Schools are about more than just lessons

Last night I spoke at the Bishopsgate Institute’s Influencing Young Minds debate, in which I argued that there is more going on in schools than just lessons. This is the transcript of that talk.

There’s a saying “When nation gets an itch, the school gets scratched…” In other words, we so often reach for education as the long term answer to social problems as there’s an assumption that if we can catch people early enough we can shape them differently.

I suppose that may be possible if every child was removed from their parents at birth and then plonked into a boarding school to be raised under their sole influence: but even then, I think the jury’s out about the mixed blessings of such combined privilege and deprivation; in practice, people grow up in a context that involves much more than just school.

So in addressing education we have to start by recognising that, like any speciality, we might easily get embroiled in a conversation that starts to consider the topic as if it can be the answer to everything. Unfortunately, nothing is the answer to everything – more importantly then – it’s worth starting with ‘what’s education for and what can it achieve…’ if not ‘everything’?

Education is inevitably shaped in the light of how we perceive two things:

  • the nature of the human – in particular the brain or mind;
  • the nature of society – what understanding and skills people need in order to thrive together

Both of these topics throw up questions as old as civilisation itself.

So in my opening 5 minutes it’s probably worth just saying something about these – and in particular the relationship between these and a society that properly prepares people for citizenship: my interest in this discussion.

What is the nature of the brain or mind? Does it drive the human being or are we more than that. Are we heart and will as well as mind? If so where are the feelings and will if it they’re not in the mind?

I heard a good question in relation to how we might model the brain in order to consider the way we therefore educate it. It’s this:

Is ‘brain’ more like skeleton or muscle? In other words – we mostly think that our skeleton is pretty much genetically determined – will we be tall or short? Our bones may need nutrition to get the most out of our skeleton, but most of it comes pre-determined by our genes. Is our brain similarly genetically predetermined as either big or small? Clever or dense?

Muscle isn’t like that though. The more you work it the stronger it gets. It even gets bigger as it gets stronger. Basically, it responds to exercise.

So is brain more like one or the other?

Read Michael Gove’s speech to Cambridge University last week and you’ll hear the muscle model in action. The mind needs to be cultivated, he would attest, and exercised into life. As more bits begin to light up they need connecting to other bits until like an Olympic athlete, the body is working in close harmony – each bit toned for its purpose and able to get the most out of the other parts.

In that sense then, education exists to tone and exercise the mind. I don’t have too much problem with that – at least it doesn’t condemn some people to being characterised as small brained and destined for mindless manual work.

From the model of mind as muscle we can construct a model of education that is, at least, consistent. Gove’s liberal conservative conclusions, which obviously worked for him as an intellectual, sees prosperity and fulfilment springing for the cultivation of the mind. Innovation, acumen, persistence, even republican virtues spring up when individuals have their minds cultivated by good education.

That’s brain as muscle.

What about society? What model do we want to choose for that and will brain as muscle work for it?

Society can be characterised in a few ways. As organised culture, it’s just our traditions and heritage renegotiated into a manageable package. It’s a pile of compromises that gets the best out of our entanglements whilst doing the least harm.

Alternatively, society might need more management than that because it has a tendency to mutate more than harmonise. And it will usually mutate in favour of the already privileged: those who write the rules will tend to write them in their own favour, those with money may accumulate and use it to oppress or manipulate others.

Of those two views of society, the former is a more Tory / Liberal perception, the latter more Labour. And they’re currently playing out in discussions about education in the UK.

What we’re seeing at the moment is a rare swing between governments. People under 30 in this country have only seen that once before in 1997. Half of their lives was Thatcher, the next half Blair…

This swing between governments has shown clearly how strongly our education system is built to perpetuate some from of social DNA. Ultimately we imprint the next generation by passing them through the factory of education. How we choose educate is not as neutral as we may at first imagine.

Our subject – citizenship – was officially formulated around 1991 and then implemented as a National Curriculum subject from 2002. It has a definite view of the individual as an informed, critical and engaged member of an organised community – but not a left-wing community. A community where the capability to participate in the political and social life of the nation is within the grasp of everyone, as far as that is possible. Once everyone is more prepared to comprehend the nature and processes of democracy they are able to participate in shaping the communities and nation of the future.

Within this construction education therefore exists for three things: sure, to develop the individual as a lifelong learner; to develop capabilities for a healthy economy; and also to participate in a democracy where individuals are personally and collectively self-determining. That last bit is pretty much in the construct of the current National Curriculum, which is now unbelievably up for grabs under Michael Gove’s review.

