When schooling is a happy and meaningful journey, children go out and have a positive impact in the world.
For me this captures much of the essence of Kairos. Education needs to serve society, and this will be achieved if graduates of schools have developed a healthy social conscience, and moreover have acquired the confidence to go out and make a difference in the world.
Developing that social conscience comes from experiencing a school ethos that teaches it. This cannot be achieved didactically, because a healthy ethos can only be felt. A social conscience comes from the community being attentive to achieving a hidden curriculum of open-hearted empathy and genuine honesty. This is a community in which teachers (and all adults) in the community model the value of integrity in an open-hearted, vulnerable way, and children are implicitly and explicitly invited to follow their example.
When a child experiences several years of demonstrating accountability in a community where this is the norm, he or she acquires a social confidence to go out and make a difference in the world. This is the intention of the Kairos model. Through our school culture, Kairos students are mentored into acquiring a social and emotional intelligence that can spot issues of integrity in others or in the institution. It is this experience of being invited to speak up to power, in a respectful way, that makes the beautiful combination of social confidence and social conscience the norm rather than the exception in our graduates.
We put in place mechanisms to encourage this ethos to emerge, such as our daily “check-in” and general agreement that conflicts will result in a conversation of sharing each others’ feelings and needs. But this will not be sufficient without on-going maintenance of the underlying “spirit of the place”, for the hidden curriculum is an elusive thing.
And therein lies the challenge for a school like ours, a school that sets its ethos as one of its core features. In addition to the more explicit and quantifiable aspects — our educational methods, facilities, child-teacher ratios, life experience of our teachers, and so on — the ethos is what helps make attending school a happy and meaningful place. Our check-ins do indeed need to be authentic, and our conversations about feelings do indeed help students express their deeper feelings and needs, and listen to those of their classmates and teachers. But the sincerity and open-heartedness of these conversations which make them authentic, and keep the Kairos ethos alive.
There are two additional elements that help our students’ experience of Kairos to be happy and meaningful. By design, we are flexible (and therefore more human) in terms of time and educational content — in two ways.
Firstly, our timetable is quickly adjustable when something important has impacted the social atmosphere (such as some strong emotion in a class). Engaging in conversations about the feelings and unmet needs in the class or school is a familiar experience to a Kairos student, and one that builds social intelligence and emotional maturity. Certainly, it has also been recognised that we need to be cautious not to overdo this social management because children need to feel the autonomy and independence to sort out issues by themselves as well. This notwithstanding, if the social thermometer in our classes is working well, the teachers and students will always be able to address all issues that detract for an overall sense that everyone’s needs are being met (even though their wants will often not be!)
Secondly, our refusal to rely on textbooks means the teachers retain control of the learning journey of their class, and can adjust it to the dynamic social and emotional needs of the class as the journey unfolds. The “map is not the territory” — a celebrated phrase from sociologist Alfred Korzybski — is an invaluable guiding principle in education but different to apply in practice when a school system is reliant on textbooks.
These qualities of systemic flexibility, open-hearted honesty, and commitment to listening to our students’ deeper feelings and opinions (while respectfully guiding them to speak up respectfully), that make Kairos an unconventional school. We don’t reject the overall outcomes of schooling, and indeed enable our graduates to enter any high school of their choosing. But we achieve this in unconventional ways. This “middle way” — aligning ourselves with external expectations without following the internal conventions — is our “brand”: it is this middle way which we believe is the common sense solution to the educational tensions of the twenty first century.