ancient Near East.
The oldest script to be discovered was written in Uruk, in the Sumerian language, - a language unrelated to Semitic, Indo-European, Turkie or other language groups of that era. The script was quickly adopted into the Akkadian language, which was an early Semitic language, a relation of modern-day Hebrew, Arabic and Syriac-Aramaic. The first word lists and directories for interpreting the script were compiled in the third millennium BCE as the Mesopotamians became the first translators. The adoption of the script for diplomatic purposes spread widely across the region, including kingdoms of Babylonia, Syria and Egypt.
The first professional writers
According to Bahrani, the importance of connecting words with things, connecting writing with reality, was that it generated intellectual thought and scientific reasoning. The script offered a representational system with the capacity to signify the physical world as well as abstract concepts. The standardisation of the script provided a reliable means of communication and had implications for the Mesopotamian world view. However, detailed knowledge of the script’s 800 characters was protected by the scribes and mainly used for political ends, to reinforce the legitimacy of the semi-divine dynastic rulers, claiming a lineage apparently descended from heaven. The illustration here, shows a cuneiform inscription on a stone tablet dedicated to the god Haldi at a temple built by Menua, King of Urartu, in east Turkey dating from about 700 BCE.
Rovelli described a similar situation in Greece in the second millennium BCE. During this era, the Mycenaean period, the Greeks dominated Crete, Rhodes, Cyprus, Troy, Phonecia, Byblos and Palestine. The Mycenaean civilisation had inherited the well-known script, Linear B from the ancient Cretans. Linear B was used intensively in Crete during a period when the court possessed a highly organised administrative system of taxation, military enlistment and record keeping of ownership of property and slaves, all of which was managed by the professional scribes of the central palace. Here too, we see scribes enforcing political control through the power of the written word.
Greek trade with neighbouring nations resumed in the seventh and eighth centuries BCE, following the collapse of the Mycenaean civilisation in 1000 BCE and a period of economic and social difficulty. A new style of writing was inherited from the Phoenicians and Caananites at about 750 BCE. The Phoenician alphabet contained only consonants, whereas the Canaanites had developed a simplified system in which vowel sounds were used and this reduced the number characters to 24. As an Indo-European language, Greek was phonetically simpler than the Semitic languages and the new alphabet, was used to directly represent the utterances of the human voice - a system that did not require word lists, but could be deciphered without an arduous apprenticeship.
So when writing became accessible for Greek citizens in the seventh and sixth centuries BCE, knowledge was no longer exclusively for the privileged, the scribes and the autocratic kings. Rather, writing was widely shared by the emerging ruling class at the birth of democracy, which relied upon forthright public criticism and open debate.
Public debate among the ruling class replaced the absolute power of semi-divine kings and traditional wisdom of priests. Weak ideas and theories were dismissed through this new system of shared power. Rovelli urges us to consider that it is through sharing, criticising and scrutinising knowledge, that we uphold scientific values. Sharing, criticising and scrutinising ideas and theories is the most rigorous way to test knowledge. Weaker theories and ideas can be rejected, and stronger ones can be refined in this way. We must guard against the desire for complete knowledge or definitive knowledge. This would involve closed-mindedness. Rather, science produces the best available knowledge at the time from an open-minded, questioning perspective.
Rovelli makes an important point: From the perspective of scientific thinking, knowledge expands because of a lack of certainty, and is driven by an awareness of the immensity of human ignorance. A lack of certainty is a strength rather than a weakness. It is a strength fuelled by important traits that are cultivated by scientists: the confidence to ask questions, the courage to observe and to critique, and the persistence to challenge with a readiness to radically rock the boat.
Bahrani, Z. (2017) Mesopotamia: Ancient Art and Architecture, Thames & Hudson, London
Rovelli, C. (2011) Anaximander, (Trans. Marion Lignana Rosenberg), Westholme Publishing, Yardley, Pennsylvania
1. Let Schools be Schools
Many schools in the UK are also food banks; their classrooms are filled with donated clothes and toys. The generosity is heart-warming, but growing child poverty is a crisis of grim-realities and long-term consequences.
4.5 million children are living in poverty in the UK (trusselltrust.org) and teachers have had no choice, but to feed hungry pupils. They are constantly buying food for children to take home because the fridge and food cupboard are empty. Hungry children cannot concentrate for a single minute - I have seen young people in school faint from hunger.
