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What is personal development? Part 1 - Why seek a definition at all?

“So, what do you teach?”

“Oh, I, uh…”

For the last few years I’ve found this pretty ubiquitous question a tricky one to answer. Yes, I could answer accurately: I teach Religious Studies (at the moment); however, I am not an RS teacher.

Previously, I’ve answered in different ways: I teach Citizenship (uh, what’s that?); I teach Humanities (oh is that like projects and stuff?); I teach PSHE (tell me all about banana and condom lessons!)

The reality is, I teach across a variety of traditional subject disciplines but the lion’s share of my time and thinking is spent on developing and implementing a ‘subject area’ which means almost nothing to my non-teacher friends and only carries vague meaning for many of my friends in education: personal development.

In this series of blogs I’m going to look at what personal development actually means as a ‘subject’ of instruction in schools.

· In this first blog I’m going to examine some of the challenges to defining personal development education and explore some of the strands that could make up this area of teaching.

· In the second blog I’m going to look specifically at what PD seems to mean in the context of the 2019 Ofsted framework, and the implications of this (if any) for organising PD in schools

· In the final blog in this series I’m going to offer my own working definition for PD and a practicable and manageable framework within which to think about this mammoth area of learning.

A caveat

This entire discourse is ‘skippable’ and I wouldn’t judge any time-pressed teacher or leader for viewing this particular debate as of little value. You obviously don’t need a neatly tied up definition for PD to deliver it; indeed, all schools have been ‘personally developing’ their pupils since time immemorial and certainly before this particular term became widely adopted. However, I (and I’d guess many of you) like to have a clearly defined mental model of what I’m working on, and if you’re looking for a communicable and clear definition of PD like I was when I was taking on this brief for the first time there surprisingly don’t seem to be many serviceable offers.

Why do we need to be clear about personal development?

‘Personal development’ is in many ways a label and lumping together of things that happen in great schools that is utterly artificial. It’s contestable that we should even look at these things as separate to the wider education provided in schools. However, I’m going to take as given (although we may return to this) two things:

· The stuff involved in personal development education really matters and children are entitled to it

· The stuff involved in personal development education too often lacks the focus, energy and time it deserves, and has in too many schools been a casualty of ‘exam factory’ culture, therefore looking at it explicitly is worthwhile

I’m also going to make the (less secure) case that a really clear idea of the domain that you’re teaching about is very useful when developing a curriculum for teaching about that domain.

Why is defining PD so difficult?

So, putting Ofsted aside entirely for the time being why is PD a tricky area of education to talk about?

To begin with, personal development is not a discipline. It’s not a subject area like ‘mathematics’ or ‘geography’ (although don’t get the geographers started about the disciplinary diversity of that one…) Neither the word ‘discipline’ denoting a field of academic study, nor ‘subject’ denoting an area of knowledge really get at the breadth of the learning (and teaching) involved in PD.

Secondly, personal development as an aim is utterly value-laden. Assuming for a moment that PD refers to the extent to which schools ‘develop the whole person’ of the children in their care (a fair definition which I’ve seen used before) the word develop here is utterly open to interpretation. Depending on one’s own values, beliefs, priorities and preferences a ‘fully developed’ person may be: obedient and deferential to authority; spiritual and philosophical in outlook; sceptical and questioning; a critical thinker; resilient; emotionally articulate; innumerable other qualities besides and indeed any combination thereof!

Within the same borough (or in this case the same square kilometre) you may find school mottos as divergent as ‘serve and obey’ on the one hand and ‘explore, dream, discover’ on the other. While in reality these schools likely have more in common than they have to differentiate them, this nicely articulates the variation in the values held as central to developing ‘well developed young people’.

This means that practically, there is often limited agreement on what to teach as part of personal development, both in terms of the specific content and weighting/prioritisation of said content (how long should we spend on democracy? Rights? P4C? Tolerance? Sex ed?) and perhaps even less agreement on how to teach the content that we do agree upon (for example, the promotion of British Values is statutory in UK schools and rightly so but the implementation of this varies considerably).

Thirdly, the content to be taught/experienced/developed is taught in tandem with family, the media and wider society. Whereas a Physics teacher can be fairly confident that, while some misconceptions about gravity or the solar system may be present for a student starting secondary school, most students are still coming tabula rasa to the study of much of their subject content, schools seeking to inculcate the same children with specific values, attitudes and principles will often come up against enormous barriers. These may be what children are being taught at home, or likewise what they’re picking up from social (or indeed traditional) media. Try teaching the importance of consent to boys who’ve been weaned from 11 on violent pornography, or celebrating love in all its forms and by extension LGBTQ families with children who receive the ol’ fire and brimstone approach every Sunday (or Friday or Saturday for that matter). Throw into the mix that the adults in the school delivering PD are themselves coming to the table with their own well-developed personalities and values and this makes for quite the divergence in practice, and in relation to this discussion significant divergence in professionals’ understanding of what PD means and what they’re being asked to deliver.

Therefore, without a clearly articulated definition it’s easy to see how PD education can be obscured by ambiguity and subjectivity pretty quickly.

What could be involved?

In spite of the complications outlined above, I do think we can broadly agree on the kinds of ‘stuff’ that we generally mean when talking about the personal development offered by schools.

I have attempted to compile a very non-exhaustive list in the brainstorm below. Much in the same way that when sitting together to talk about questions like ‘what is History?’ or ‘what is Art?’, different professionals will come up with different ideas (indeed the same professionals may come up with different ideas on different days) this list doesn’t seek to be comprehensive. However, the below may prove instructive in considering the magnitude of the domain.

My current role has put me in the enviable position of building up a PD curriculum from the early days of a new school (we’re currently in year two, so just Year 7 and 8 students). I want to develop a world-class personal development curriculum that will prepare our young people well for their lives now and in the future. However, as I sat down and produced the above brainstorm for the first time on paper I was struck by the sheer enormity of the task.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that we can’t teach it all and I think that’s OK. In the same way that it would be ridiculous to ask a History teacher why they don’t cover the entirety of human history in their limited curriculum time, it’s not unreasonable for us to accept that we can’t prepare students for everything, induct them into every ‘great conversation’ or give them all of the ‘best that has been thought and said’ (more on all of this another day). All of these limitations apply just as readily here. The challenge in developing a personal development curriculum is the challenge of deciding what’s most important. In this way, this is not unlike many other curriculum conversations going on in schools up and down the country.

What’s clear to me is that an effective personal development education cannot be all things to all people, and nor should it be. From the domain we have to construct a coherent body of knowledge and then translate that into a well implemented programme in our schools. For the reasons discussed above, every school’s programme will likely be different. However, overarching decisions need to be made about what it is that we as leaders of PD mean when talking about our subject. In other words, I’d argue that we do need to be clear about what we mean by PD before developing a really effective programme for delivering it.

This challenge is what I’m going to try and contextualise and tackle in the next two blogs in this series.

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