“Teaching young people how (not what) to think will create a more compassionate world.” This is the philosophy of ThoughtBox Education, a UK-based social enterprise initiated by Rachel Musson. She and her team provide teaching enrichment materials to supplement the primary and secondary school curriculum aimed at supporting the next generation to connect with themselves, their communities, and the natural world around them. Working from a holistic mindset, they also offer talks, workshops, and teacher training programmes.
Unlearning and remembering
For 13 years before founding ThoughtBox, Rachel worked in different capacities in mainstream education. She taught English and literature, was involved in environmental sustainability groups, took children on global cultural citizenship retreats, and did extensive work in pastoral support and enrichment. What she loved most about her job is that in many ways it was teaching about life and connection was at the heart of her work. However, over time she noticed how in the UK and in many other countries, school had become about competition, compliance, and the suppression of the individual, and it became increasingly painful for her to work in a system which she no longer believed in.
After quitting her job, she spent three years in Tanzania and Nepal, looking at projects and doing extensive research into sustainable education and how the frameworks balanced with the U.N’s Sustainable Development Goals. Through this research, she realised that what wasn’t being addressed were the links between the sociocultural sphere, the land, and identity. Whilst living in Tanzania, she wrote a book about her learning and experiences and eventually started to develop the first connected learning materials that are now being offered through ThoughtBox.
In an attempt to come in where the current educational system fails, every lesson plan offered through ThoughtBox has been designed to address three levels of learning: 1) Thinking, as in learning to question, 2) Feeling, as in developing empathy, and 3) Connecting to self, society, and the natural world. Rachel explains: “It seems as though when we start to grow in the world, we are almost shackled or suppressed by our education environment (particularly at Secondary level), or perhaps something systemic happens that shuts down our sense of innate, natural openness, connection, and empathy that we hold as young children. I’ve described it before as the butterfly-to-caterpillar effect of education. That’s why ThoughtBox also focuses on processes of unlearning and remembering within the framework of our programmes.”
A pedagogy for systemic change
From a practical point of view, ThoughtBox sustains itself by offering a ready-to-teach curriculum, which can be used by schools for covering Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PHSE) education as well as Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural (SMSC) development. By linking into governmental requirements, it works with the system from the inside. One of the difficulties of this approach, however, is that the UK market is flooded with educational ‘add-ons’, and whilst many teachers are open to working with these materials, they face severe limitations in terms of time and budget. “One of the most difficult things about what I am doing is getting enrichment programmes funded by school budgets. I can talk all day about the why, the need for this sort of learning, and the value in social emotional learning, and the value in supporting children to thrive. Every single teacher I talk to gets it and loves the programmes. But the block for me often comes when I then have to turn that shared vision into a sales pitch – turning the why into the how. I think it’s because naturally, I’m not a sales person and I find it somehow difficult to equate ThoughtBox as being a product. Because it’s not just a product, it’s a pedagogy.”
Interestingly, whilst ThoughtBox primarily offers educational material for children, getting it out there involves a lot of interactions with adults. This touches on a new dimension of practice that Rachel is currently expanding on. “As well as offering existing training to schools who are using the ThoughtBox programmes, what I am going to start doing is putting on regional trainings in parts of the country and inviting lots of different teachers from different schools to come. These trainings will focus on the practice of embedding empathy in the classroom, as well as how to talk about difficult or controversial issues and why we should help our children to learn how, not what, to think. It’s a training programme which is using the pedagogy of ThoughtBox. At the end of that, people then also have an option to sign up to an entire three-year programme, if they are interested. This outreach feels like a more powerful and direct way of working with teachers, to offer them different ways of learning, which they can then use in their own way as multipliers of a more holistic approach to education. That way, it becomes part of a systemic change by sharing the pedagogy of this work.”
Recently, Rachel offered a session for students training to be teachers at university for the first time. Looking back at years of research and experience, she told them about the questions that inform her own ongoing exploration:
“Right now, I learn the most from my 3 year old niece and nephew. They are probably the biggest teachers in my life because they are living in the way that is the freedom of how life should be. That simple, natural, innate way of being. All the books in the world that you can read are kind of irrelevant compared to that. It’s the core of what we all need to remember or hold on to. But my real questions that I’m holding right now are can we learn to not forget, rather than having to remember? Can education allow us to not forget what we know, so that in future, we no longer need programmes like ThoughtBox? That is my life study for the next while. … We don’t thrive in a world full of bookish minds, we thrive in a world with creative bodies and connected beings.”
If such a thought sticks with the people she engages with, Rachel considers her work to be a success.