What should we learn?

Paul Martin writes

Recently, the ‘British design guru’ Stephen Bayley suggested that charm should be taught in school.

This follows in a long line of proposals, usually put forward by non-educationalists. They include handy characteristics such as knowing how to eat healthily, being able to deploy life-saving techniques and sporting expertise.

Teaching professionals often object wearily that there are already too few hours in the school day or ask who will do this extra teaching.

Schools are a victim of their own success being among few institutions that reliably deliver to everyone, but they cannot be expected to solve all society’s problems, yet alone take seriously every momentarily fashionable notion.

While we do need to take on as communities the responsibility of defining what we expect citizens to know and be able to do, there are five caveats:-

·         The best place to learn will not always be in school.

·         Learning will not be complete until well into adult life, if ever.

·         Our view of what is desirable, or even essential, will vary between communities and over time.

·         Not everyone will be able to acquire all the skills and knowledge we may consider desirable, so we will need to have some priorities.

·         Our capacity to provide the required learning opportunities will occasionally fall short.

If this learning is to be lifelong and extensive, then we must consider what other institutions, current or to-be-invented, might take on this responsibility. We might consider employers and trade unions.

There are, of course, numerous voluntary organisations that may be well-placed to take on this work, though many of them find it hard to find volunteers in an era in which parents work long, late hours and entertainment often displaces activity.

Perhaps we should reinvent local Adult Education services as the ‘hub’ from which we might organise a broader context for learning supporting and sustaining us through life.

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9 Comments on “What should we learn?”

  1. David Pavett says:

    Paul says that there are too few hours in the school day to teach all these extra things. I am not convinced that this is the best response. The point is surely that there are many aspects of what we want children to learn which do not constitute “subjects”, which are not “skills” and which therefore cannot be taught as discrete topics. Paul didn’t mention it but Tristram Hunt is one of the “non educationalists” who is claiming that children should be taught the “skills” of character and perseverance. I think that this is nonsense. I also think that nearly everyone connected with education knows that it is nonsense. We need to say why.

    This is a brief comment so an essay is inappropriate. I will simply suggest that the flaw in the thinking that leads to these proposals is a failure to understand the difference between things that are matters of objective knowledge/know-how/skill which can be taught explicitly (understanding musical notation, holding a hammer, solving an equation, evaluating solutions to a historical problem …) and things are background conditions for everything that we do (acknowledging the efforts of others, trying to understand different points of view, being morally sensitive, not giving up at first failure …) which most definitely do not constitue subjects and which should not, and ultimately cannot, be taught as discrete items. This is why the idea of treating character and perverseness as “skills” is so educationally odious. Only someone who has never thought seriously about education could make such a proposal. Respect for others cannot be taught by training people to say “Have a nice day!” at some given cue (e.g. payment for goods bought).

    If we want children to learn to be polite then we must treat them politely at all times (with the exception of emergencies) and that means it is every teacher’s responsibility. It is not extra hours to be taked on to the school day. Rather it is the way we do things in that school day. I am all for charm being a factor of education but it does not mean instituting charm lessons it means treating pupils with charm.

    As Paul suggests, these things may be matters of life-long learning and I strongly agree with his idea of reinventing local Adult Education services for helping to sustain this. Which political party in the UK is ready for that I wonder.

    On the positive side I notice that Labour’s Education and Children document, while overall being am alarmingly poor affair, does propose that

    “Labour also believes in second chances for those who could not complete their education the first time round. Changes to tuition fees have led to a sharp fall in university applications from part-time and mature students. The economic downturn is a reminder that many people need support to manage economic and labour market change, and it is vital that we ensure there are retraining and lifelong learning options for those who need them.”

    The pity is that this is just part of a vague wish-list and comes with no definite proposals. The same document refers us to the Work and Business consultation document. When we turn to that all that we find is

    “We will give businesses more control over the funding and design of apprenticeships in exchange for increases in the quantity and quality of training. We need to work with business and trade unions to understand what structures they need to ensure the delivery of the expansion in apprenticeships, training and lifelong learning we need to rebuild the economy. All these different stakeholders will need to work together to build a new skills ‘eco-system’.”

