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What Now for Education?

'2016', in the words of one young person, 'will be one of those dates we have to learn about in History in the future'.


It seems like the world has turned on its axis. Brexit. Trump. Putin funding the National Front in France and other right wing groups in Europe who are opposed to the EU. Wars, refugee crises, poverty…phew.  It’s a lot to take in. But it hasn’t turned – it has ended up at the extreme end of a continuum of individualism.

When we look at the demographic of voting in these elections we see that those taking the most reckless routes are those without college degrees. It seems that the more you study the less likely you are to vote for extremes. These statistics tell us that education matters if we want to avoid extremism. But at the same time, we’re questioning the need for college degrees and the associated debt and calling to make apprenticeships more widely available. If we want a safer world, are we saying that we want all people to have college degrees? Or should we be looking at what that life experience does for you and try to replicate it earlier on in a child’s life, so that we all, if you like, grow up college minded. That means you can still vote whichever way you like – but you do so from an informed position. 

What does college do? It brings people of different backgrounds together to live away from home as independent people for the first time. There is academic study that assumes independence of mind and the capacity to research. Criteria for assessment assume that students can find and challenge material they disagree with as well as working with information that strengthens their case.  There are discussions, challenges – a lot of talk. And out of the classroom, there are all those late night chats in other student’s rooms about the state of the world. There is travel in the holidays – your inter-rail ticket/gap year/weekends dashing around the country to see your old school mates. Your cultural and geographical knowledge expands. You grow. Or you do if you can afford to study away from home. All this brings you in contact with the ‘Other’ - other places, people, ideas and thoughts. And connecting with the Other makes the Other less frightening. Which means we are less likely to be intolerant. Or so the theory goes.

All of those benefits could be part of the education system way before college is reached. Cultural capital, access to information, articulacy and vocabulary, the capacity to weigh up different points of view…all these things can be experienced in school. But to value them we have to go back to the purpose of education. Is it:

  1. To pass tests?
  2. To foster creativity and 21st century skills (whatever they are)
  3. To create wise people with the belief that they can change the world?

I’d plump for 3 of course, but in our current system, 3 is not really possible without aspects of 1 and 2. Wisdom is built on knowledge. Knowledge is only useful if it can be applied in a number of contexts and understood not only for what it is, but what it might be and how it might apply in other situations – the kind of application skills we unhelpfully group under the cliché of ‘21st century skills’.  We need both. But wisdom? Now wisdom needs more. It needs sound judgment, empathy and experience too. And those elements need to come from being placed in situations in which a choice has had to be made. The knowledge and skills matter. But the context is king.

To be wise, one needs to be able to step back from a situation and reflect. To do this, you need to be able to consider multiple points of view – to, in the words of the IB “understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.” To have that understanding requires more than facts. It requires the capacity to question facts – to turn them over and see how they look from another perspective.  

So many opinions masquerade as facts. Look at the job Copernicus had on his hands in terms of faith dressed as truth. Many years later, the Physicist Richard Feynman declared ‘Religion is a culture of faith; Science is a culture of doubt’. For him, wisdom lay not in answers, but in questions. Not in certainties, but in doubt. That was how we pressed forward in our lives.

What if we applied the same thinking to education. What if we were dealers in doubt?

We would immerse pupils in the stories and situations of people who didn’t know if they were right or wrong, but who had to make difficult decisions. We’d show them arguments from more than one point of view. We’d focus more on dialogue than debate, more on collaboration than individualism. What if the boy returns the head of the Jabberwock to find he has slain a creature that others deemed to be sacred? What if choosing one energy source over another led to loss of life/jobs but was better for climate change? What if ruining a beautiful landscape would give homeless people a home? What if the troll complains that he is being bullied by three naughty goats?

Placing children in difficulty – making them wade knee deep through dilemma – teaches them something important about life. That there are rarely easy answers to difficult problems – that sometimes difficult choices have to be made. And in those situations, you need the wisdom and patience to take the information available to you and make the best decision you can.

When has it been more important than at points of political turmoil, to consider the role that education might play in making children more careful, thoughtful, wise? We can do that. We can do it in early years. We can do it in primary. We can do it in KS3. By the time they get to KS4, the tests should be a byproduct for children who have the vocabulary, interrogation skills, interest and cultural capital to work through problems intelligently. Take them out on as many trips as possible. Let them meet people so different to themselves. Get them talking to all kinds of people so that they know that human interaction and conversation takes places on an ever-moving slide of formality, and that keeping your balance on that slide is a life-enhancing skill. Worry less about Ofsted and more about the changes coming in the world. Empower them to change that world.

Education matters, but only if we teach children to look out of the window and not down at their feet. [ITL]

Dr Debra Kidd is an Independent Thinking Associate and author of Teaching: Notes From the Frontline and Becoming Möbius: The Complex Matter of Education.

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