Extract from
Thriving at school:
A practical guide to help your child
enjoy the crucial school years

by Dr John Irvine & John Stewart


Education or learning?

‘What are we doing to our kids? We have more benchmarks, more standardised basic skills tests, more objectives and progress checks, but many kids still don’t listen, don’t care, don’t respect authority. To them it’s always everybody else’s fault. What are we really teaching? It seems to me, and to virtually every other teacher I meet, that we’ve lost something, we’re missing something. Parents know it too, but they blame the school.
Somehow I think we’ve all got to get back to basics, and I mean something much deeper than “basic skills”.’

Warwick, Year 6 teacher, New South Wales

This letter from Warwick struck a professional nerve within us. Something is missing. Pupils may be smarter, but are we producing better kids, happier humans and more successful adults? Maybe we’ve been pushing skills to the detriment of real education; maybe we need to re-interpret the old ‘3Rs’ as respect, responsibility and relationships – because that’s what real education should promote and produce.

What’s the difference?

It is true to say that the traditional 3Rs are still the engines that drive our education system – but we have to be careful, for the emphasis on them can also put many kids off learning. With the increase in children entering preschool, we are seeing formal education starting at a younger and younger age. This is great if you have a child ready to learn, but it can be the start of years of torment for those kids – mostly young boys – who are just not ready to be prodded along the treadmill of learning outcomes.

It is time we all started asking the big questions – What is learning? How do we help our schools get the best from our kids? How do we value individuals in a system that groups kids together in 12-month ‘age cage’, and then ploughs on relentlessly, adding ever-more content? If kids don’t get it, they just get pushed along the cattle crush of educational standards: they are offered special classes to help them ‘know’ what they are ‘meant’ to know at the time they are ‘meant’ to know it. We risk crushing self-esteem underfoot as our kids march towards Year 12 and tertiary education at a cracking pace.

The key to successful education is to teach our children to be successful learners, taking into account their individual needs. Learning can’t happen unless our kids are ready, able and engaged in the learning process. A sign on the steps of a very famous London school quotes Plutarch:
‘A child’s mind is a fire to be kindled, not a vessel to be filled’.
There are fundamental pieces in the jigsaw puzzle that are being overlooked. It’s time we considered a new learning model.

The VAH model
We have developed a learning model which can provide that ‘something’ that is missing. Our model is based on children being equipped with the right Values, positive Attitudes, and good Habits. We call it the VAH model.

Values come from families, but are fertilised in schools. In a sense, schools are becoming the ‘cathedrals’ of the twenty-first century, and our kids are the trail-blazers of the information age. They live the IT revolution. Learners now have access to anything they need to know at the push of a button. This is new, exciting and very, very different to when we were kids. But there are other differences, too. We now have:

  • bigger houses and greater wealth, but smaller backyards and smaller families
  • more technology and multimedia, but less time together and less interaction
  • more opportunities and easier access, but more restrictions and greater fears for our safety, and
  • more material goods at cheaper prices, but more obesity and marketing to younger kids.

The result is we strive to keep our kids happy by giving them more, but we really give less. All these social changes mean that the values of today’s Generation Y are different. If you ask your child about his values, you might be surprised when the Gameboy, computer, MP3 player or mobile phone is mentioned.

Values are much more than material goods, and they have a key role to play in learning. They are the springboard for the attitudes that a child demonstrates as a learner.

The new 3Rs for learning

The traditional 3Rs (reading, ’riting and ’rithmetic) may be fine for educating smart kids, but they are not adequate for growing smart learners. We’d like to propose some new 3Rs for learning:

  • respect
  • responsibility, and
  • relationships and social connections.

Any teacher will tell you that learners need to respect themselves, respect others (including the teacher!), respect property and respect the environment. It would be a great boost to children’s chances of thriving at school if parents granted teachers unqualified respect from the start. Surely teachers have earned that right, having dedicated their professional lives to the important and challenging task of educating our children. Teachers, parents and kids all respecting each other – and working together – is the single most powerful value we can develop in a community of learners.

Kids these days have a strong sense of fairness. They are also very quick to assert their own rights. That’s great, but what is often missing from the equation are the responsibilities that inevitably accompany the rights.
Kids must take greater responsibility for their actions. And parents must understand that schools have to assert rules to ensure that all kids do act responsibly. Parents often have a different relationship with schools these days: in past generations, if a child came home complaining about something at school, parents would usually jump to the support of the school. These days, however, the reaction is often to question and doubt the school, and trust that our children are right. Taking this stance will very successfully erode the key nexus of kids, parents, teachers and school.

Relationships and social connections
The technological ‘babysitters’ that our kids are growing up with today are wonderfully good at entertaining: they give kids exactly what they want, when they want it, for as long as they want – and they don’t answer back. You would think we should all be truly grateful for such technology, but we aren’t.

As a result of such technological generosity, our kids may be less capable of relating to others or forming the social connections that used to be common in childhood. We are now seeing more cases of social dysfunction and conduct disorder than ever before – so much so that some schools have introduced social-skills programs to teach kids how to ‘play’ with each other. And the media nannies have also changed parents’ views of the world: we are now anxious about letting our kids out – there are so many dangers. It seems much safer to stay inside the bedroom, connected by wire but disconnected socially.

Our 3Rs are basic. They are about the whole child – respect for adults, responsibility for themselves, and relationships with peers. How can parents promote these values? They’re so basic, they’re caught, not taught – just live them!


© Dr John Irvine & John Stewart, published by Finch Publishing (RRP $24.95) 2008. Available at bookshops and www.finch.com.au

Published with permission.

“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*

I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.

Share your thoughts

* Gloria Steinem