Learning is an activity that thrives on a desire to know. The state of deep learning – of love for one’s learning and the activities that lead to learning – is bound up in the essence of being human. The intense satisfaction of learning combined with the desire to know more as an end in itself is liberating. As educated people, we will (I hope) all have experienced undertaking a learning activity because of intrinsic desire or love of the activity itself. Pursuing a question, or reading a book, or finding out more just because we want to is something uniquely human and something we must cultivate in our young people. We want pupils to thrive on learning, if not in the now of the classroom, then in the lives of those we are inducting into a lifetime of fulfilment and freedom: the pupils at Cottenham Village College.
Too many children grow up being told, and believing, that the sole reason they need to be educated is to get a good job. This was the same for me. When I was aged nine, my Headteacher mentioned that I should try to get into university. I hence aspired to do that, just so that I could get a better job. And then, having gone to university, I got a job as a teacher. That narrative was exactly the narrative given to me by each of the eight schools I attended. That education is functional and aimed at getting a job is also the view of many pupils we teach and of their parents.
This view marries with the direction of travel of education and schooling over the last twenty years and more. I remember my mathematics PGCE: I recall having lectures on multiple intelligences and learning styles; I recall learning about differentiation for the least able and I wrote an essay on teaching a student with Aspergers. I remember being awake at 1am evaluating my lessons and again at 4am planning them in order to ensure they were “Blue Peter” like, i.e. that there were plenty of different activities to keep the children engaged. I don’t remember very much mathematics.
Following my PGCE, I remember being required to adopt a ‘skills focused’ national curriculum, being told to prepare my pupils for the 21st century by ensuring they were creative thinkers, team workers at the same time as being independent enquirers, self-managers as well as effective participators, but reflective thinkers most of all, and my job as a teacher was to facilitate students’ engagement in these skills that underpin our curriculum because these are the type of skills that employers liked. This links with my opening – education is increasingly seen in this technocratic sense as a means to an end rather than end in itself, and while there are many contributory factors, I think that this in part explains the skills focus over the last 30 years. And I have been as guilty as others of perpetuating this orthodoxy: it doesn’t matter what the content is as long as it develops their transferable skills.
So given this orthodoxy of the last 20 years and longer, why wouldn’t pupils, parents, schools and society at large not view education as training for a job or for jobs and nothing more? Why do we learn things that we might not use later in life? And what’s the point in getting smarter if it doesn’t mean we can earn more money or buy more stuff. And in any case, if we can work in groups or be prepared for jobs that don’t yet exist, we’re better off and richer than if we know lots of facts in lots of disciplines. Though the above statements sound ridiculous, this view has a lot of traction in and out of the profession.
It’s sad that when asked about why they’re in school, many pupils refer to getting a good job. Similarly, colleagues (and I have been guilty of this) presented with challenging students or students not motivated in class sometimes ask, rhetorically but not without damage: what do you think you’re going to do for a living when you leave school?
The idea of education for the sake of education often appears lost – and while I think schools should be a part of the solution, I think that currently they’re usually part of the problem. The orthodoxy of the curriculum of the last twenty years has left absent the idea that education allows one to be free and fulfilled. The idea that we can be inducted into mankind’s conversation, handed down through the ages, in order that we might further that conversation, or even undermine that conversation is one that is wholly marginalised to the point that it is not recognised. Inculcating a desire to know is far from our collective stated priorities in the UK.
However, amongst this picture of dystopia, I have some hope. Insights from cognitive science, including the requirement for a rich knowledge base – a schema of knowledge in order to ‘stick’ new knowledge and concepts to – demand that we teach pupils to know a lot about a lot. Of course, there is nothing necessarily liberal about some insights from cognitive science – such as direct instruction, regular quizzing or the requirements for a knowledge-based schema.
These could be put to use to train pupils for employment or for a whole number of illiberal ends. At the same time, I maintain that those teachers and schools that are engaging in some of the lessons from cognitive science are correlated closely with those that recognise that for pupils to be culturally literate, we should expose them to the richest works of literature, chronology in history, and the rigour of grammar and language. This is what a curriculum for freedom and fulfilment does.
And we must also treasure the idea that we must induct novice pupils into disciplines. This is their right. Explicitly, this includes those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. That induction as novices contrasts with their experience later as experts. We must hence allow access for pupils to experience and participate in that rich cultural inheritance that has been handed down through the generations – in order that they may see the virtue and beauty in education. That education is its own reward is something that must be central to our curriculum and we must be wary of technocratic explanations for our curriculum. Marxists and the Confederation of British Industry are united in their analysis that schools train pupils to be competent and compliant workers. But I want more than that for my children, and I know we want more than that for our pupils at CVC. Our pupils are entitled to gain access to the best that has been thought and said.
Of course this in itself presents a challenge with conversations we have with some parents over aims. The orthodoxy of ‘gaining a good job’ is one which is shared by many parents. Parents certainly share an interest in results and exam success, and we have unashamedly promoted our exam successes. We cannot ignore the impact of exam results and schooling on ‘life chances’. I am certainly not arguing that we should not aim to be successful in terms of exam outputs, but we must ensure, via our curriculum, that we cultivate pupils to experience the richness of human existence. Access to valued academic subjects that establish a broad knowledge base is the entitlement of every pupil. Training pupils for a job, by contrast, is the type of education that is likely to go out of date in the 21st century.
So who decides what makes a pupil knowledgeable? We do. That’s our job, as professionals, to shape through discussion, argument and scholarship. And it’s a challenging job. It’s also the one we must embark on repeatedly, including this year at CVC. The decisions can be controversial, but we must inculcate the background knowledge taken for granted by writers who address the intellectually engaged layman – it is these shared references that allow participation in argument, discussion and the ability to take an informed position in liberal democracies.
A liberal education helps pupils acquire richness by cultivating disciplines in analysis, argument and interpretation – or the Trivium (grammar, dialectic and rhetoric). By focussing our studies on foundational topics and questions in the sciences and humanities, we allow access to unifying ideas. Our novice learners, by mastering disciplines, will have enriched imagination and freedom of thought. Fashionable curricula (such as 21st century skills) and inherited prejudices are marginalised in favour of intelligent choices. We educate for the whole child’s life; not merely the whole child.
Headteacher, Cottenham Village College
Trivium 21st century – Martin Robinson
Why don’t students like school – Daniel Willingham
The schools we need (and why we don’t have them) – E.D. Hirsch
The benefits of a liberal education do not go out of date (article) – John Kay, Financial Times (25th August 2015)