One of the best things about blogging is hearing from people who’ve read my blog and want to contribute their ideas and offer their opinion on something I’ve written. I’ve had emails from people from all over the world, teachers, lecturers, students and sometimes just other bloggers that have read something that’s struck a chord.
A couple of weeks ago I had the most charming email from a man called Geoff Marshall. He had read “What Did You Learn At Primary School?” and wanted to get in touch. It turns out that Geoff had been pointed in the direction of the article by my Primary school head teacher, who had worked with Geoff in the 70s. Geoff is 87 years old and retired from teaching in 1989 – something of an Education veteran. He knows his stuff and has written an article that sums up the state Education system perfectly. He kindly agreed to let me share the article here. You can find it in it’s original form on his website. Just to recap: this is an article written by the man who hired my Primary school head teacher. This is why I love the internet.
What is Education about?
I’m desperately concerned for our children, both now and in the future. Few question what is happening in our schools. The establishment seem to be agreed that, minor quibbles aside, all would be well if only the state sector could be like the private.
But within my lifetime many of our primary schools were the best in the world and visitors came from across the world. Innovation and initiative were welcomed and expected and Education was an instinctive discipline, the foundation of our thinking. Each school built its own identity upon who was there and where they were. People and place were what made them.
Children are expert learners. They have to be and they show it from birth. It’s what they do, with parents and teachers to help them. Schools should be where learning is enjoyed and celebrated for children to ‘grow in abundance,’ as Christian Schiller memorably put it.
Learning is a process which requires skills, just like any other process, skills which are improved with practise, founded upon choosing. Making wise choices is the most difficult of skills as we all know and it is fundamental to learning. Adults, knowing something of the available options, are there to help children choose but always within their capacity to choose.
Children’s learning begins by observing and contemplating first hand, concrete experience. With all the immediate reactions upon meeting something new there will eventually come one along the lines of ‘So what shall I do about it? How shall I respond?’ This is the beginning of choosing. It is the task of the adult to follow the child, ready to talk through the possibilities. Being alongside, reading the child, then becomes a prime skill of the teacher.
I know this is a simplistic description of learning and of being a teacher but it is sufficient to set it apart from today’s model of good practise. The teacher I have described is a world away from the super being, master of a problem class of youngsters, awed by his ability to impose and to instil the required information. The Secretary of State now promises a hit squad of ‘excellent teachers’ to show failing schools how to do it. But clearly, instilling information is not practising learning. One is absorbed in helping a child to grow, the other is remembering information.
I remember teaching a class of children who could be ‘difficult’: you needed to control to survive. Teachers still need to do that because in most schools children would rather be somewhere else only they know they will need a job when they leave and passing exams will help.
Teachers should not be blamed for what they have helped to create in schools today though many are happy enough to see themselves as the one who tells you what to know and how to pass exams. They are after all servants of the state employed to do that. They have become a function of targets, inputs and outcomes reducing the magic of learning to a set of instructions and measurements. There is no place here for intuition, for choosing an alternative medium or discipline, or for simply doing something else. Their masters see no need to meet and learn about children, how they grow and think: they are immersed in sheaves of paper, sending them across the land to ensure all children everywhere perform to a standard in the way the Minister wishes.
What is it the Minister wishes? Looking back over the years you might think it difficult to know, but overall the message is the same. The Minister wants what is best for the politician; Education is a means to an end which is whatever the Cabinet decides it is. So it could be sex education, numeracy, racism, literacy, social mobility or whatever else is in the headlines of the moment. Teachers have to ensure that children know all about these because society requires it. Above all though, the nation wants young people fit for work, flexible to the needs of the employers’ market.
Education is no longer an unconditional ‘good’ like Health. I can speak of a time when my purpose was all about the rounded growth of the person, me with the doctor, the healthy mind and the healthy body. They go together in the makings of a person. Thank goodness the doctors’ oath protects us. Their only concern is our health, not what it’s for. Education is too wide in its references to be described as being ‘for’ anything, rather it is an elemental aspect of life. Would anyone suggest that living is ‘for’ something? Education is a process promoting a full life, one that makes the most of the experiences it offers. Inflating ‘training for a job’ to being its main purpose has been the triumph of capitalism these last fifty years
Parents know that their children are unhappy at school. It is not a place where they can follow their interests, especially when that might disrupt the routine of the day. Parents remember their school days where they learnt that school is to be endured for the sake of the future. So they feel guilty yet remain zealous supporters of what happens. Why is that? It’s because they know that the tests and the targets are all a means to an end which is otherwise unobtainable, so the children must manage as best they can. Many parents translate their responsibilities into an almost hysterical determination to grab a place in a ‘good’ school which makes no bones about its purpose being to give a ticket to the next stage on the treadmill. So finding a ‘good’ school is as easy and simplistic as reading the football scores and is done with the same intention. What’s top and how to get in?
It ought to be a monstrous crime to seize a young child barely out of babyhood and deliberately proceed to process it in a calculated programme preparing for an unpredictable future which can be of no interest to a young mind which by nature is only interested in the here and now. There can be no more effective way to confuse the mind of a child than to make it perform to a purpose which it doesn’t understand. But when there is a real need perceived and designed by children, they will achieve the most astonishing results, the envy of adults and such as only they can create.
What would happen if we went with children instead of against them, if we followed them, studied them, and helped them to become what they have the abilities to become? Children are devoted to learning. It’s what they do. We should be reading their needs, showing choices and helping them to respond to the concrete first hand experiences they meet. What would happen if children were given the fundamental right of a civilised life and encouraged to grow by developing their ability to make appropriate choices within their capacity to choose? What would it be like if progress were measured by the growing sophistication of the choices made? Just suppose teachers became trusted professionals, expected to decide what has been achieved and what next should happen. What if knowledge became a product of the process of learning rather than the first requirement?
Then as they matured children would begin to understand that their work leads naturally into subject disciplines each of which is of course embedded and was extracted from a concrete experience. They may well become a specialist but still their work will depend upon making wise choices, which of course is the foundation of democracy. How long must we wait before this is allowed to happen?
Geoffrey Marshall, November 2015