    Which seems to me to indicate that no serious thought has been given to the question and that therefore a few fluffy phrases were thought to be what was needed.

  2. While the fluffy phrases are an accurate sign of a party that has not realized the devil is in the detail, the bigger problem remains that schools are in a fantasy world of miracle cures supposed to deliver the lot. The academy solution merely proposes extending time in school to facilitate this, all schools will have academy freedoms to work 24/7.

    Meanwhile there is a simple slogan to put against all this. Bernstein

    Schools cannot compensate for society.

    Everything needed to reverse the trend in five words. Plus of course a systematic counter attack.

    Trevor Fisher.

  3. Phil Baker says:

    Mmmm perhaps we could add teaching of or religious indoctrination to things that could better be done outside school as well. That would free up several hours a week for teachings something more useful.

    • David Pavett says:

      Good point. Unfortunately though, in my experience, discussion of both religion in schools and of state support for religious schools are issues on which there is a wall of silence in the Labour Party.

  4. I like the idea of a renaissance in adult education driven by the needs and interests of the community, something like the Danish “folk schools”. Funding for programmes / classes could be proportionate to the number of people signing up for them. Although this kind of provision needs to be quite local, it also requires a critical mass of expertise and backup. For this reason I would suggest that universities and colleges be expected to lead on this type of provision in return for public funding; giving them an adult and community education brief and requiring them to link ‘informal’ and community learning with opportunities for progression to more formal accredited programmes. This could be the basis of a radical and transformative policy. One which will probably attract little interest from politicians.

    • David Pavett says:

      @Eddie
      But shouldn’t the question of “What should we learn” not be quintessentially one that requires us to focus on what is taught as opposed to the structures of the delivery process? This seems to me to be an Achilles heel of left wing educational debate. Do we simply accept that what is desirable in terms of content is what will be delivered simply by making current experts responsible for it? Apart from the fact that “experts” do not agree among themselves there is the question of whether, for example, a university professor of mathematics has any particular expertise in the question of what mathematics should form the core of maths education and how it should be approached, I think that left-centre educational discussion has a massive hole in it because of the lack of debate about what should be taught. This failure means that we are always in the position of responding to right-wing initiatives rather than proposing our own way forward on the question of what children should learn.

  5. David, I was really only commenting on the lifelong learning aspects rather than the bigger question of “what we should learn” and I agree that a debate about this is overdue. Labour’s draft policy offers little social or moral purpose for education, just an economic one based on human capital and beating our competitors. The National Bacc proposal does start to move us towards a policy on what 14-19 year olds should study so this is a start.
    I also agree with your earlier comment about pseudo-subjects such as character, charm, employability, grit, happiness, resilience and thinking skills. These may be desirable attributes but they cannot be taught. All of this merits further analysis and I will try to write more when I have time.

  6. Gary Brooke says:

    If George Osborne is anything to go by, then I can only assume that charm wasn’t on the curriculum at St. Paul’s. Sorry to personalise the issue, but his sinister smirk is all over the Sunday papers.
    On a slightly more relevant note, I agree that how we, as adults, behave towards (and around) children is of more importance to their development than attempting to drill them in perceived notions of how someone else thinks they should behave. For some, charm often equates to insincerity and ‘character’ to arrogance.
    Work or service in the armed forces is regarded as ‘character building’, yet character building is not specifically taught by employers or the forces. We assume that it just sort of happens. Anyway, who is to say (or grade) the ‘quality’ of the character that has been ‘built’ or at least been altered. Of course, there is no reason that schools should not provide opportunities for children to build their own characters. That’s the point, I think. It’s a DIY process. Anything else, then it’s brainwashing.
    But maybe Micheal Gove would wish character to be assessed? And from such an assessment a determination of a youngster’s future career suitability could be made, in order to make British youth more competitive against their Chinese counterparts, who are no doubt chock full of ‘grit’, ‘charm’ and ‘character’ (as well as being really good at Maths). God knows what I would have ended up as!