Monday, 7 May 2012

What is education?

I've been thinking about this quite a bit lately (unsurprisingly).  What IS education?  Is it a pre-set curriculum of 'knowledge', essential for everyone to learn in order to be equipped for life (or at least, for a basic level of success)  Can it be measured by SATs, GCSEs etc?  Can you really tell how good a school is by reading the league tables? Even the term 'league table' makes me shudder: for me it draws inevitable comparisons with sports leagues.  Just as an athlete who wants to be the best basically has to dedicate their life to it: focussing all they have - their diet, training, social life (or lack of), just to be the best - so too for the schools who want to make it to the top.  Everything they do is with an eye to the big competitions.  Performance on the day is everything.  So how does that relate to schools?  well, if they want to top the league tables, they have to be focussed - some may say obsessed - with improving their performance for the 'big days' (ie exam days, OfSted inspections).  The problem is, for me, that is not education. 
We all remember the teachers who inspired us - who made us want to learn more because they were so enthusiastic about their subject - and the teachers who helped us to believe in ourselves, because they were encouraging in the way they treated us.  That cannot be measured by a league table.  I have an example, which could sound a bit boastful, but I am taking consolation in the knowledge that this is an 'anonymous' blog (which in case you were wondering is because I am a bit paranoid when it comes to internet safety, and therefore I don't - ever - share my children's details online).  Anyway, at primary school I was entered into a national maths competition (without the Headteacher's knowledge as he didn't agree with such things).  Somehow I came very highly placed in the whole country (found out many years later, due to the secretive nature of it all).  Was that because I had such a good teacher?  Certainly not - it was my least favourite teacher ever who I completely believe was in the wrong job.  What did that Maths result prove?  Only that I was once good at Maths.  Did I go on to excel in Maths?  No - I barely scraped a 'c' at O-level (right there is a whole other discussion into the failure of the education system).  I actually went on to get a degree in English.  Why?  It probably can't be put down to any one thing, but I must admit I cannot remember a single Maths teacher who believed in me, or who even semed to enjoy it themselves.  However, I did have one or two English teachers who loved their subject and who encouraged me greatly in my abilities.  They were not the kind of teachers who had that 'top-athlete' focus - because they actually cared more about their students as people, not as statistic fodder.  They enjoyed their subject and made it fun - the emphasis was never on 'can you be top of the class?' but rather encouraging us to think for ourselves, and helping us to express ourselves to the best of our own abilities.  That is what I call education.

"Education would be much more effective if its purpose was to ensure that by the time they leave school every boy and girl should know how much they do not know, and be imbued with a lifelong desire to know it."  (William Haley)

That's so true! The main thing I want my children to get from their education is a love of learning.  If I can equip them with the ability to read and to reason, they will figure everything else out themselves - and let's face it, what do we remember more - stuff we were force-fed in school so we could pass an exam,  or stuff that we were interested enough about to look it up for ourselves?  In this age of information technology, there is surely very little that we cannot find out just by turning on a computer and logging on to the internet.  I want my boys to know that they can carry on learning for the whole of their lives - it doesn't have to finish at 16 or 18, or even for the privileged few, after degree level.  Education for us right now is largely about learning to love learning.  Once they've got that, surely nothing can hold them back!

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