Simon Jenkins has written several stimulating and highly perceptive columns on the subject of education, and recently wrote another, published by the Guardian last week:
Why computer science graduates can’t talk themselves into jobs
On a day when young people up and down the country are receiving A Level results that will leave them delighted, devastated and often somewhere between these two extremes, we think it’s worth taking a closer look at Mr Jenkins’ column, and also reading between its lines.
Few experiences can be more detached from life than sitting silent in a classroom. The concept of “subjects”, like the methods of teaching and testing them, are little changed from a century ago. So, too, is the claim that those of strictly specialist use – maths or, previously, Latin – are to “train the mind”. Learning chunks of the Qur’an also trains the mind. But then Britain’s exam-obsessed schools can make a madrasa seem a liberal education.
Mr Jenkins has a gift for summing up complex ideas in a single brilliant paragraph. The one above speaks volumes about pedagogy, teaching and learning, testing and examining, the aims of education and the foolishness of equating summative assessment and successful regurgitation with actual intellectual accomplishment.
The former education secretary Michael Gove’s job commitment was impressive. But his desire to take schools back to Victorian rote learning, traditional content and formal testing was archaic. It lacked any evidence base and appeared no more than a political comfort blanket. I regard today’s education as roughly where medicine was in the days of bleeding, cupping and purging. It awaits some massive intellectual breakthrough. Gove reminded me of the great American physician, Benjamin Rush, who bled American presidents to their deaths. His contemporaries never challenged him, for bleeding was “good enough for our forefathers”.
The nurture of a child’s mind remains a mystery. Hence the yearning of its serious practitioners to fashion it as a quantifiable science. The monastic church, long the custodian of education, fell back on rote and textual memory. It was easy to test. All forms of educational progressivism have terrified authoritarians, from Chinese communists to Muslim states, and to Britain’s own education department.
The ‘serious practitioners’ in Britain and elsewhere are in fact the ones who are willing and able to question the basic purposes and aims of education, to consider how we might re-invent an education that’s fit for purpose in the 21st Century, and show willingness to put the rights and needs of children at the heart of what happens in schools. The authoritarians, on the other hand, or should we say those in power, are the ones who have done well from the existing system and see no need to change it, other than making it ever more hierarchical and elitist, usually on the grounds that this is what’s good for our nation.
Twenty years ago ministers went potty about computer education. Billions were spent on it. We learned today from Ofcom that six-year-olds are more computer literate than grown-ups. They may need topping up with coding and security, but essentially they teach themselves. So why not spend school time helping them with what appears to be holding them back in the jobs market – and in life in general?
“They teach themselves”. Yes – singular and plural. Individual children, when sufficiently motivated, can accomplish amazing feats of learning entirely on their own with few inputs from teachers or other adults. They are also extremely adept, on the whole, at tutoring and mentoring those of their peers and siblings who share their interests and passions. This is particularly true in the fields of information technology, social media and music.
Having sat on innumerable interview panels, I groan as applicants with sound paper qualifications are painfully unable to present themselves in a group, speak well, write clearly, or show simple manners and charm.
What’s at issue here are what 3D Eye calls personal intelligence, social intelligence, spiritual intelligence and emotional literacy. These are not recognised in our National Curriculum. The degree to which schools tackle Personal, Social, Health and Emotional education is left to the schools themselves. Many ignore it completely, especially when they claim there is no time available, given their focus on “relentlessly driving up standards”. Some schools manage just a token hour or so per week on PHSE (or PSD – Personal and Social Development)
George Osborne may depict the only “real economy” as being manufacturing, but the days when you got a job by twisting a widget are over.
Yes – but even in manufacturing industry there’s a need for people who have high levels of personal and social intelligence, plus emotional literacy – especially if they become team leaders and senior managers. Both the CBI and the BCC have understood this and emphasise the importance of these areas of learning in their recent reports on education, which also stress the importance of lifelong learning, creativity and the ability to self-educate thanks to having learned how to learn.
Two-thirds of new jobs are in services, notably the much-derided “hospitality sector”. They are about dealing with people. What help is a lonely exam paper or coding on a tablet in that? Indeed, what could be more important to young people than learning to live at peace with themselves and others? We have it all wrong.
Yes indeed, Mr Jenkins.