Living with Values - Interview with Dr Neil Hawkes

Dr Neil Hawkes, Oxford graduate and International Education Consultant, is well known as a TEDx, inspirational speaker, broadcaster, writer and social commentator. His passion is to transform the education system, so that it is more humane, meeting the needs of young people and society in the 21st Century. Neil founded Values-based Education (VbE), a powerful and influential worldwide movement for educational and social change. He believes that compassion and kindness are key to cultivating trust and meaningful relationships which is extremely vital for building a constructive and caring world. Hence, it should be included in the syllabus in the education system.

Education is key to transforming human’s life. We learn in our early age and we probably need to unlearn to pivot if the existing knowledge and value don’t serve us anymore. As an education doctoral graduate from Oxford, what were your best learning and what were your best unlearning experiences in your life? How impactful were they when you look back?

The best learning experiences for me have always been associated with watching people go about their daily lives. I have been lucky, as I have had many wonderful role models. One was Peter Long, who was the teaching Headteacher who guided me on my final teaching practice as a student teacher. I spent a whole term with Peter and learned so much about how children best learn and how to create wonderful learning opportunities for them. I often think, when I am advising teachers, what would Peter have done?

The best unlearning experience I have had was associated with a headteacher I worked for as a member of staff. He wasn’t the best of role models and was deceitful in his relationships.  I sometimes wonder what would that man have done in various circumstances?  I then do the opposite!

Tell us more about valued-based education. What is it? What are the 7 pillars and how do they change our lives?

Throughout my life, I have wondered why so many people find their lives so difficult despite having enough material possessions? Why do they find relationships difficult and seem so disheartened with life?  Early in my career, I began noticing that some children understood and used words such as respect, happiness, tolerance, trust and fairness, whilst others had limited understanding. The latter group of children were more likely to find life challenging and displayed more antisocial behaviour. I wondered what would be the outcome if all children were given access to an ethical vocabulary? Would they have more prosocial behaviours? In 1993 I put my wondering into practice, by working as Headteacher with a school community in Oxford to implement values-based education (VbE).

This became a research project at Oxford University and the results were published in 2005. We implemented the principles of VbE: modelling of the values by adults; an inner curriculum to explore our internal worlds; a focus on reflection (now called mindfulness); a happy atmosphere; an engaging person-centred curriculum; quality leadership and a community inspired set of universal positive human values.  All these ingredients created the conditions for pupils to develop, what I now call ethical intelligence, which is the ability to self- regulate our thinking and behaviour for the benefit of ourselves, others and the world. This is life changing and life enhancing as it helps us to be more fully conscious, empathetic and compassionate.

There is education for adults, professionals, universities etc. Why children? What is your vision in devoting yourself into children's education?

It was once said, ‘Give me the child and I will give you the man’. Young children intuitively have the essence of VbE within them. Children who are subjected to education systems that focus on mainly cognitive development seem to lose touch with the reality of the world. They begin to see themselves as onlookers of nature and not part of it. The older children become the more difficult it is to help them mould their characters to be the best versions of themselves that they can be. I passionately believe that Primary Education is the most important learning stage in education – neuroscience would support that view.

From your website, I saw that you and your wife dedicate your time to train value-based teachers all over the world. Can you share your most memorable experience?

This is such a difficult question as we have had so many wonderful experiences. I cannot recall a bad one!  One that stands out was the first time I visited Australia. Professor Terry Lovat asked me to bring what he termed, ‘the gold standard’ of values education to Australia and I was invited to speak at the National Values Forum in Canberra. I didn’t take account of jetlag and I arrived at the forum without any rest days. I remember giving the talk and feeling somewhat dissociated! I seemed to get lots of laughs and applause and at the end I remember very generous applause. After the talk, I was taken for a meal and promptly fell asleep on the table! My host was very understanding and the next day told me I’d been a huge success and recommended that I give more talks with jetlag!

You seem to have a busy schedule around the world spreading positive messages and promoting the value-based education system. Did Covid have any impact on your work and your life? How did you cope with it?

February 2020, Jane (Neil’s wife) and I were in New Zealand after having been in Australia.  We arrived back in the UK just in time in March as borders were being closed! Since then, we have mainly been in lockdown at our home in Rutland. This has meant a tremendous shift in the way that we work – we are now on-line teachers!  This has advantages and disadvantages as most others find too. I miss the human contact with folks. It always seems strange to me having had a zoom session to be on my own in my room.  The upside is that my garden has been nurtured and looks the best it has ever. I just feel so grateful to be one of the fortunate people who have not contracted Covid. My heart goes out to the thousands who have been hit by this virus.

Our co-founder Mengwen, who is from Beijing, is fascinated about your visit to Beijing, China on sharing your value. Can you tell us more about it?

My friend Qingwen, head of a company who markets the English language series called ‘The Oxford Reading Tree’ in China, invited us to speak at a conference for teachers who teach English in China. We had a wonderful time and were given fabulous and generous hospitality. We have made a number of Chinese friends. A highlight of our trip was visiting the Great Wall of China. I hope that we will be invited to return to China.  

In your TEDx in Norwich, you mentioned connection and trusted relationships are key to being a good teacher. Do you think human connections and trusted relationships are also the seed for life contentment and serenity as well?

Human beings are social animals and thrive in good relationships. Rumanian orphans who were unloved did not develop their neural functioning. I think loneliness is a condition of modern living that over-emphasises the individual and the nuclear family. I think good relationships are an important seed that if appropriately nurtured enhances contentment and serenity.

What does serenity mean to you?

Serenity is a quality of being, which means feeling calm and peaceful: one’s internal world is in harmony with the authentic Self. 

Are you always a serene person? If yes, can you share with us what experience enables you to live a serene life. If not, what’s the turning point you awakened and turned into a serene person.

This is not a description I have used about myself. Others tell me they sense that I am peaceful and calm. I think most of the time that is true. However, I notice sometimes that I have parts of my personality that can dominate my internal world to disturb it. I then come alongside those parts to calm them. I am on a life-journey to be the best version of me that I can be!

Would you mind sharing with us your daily routine? Do you have a comfort corner or activities to do if you would like a peace of mind?

When Jane and I awake we have half an hour’s meditation to begin our day.  After morning herbal teas, we then have some form of exercise before turning our attention to work type activities. During the day we have regular ‘pause to be’ times when we stop to ensure that we are connected to our authentic selves. We also take time for yoga and breathing exercises. We have a yoga room in our home.

Do you enjoy drinking tea? What is your favourite tea?

We love tea and Qingwen gave us some Chinese black tea which we love.

What does tea drinking mean to you? Solitary for self-care or connection with others? Why?

Tea drinking is a wonderful social activity and enhances a feeling of wellbeing. I always enjoy a cup of tea in the afternoon, whatever I am doing. 

Can you share 3 top tips for our readers who want to pursue a serene life?

  • Be a human being not a human doing.
  • Be loving and compassionate to yourself and others.
  • Take time for silence and reflection.

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1 comment
  • Thank you as it was a pleasure giving this interview.

    Dr Neil Hawkes on

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