Razing ‘Aspirations’

Razing Aspirations

Ok, I’ll admit it, I have shamelessly pinched this pun from @SchoolsWeek, but it really caught my eye. I imagined teacher’s armed with pitchforks and burning torches burning the “aspirations” monster like the windmill in Frankenstein. My first instinct was to send a teacherly reply suggesting they spellcheck their tweets in future, however, on reading the article which the tweet was linked to, I have decided to salute them for a great “clickbait” headline.

Dr Sam Baars (@sambaars), of the Centre for Education and Youth, has written a brief but intriguing article on the nature of the raising aspirations discourse. A discourse which has long been used to generate frustrating political slogans used to suggest that this was an easy way to improve standards. I won’t go on about the effect of Tony Blair’s desire to see 50% of the population attend university and raise their aspirations, though it is tempting.

Primary school children usually have aspirations, just ask them what they want to be when they grow up. It will depend on their age, but they usually have a career in mind, whether it is to be a footballer or a nuclear physicist, a YouTuber or the Prime Minister. What their aspiration is, doesn’t matter. And frankly, unless they want to be a serial murderer (or perhaps a politician), it is none of your business. The job of education is to enable children to realise their dreams by giving them the tools and the behaviours to do so.

Knowing what a child wants to do or be is a great advantage, it becomes a motivational tool, it personalises learning, it allows you to guide them. Aspirations are fantastic, but they shouldn’t be imposed. They don’t need to be raised. That’s just telling them that their dream isn’t good enough.

Opening doors for children allows them to grow and change their own aspirations. As they achieve each milestone along the path, a path that you have suggested to them, they develop the skills and knowledge to take their next step.

Now, all that sounds great, but Sam suggests that we should be taking it a step further. It is not just about what you want to do, what you want to achieve or what you aspire to. It is more than showing them how to get there.

Dialogues should be about who they want to be. This is, in my opinion, an important distinction. Developing the characteristics, personal skills and habits that will allow them to become the person that is able to achieve their aspirations is key to that success.

If they can learn to recognise negative traits and behaviours that they want to avoid, they can avoid being the person they don’t want to be. It could also motivate them to develop positive habits to be the person they do want to be. Self-image is an interesting area of study and impacts a great deal on the success and failure of many of our actions.

As a teacher, what do you do to facilitate this kind of dialogue? Do you know who your children want to be?

The full article How to speak to young people about the future can be found here.

Sam has shared his references if you would like to read more beyond my own personal opinions.

Barrs, S. 2014 Place, space and imagined futures: how young people’s occupational aspirations are shaped by the areas they live in. University of Manchester.

St. Clair, R., Kintrea, K. and Houston, M. 2013 Silver bullet or red herring? New evidence on the place of aspirations in education. Oxford Review of Education 39(6): P 719-738.

Dittmann, A.G. and Stephens, N.M. 2017 Interventions aimed at closing the social class achievement gap: changing individuals, structures and construals, Current Opinion in Psychology 18 P 111-116

Harrison, N. 2018 Using the lense of possible selves to explore access to higher education: A new conceptual model for practice, policy, and research Social Sciences 7(10)

Khattab, N. 2015 Students’ aspirations, expectation and school achievement: what really matters? British Educational Research Journal 41(5) P 731-748

Menzies, L. 2013 Educational aspirations: how English schools can work with parents to keep them on track, York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.