For economically disadvantaged children and young people to gain the qualifications that will secure a prosperous future, a great deal of educational impetus is required. Teachers play a vital role in nurturing children’s capacity for learning and building trajectories for academic achievement, but at present, this role is diluted by having to think about hunger day after day.
Schools are highly responsive in tailoring their resources to meet the needs of their communities. However, school budgets have had to stretch to feed the growing numbers of children living in poverty. It is a matter of grave concern that resources are being diverted away from education to meet the children’s most basic survival needs.
2. Take action to prevent exclusions
A wave of redundancies due to cuts to school budgets, has been mirrored by an increase in the rate of school exclusions, undermining inclusivity and equality in the education system. Pupils who have benefited from close support and mentoring from teaching assistants in mainstream classrooms, but have been unable to manage unaided, have found themselves removed from school or placed in alternative provision. These disruptions have compromised not only their access to the curriculum, but also their chances of gaining qualifications.
3. Schools need modern educational values and larger budgets in 2020
Modern educational values and larger budgets are needed to inspire the learning of all children and young people. These should be delivered across complementary disciplines, and through effective systems that:
Do you have friends that have recently admitted to holding views that are anti-semitic or anti-islamic or both? This has happened to me on several occasions since the 2016 referendum.
There have been heated debates in the media and in everyday life - sometimes sidestepping awkward conversations has seemed to be the most diplomatic option. Avoiding the issue of racism however, aggravates a pernicious problem. We are soon to cast our votes in an election in which the two main parties are overtly struggling to deal with racism.
Yesterday, a good friend said this to me: “We can always respect other people’s opinions, even if they are different to our own”. Do you agree with this seemingly reasonable statement?
Of course I agree that everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I challenge stereotyped points of view. So, I strongly disagreed with the idea that I would always respect another person’s opinion. If an opinion is in any way racist for example, it cannot win my respect.
Stereotypes are dangerous because they are sloppy thought patterns, which travel like wildfire, igniting and infecting many people at once. A stereotype is just like a rumour because it is not based on fact. In conversation, it should be treated like toxic gossip and challenged for its lack of substance.
My stereotype radar starts bleeping when people start to say: “The trouble is, they are all…” (fill in the blank)
Or to make ridiculous predictions: “You can’t trust them. All they want is….”
Or to make sweeping generalisations: “Most normal people don’t .…
Or to sound preachy: “People like us…”
A reasonable follow-up question to statements using ‘always’, ‘all’ or ‘never’ might be - “Oh really? How can you be certain?”
On the other hand, whenever there’s a healthy balanced range of opinions, of voices, of faces on mainstream media I inwardly cheer in celebration of our country’s rich diversity, knowing that deep down all is well. With so much at stake, we must work together to resist discrimination of all kinds and call out stereotypes as soon as they they arise in conversation. Even if this feels awkward and embarrassing, it’s better than walking away or brushing the stereotype under the rug.
‘Groupthink’ (a term coined by Irvin Janis) is the unremarkable ability that we all have to hang out with like-minded folk who echo and reinforce our thoughts. Group loyalty is dangerous when it inhibits healthy debate and ‘groupthink’ is an unhealthy inbreeding of ideas that arises in politics in particular (Janis, 1972).
Research done in 1970s showed that in roles where one group of people dominates another group, the behaviour of both groups needs to be carefully monitored. The notorious Stanford Prison Experiments explored human behaviour in role-play. Undergraduate psychology students volunteered as participants and were randomly assigned to roles either as prison guards, or as inmates in a specially constructed jail in the university campus. After only six days the treatment of the prisoners became so abusive that the project, which should have run for fourteen days had to be abandoned. In this experiment, Zimbado showed that undergraduate students with no previous history of cruelty (ie they were educated, reasonable people) had the capacity to treat prisoners sadistically, particularly when following orders.
Clearly, in our social groups, we humans have a dark side - a capacity to behave together in ways that would be unthinkable at an individual level.
This matters in everyday life, but particularly in political leadership. We must ensure that we are governed by politicians who engage in healthy debate, and who can truly represent the diversity of Britain. We need to call out stereotypes for everyone’s sake so that together we cultivate an atmosphere of happiness, balance and peace in our society.
Janis, I (1972) Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascos (2nd Edition) Boston, MA. Houghton Mifflin.
Zimbado, P.G. (1999) Stanford Prison Experiment: A Stimulation Study of the Psychology of Imprisonment Conducted at Stanford University http://www.prisonexp.org [accessed 1/12/19]