Although that construct of educational purpose is a good ideal – we all know that in practice it’s never quite that simple. In particular I’d like to raise two problems with Gove’s ‘Mind as muscle and the market sort out the rest’ liberal utopianism.

The first is about winners and losers, and the second about learning, information and the context of adolescent development.

One of the benefits of a fresh look at our education system by this new achievement-driven, choice-and-competition led government is that the quality of teaching and professional judgement of the local teacher in the local setting has been affirmed. In opting to be more self-styled schools can differentiate their offer to their communities and develop their competitive edge.

This is great in principle but – as I tell my daughter when we watch the X-Factor – for every winner telling you that their experience has proven that ‘anything is possible if you just follow your dream’, there are another hundred in the car park wondering how their dream got shattered by Simon Cowell. Similarly any national provision based on creating winners, such as those who make it on to university to further their well-toned minds, there are a significant percentage leaving school feeling like losers. If that happens, surely education has failed somewhere. The formula was not inclusive.

The second caveat is about learning in an age where information is on hand.

My same X-Factor-watching daughter knows one thing about life that I couldn’t have conceived of at her age. She knows that whatever information that she wants about almost anything in life, it is usually about 10 seconds away when she puts the question into Google.

So education no longer needs to be driven by the acquisition and retention of knowledge. Of course, I’m not dismissing that: but I’m repositioning it. You shouldn’t have to fail at school because you can’t retain knowledge – the reason millions did in the past including me, on one level. Knowledge and information is there to be found on a whole new scale.

Schools then have a whole different job: it’s more like the arousal of curiosity in order to seek knowledge, and the contextualisation of information into the lives of their students.

This contextualisation is absolutely critical – it’s critical and it seems to be being missed out of the Curriculum Review. It’s critical because teenagers aren’t just minds – they’re adolescent minds. Minds where hormone-driven emotions can often subvert the higher levels of thought. Where the desire to prove and establish autonomy is rubbing up against authority and previous restraints. Where the context of education is increasingly important as education itself happens within the kind of community structures in which you are struggling to establish yourself. An absolute community where – just like in the rest of life you need to make sense of yourself in the big scheme of things. You need to comprehend and reckon with the law, decision makers, money systems and social imperatives… what we call ‘citizenship’. This is a critical facet of valuing education: grasping “Why does all this stuff matter??” Education is not just for its personal and cultural enhancements but also for its concrete, societal manifestation. If you’re 18 and you’re not curious about life and don’t understand how to contribute to the society you’re in – then education has failed you.

I’d like to end with two examples that might exemplify good practice and illustrate what I mean:

The first is a lesson led by Pete Patisson, a citizenship teacher in London, and it illustrates the power of arousing curiosity.

During the recent Libyan conflict Pete projected a photograph from a newspaper. From memory it was two women crying deeply at a scene that had a dead body on the floor next to them.

He simply asked the students ‘what questions can we ask of this picture?’

“Who are they?” they replied…

“Why are they crying?”

“Where are they?”

The obvious questions out of the way he asked them to think of deeper questions…

“Why is the man dead?”

“Who killed him?”

“Who decided he should be killed?”

“Who took the picture?”

“How did it end up in a newspaper?”

“Who chose this picture not others?” “Why this one?”

“Did the UK have any part in his death?”

“Did our taxes pay for him to die?”

“Who might have decided to pay for him to be killed?”

“Did I get a choice in whether our money paid for this?”

“Could I have stopped the man getting killed?”

“Did killing the man achieve anything?”

You can see the pattern… it’s about learning to question every day life and get under the skin of current affairs – to recognise the powers at play and your connection to them. That’s a different kind of education…

One last one. Microsoft are working in some schools to test new ways of educating the Google generation.

Here’s an example: after studying the Tudors for a few weeks the teacher announces a tutorial. For this tutorial she will not be in the room but in the staff room, online. They can ask her any questions they want as they revise the subject from the IT suite.

For once they don’t put their hands up when they have a question – they just type it in and the teacher guides them back by her reply.

What happens in this session? Students that never ask questions start to let their curiosity out – because this time they don’t have to overcome the social barrier of the classroom setting in order to learn. Online they are equals, and no one else in the room gets to hear the question that they might never ask because they fear it’s stupid and they will be mocked.

See, we all know this but we can pretend it’s not the case: there is more going on in schools than just lessons.

That’s enough for now – my last words – ‘curiosity’ and ‘context’.

Influencing Young Minds was part of the Bishopsgate Institute‘s Whose Mind is it Anyway? series of debates.

Views expressed on this blog are not necessarily those of the Citizenship Foundation.

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