Curriculum & Curry: Personal Development in the School System

Curriculum & Curry: Personal Development in the School System

Felix Garner Davis

I was stooped over a steaming bowl of Aloo Gobi in Hampi when some new faces strolled into the restaurant with the guys I was travelling with. One of these chaps, Dan from the UK, sat down next to me and we started chatting. The conversation wove through various topics until we came to schooling.

Dan exclaimed that he wasn't entirely fond of the secondary school methodology he had encountered some fifteen years ago in Britain, citing the lack of a leadership program and lacklustre personal development facilities as shortcomings. I noted that in my experience, being ten years his junior, these shortcomings seemed to have at least been partially rectified, although I was quick to admit that I wasn't sure whether the Australian system had been comparative to the one Dan encountered at the time. Having said that, it's impossible to draw a generalised national standard, so rather than referring to my experience as representative of Australian schooling and Dan's experience as representative of British schooling, I feel it'd be prudent to treat them as detached individual experiences. Wiser people than I should feel free to make inferences from there on.

In any case, Dan was interested to hear me mention that an entire building in the senior school I attended had been dedicated to leadership, not only in terms of its name — the Centre for Learning and Leadership — but also in that many of its rooms were allocated for personal development classes. Additionally, the premises was presided over by a Director of Leadership, a member of staff who held quite a weighty position among his colleagues if the seating plan at assembly was any indication of prestige. I explained to Dan that I had been involved in mandatory PD — or Personal Development — classes since I started high school in Year 7, the topics of which ranged from sex education — condoms and cricket bats; points for subtlety — to exercise and nutrition.

He seemed marginally impressed, and while I wasn't exactly raving about the self-development component of my schooling I didn't feel that it deserved any scorn. It was on the right track, I felt and still feel, regardless of whether it was treated as a bludge by a chunk of the students who partook (including me at times), so I was sceptical when Dan suggested that he thought it still had quite a way to go.

After raising the classic ‘Well, sir, that is all well and good but what would you do in these circs?’ and expecting Dan to stumble a tad, as I reckon I would've in his position (I have a heavy predisposition to absurd and largely uninformed shit-talking after a few beers), I was fortunate enough to receive a very well-considered answer, one which I remember in crystal over six months later. 

Dan began by admitting that it did sound as though the right direction was being pursued, but suggested that perhaps schools were too busy placing the onus on future-oriented self-development at the cost of teaching students to embrace the moment. He went on to point out the difference between ‘self-development’ and ‘self-awareness’, for the latter of which I think ‘self-knowledge’ is a suitable synonym. Dan explained that he viewed mindfulness of self as fundamentally important to existence; in a world with so many external influences subtly — and sometimes not so subtly — telling us how to behave, dress, speak and treat ourselves and others, he saw self-awareness as the primary bastion of personal integrity. Self-awareness, or being aware of as many of the intricacies of one's character as possible, he explained, is the essential foundation for confidence, self-esteem, satisfaction, ambition and happiness. Despite my misgivings at his skilful missile of a response and my sheepishness at having questioned him, I shortly agreed.

If he were running a high school and devising its daily curriculum, Dan said, he would begin each day with stretching — to cultivate bodily awareness — and progress to a short instance of meditation. These two exercises would allow students to experience some wakeful calm before the day's classes and get in touch with themselves for a few quiet moments. Dan said that the meditation need not be a specifically spiritually-motivated exercise — that it could well be informed more by general mindfulness techniques than any affiliation with, say, Buddhism or another religion of the ilk that elevate meditation (despite the fact that mindfulness is a significant component of Buddhism).

This emphasis on mindfulness, he argued, would serve not only to add to the students' getting-in-touch with their surroundings — and the way they interact with them — but also to even the playing field, as some students might be uncomfortable starting each day with what feels like a religiously-motivated exercise if they aren't personally religious. I agreed.

Self-awareness, or being aware of as many of the intricacies of one's character as possible, he explained, is the essential foundation for confidence, self-esteem, satisfaction, ambition and happiness.

Following, in what could be interpreted by some as one of his more contentious points, Dan suggested that his hypothetical ‘plan’ could involve mandatory sessions with school counsellors and psychologists, the nature of which, of course, would be dictated entirely by the students. I can imagine this element being of alarm to some who might view it as draconian in its compulsory nature (or, more likely, as some kind of mass student-surveillance effort by the school), but if you've ever been to see a psychologist or counsellor and you weren't locked in a mahogany-panelled room with a complete fuckwit, you'd know that the discussion rests entirely in the hands of the counsellee. Besides, plenty of other shit is compulsory; nobody seems to mind too much about ‘no-hat-no-play’ or being unable to drop that bastard of a subject about letters and words and things until they reach university.

I think mandatory counselling is a good idea, to be perfectly honest, as it removes any chance of stigma warping the intentions of students in need of someone to talk to outside of family, teachers and friends. Often, an unaffiliated and external third party trained in this kind of therapeutic interaction is the most beneficial by a very long shot. Also, if students are in a good headspace and don't feel as though they have all that much to discuss, I don't see why they couldn't have the option to elect how long their session lasts. Why prolong it beyond five minutes if five minutes of what could boil down to positive chitchat is all that is needed in a particular case? 

Now, of course, there's the question of schools without the facilities or funding to provide a trained counsellor or psychologist, which is doubtless quite a large proportion. In this case, Dan said, a parental committee could be formed of those willing to provide the service. I thought it a decent solution, but we both ended up agreeing that it was an extremely convoluted hypothesis regardless of which way you look at it. With parents, how could one guard against bias or gossiping? Would any parents be willing to donate their time at all? Something to mull over, for sure, and definitely a question at the core of the theoretical ‘school community’, an element many schools pride themselves on.

So, were it instituted, how would Dan's mandatory counselling look to improve students’ self-awareness? Dan said that making techniques like CBT, or cognitive behavioural therapy, known to adolescents in this confusing stage of their lives might help them confront problems from a more considered point of view and allow them to make more balanced choices. In a time of crazily-firing hormones and rapid personal growth, not to mention the physical changes associated with puberty, the mechanisms of self-awareness elucidated in CBT might allow students to better understand their own decision making processes and the way their thoughts reflect the person they are.

I agree wholeheartedly. Techniques like CBT should not just be relegated to the stigmatised zone of persons in need of mental health management; they should be taught to everybody. And what better time than adolescence, arguably one of the most formative periods in many people's lives?

Personally, I had difficulty with my identity during my time at school and it led to some shitty choices and bad attitudes towards my schoolwork, teachers and some of my peers. However, when I reflect on this difficulty I also see it as part of a valuable learning process; my only reservation is that my self-insight was minimal at the time and I'm not sure if it was particularly nurtured by my school's personal development programs. Perhaps this is why Dan's words resonated with me so keenly.

I honestly believe, though, that even those who had the most assured adolescence in terms of self-knowledge, personal awareness and identity would agree with at least some of the points he made to me and has now, unwittingly and vicariously, made to you. Lastly, Dan, ol’ buddy, if you're reading this then cheers. It was a great conversation and I feel the swellings of something akin to pride to have finally penned some of your thoughts down for others to read!