“It’s a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”
– Albert Einstein
“Einstein clashed with his school authorities and resented his school’s regimen and teaching method. He later wrote that the spirit of learning and creative thought were lost in strict rote learning.”
“In late summer 1895, at the age of sixteen, Einstein sat the entrance examinations for the Swiss Federal Polytechnic in Zurich. He failed to reach the required standard in several subjects.”
So what does this tell us about Einstein, teaching and learning, the usefulness of examinations, so-called ‘standards’, and the nature of genius?
It takes a certain sort of genius to keep a hall full of people of all ages enthralled for more than two hours. It takes an even bigger genius to do it completely solo, and to do it with POETRY! – standing on a vast stage in a huge auditorium – without props or special effects or even music. John Cooper Clark is a genius.
In a way, Stoke Newington is his element – in spite of him being a Salford-born working class hero. An appreciative N16 audience is pretty much bound to share his sensibilities, his attitudes, and his sense of humour. Well done the Stoke Newington Literary Festival for booking JCC and for giving us an amazing evening of non-stop laughter and joy last night. Also well done SNLF for getting the sound system so perfect – a vital element for a performer who works only with words.
A few days ago BBC4 showed an hour-long documentary called “Evidently – John Cooper Clark”. It was a brilliant appreciation of his long career as a poet and entertainer, but even so it didn’t really reflect how droll and amusing he is with his chat and his jokes in between reciting his poems. He’s an artist and a social commentator of the highest calibre, and he’s been a prototype and an inspiration for any number of ‘alternative’ comedians and entertainers who have evidently been inspired by him. Even now he has weird backcombed hair, and wears black outfits with high-heeled boots and skinny jeans. Punk personified.
Like Russell Brand he seems to really enjoy himself on stage – chuckling at his own thoughts and shuffling around with a gleeful grin on his face. Like all good artists he doesn’t pretend to have answers for society’s ills, but he does a brilliant job of highlighting injustices, absurdities and idiocies.
Why is it that so many of our best people had such bad experiences of school? In the BBC documentary John Cooper Clark said, “I hated school. But they taught you how to read, and that’s the main thing.” In his case it was probably the only thing. You can’t teach anyone to think as he does, to perform as he does, or to write poetry like his. All you can do is give them space and encouragement to create. But how many of our young people are given that space or that encouragement?And how else are they supposed to realise their potential, become creative individuals, or find their element? How are they supposed to enjoy school? Or does it not really matter if they don’t?
On Desert Island Discs last week (Radio 4) Denise Robertson said, “Coming out of school was like coming out of prison”. And it seems her son had similar feelings about academia, since she needed to stand by him when he decided he wanted to leave school and join the navy, whilst his father wanted him to go to university. We seem have a national obsession with universities, which is reflected in the current obsession (amongst politicians at any rate) with “social mobility”.
Denise is an individual who grew up in a pit village, left school early, discovered her individual talent, and went on to write novels whilst also having a long career as a celebrity ‘agony aunt’. As such she became a ‘national treasure’ – widely admired and appreciated to the point of being invited on to Desert Island Discs. Had she gone to university – who knows? She might then have settled for a life as a hardworking, socially mobile, middle-ranking, reasonably well-paid professional doing something more or less worthy and useful. Which might have been quite nice for her . . . but then again, might not.
On the BBC’s ‘Any Questions?’ programme last week one of the panel members said, “We put far too much emphasis on the academic, and not enough emphasis on the individual child”. The speaker then went on to highlight the case of golfer Rory McIlroy, a millionaire and a sporting celebrity who certainly didn’t need either school or university in order to become the model of golfing excellence he now appears to be. He simply needed to find his element.
You don’t, however, need to become a millionaire, a celebrity, or a mover & shaker in order to be in your element. You simply have to become the person you truly are, and do the things with your life that bring you fulfilment and enjoyment. It’s a very moot point as to whether our school system is designed to enable such things.
3Di’s position is that enjoyment of school and of learning is a question of human rights, and of the rights of children, who do indeed have the right to experience school as a place of stimulation, fulfilment, liberation and achievement. Nobody should be indifferent as to whether their children enjoy school. In order for school to be enjoyable and meaningful there has to be an emphasis on the individual child, on personalised learning, and on the right of the child to have their individual strengths, talents and interests recognised and validated, as well as their individual learning style.
Children also have the right to be successful academically, without being force-fed or coerced – should they have the desire and the drive to pursue academic success. They should have the right to go to university, if they so wish, and to go to the very best universities with the very best tutors, regardless of their social origins. What they do NOT need AT ALL is to be patronised and made to feel inferior if they choose not to follow the academic route, whatever their origins or background. Neither do they need to be told to become “socially mobile” or to move on from their roots and their social origins.
We look forward to a point in the future when everyone – whether famous or anonymous – looks back on their school days with affection, fondness and gratitude.
Einstein was a notable example of someone who failed to achieve the ‘required standards’ in certain ‘subjects’ by a given age – and we can all agree it wasn’t on account of his lack of intelligence. It’s time we woke up to the fact that schools need to change and need to become the sorts of places where children of all abilities and interests can succeed – through learning that is personalised and through pupils being highly motivated.