Friday, May 28, 2010

A proper education

As all too many parents will be all too aware, it’s exam time again. All around the world, offspring are swotting up obscure facts about Tudor history how a dialysis machine works and the generic formula for making a salt from acid and metal, all ready to regurgitate it all again in sweaty halls all around the planet. And parents recall their own traumas, dredging an unwilling memory for the distribution of opal deposits in Australia and the difference between gerunds and gerundives.

I had it relatively easy: unlike most of my contemporaries (or indeed most reasonable beings) I used to do a lot better at exams than at course work, so the extra stress translated into extra marks I really didn’t deserve. But still, definitely not the best days of my life.

More to the (present) point, not the most useful either. But there the problem lies not so much in examinations as such as in the knowledge I was being examined on. Did I really need to know where opals are mined in Australia? No, more forcefully: under what possible circumstances would I ever want to know where opals are mined in Australia? I suspect that no one but an Australian mining engineer could possibly need that information.

Standard bitching about the education system, of course. And I have to admit that, it’s a little disingenuous. As a typical teenage geek, I rather liked knowing that sort of thing. I loved that sort of obscure information. Indeed, I positively cherished it. But can I really claim that it added to my education? I suspect not. Nor looking at so much of what my children have been examined on over the last few years, can I arouse any greater enthusiasm for the current curriculum.

The fact is – and I emphasise that this is a fact – is that, in far too many cases, what my children are learning is contributing nothing to their education. My daughter spent two years studying Tudor history. Why? Because it was the syllabus. But what did that teach her? Does she have a better understanding of life – her own life and the life of the society she lives in? Especially compared with what she might have been taught?

My impression is that schools teach based on the assumption that they are preparing the student for long-term specialisation in that topic. On that basis it makes sense for the curriculum to consist of so many apparent fragments – because if they study this topic long enough, it will all fall into place. By the time they graduate, they will indeed have a very good knowledge of their specialist subject.

But of course this is completely irrational. We can’t specialise in everything on the curriculum. Andin any case, it is far from obvious that even specialisation is best achieved by specialising from the very start.

So here is an alternative proposition: that at every stage in the education process – every break point at which students are winnowed out by a change of level - departing students finish their studies with is a fully rounded understanding appropriate to that level.

Take biology. What could a child who learns biology up to – but no further than – the age of 16 be taught that would pass this test? Well, what are the relevant topics? Diet, perhaps, or drugs or reproduction or basic environmental processes perhaps? Any of these, and perhaps a few others.

And what exactly would they be taught? I don’t know, but not, I suspect, the technical details of how the body or an ecosystem works so much as the ‘functional’ connections they need to know about – what different lifestyles entail, the real nature of the foods and (legal and illegal) drugs around them, and so on. Only later – at the point at which such things have a greater significance to the student because they can do something about them – would the technical details be taught.

This would plainly be much more of an education. It just wouldn’t involve anything like much modern schooling. On the other hand, precisely because it isn’t abstract technical knowledge, I suspect that this sort of education would be a lot more politically sensitive. What food company is not going to lobby against straightforward teaching of the facts of modern diet – the disastrous health consequences of how industrial food is made, transported around the world, and so on? What pharmaceutical company is not going to lobby against straightforward teaching of the facts of prescription drugs and the modern drug industry?

But that, of course, is very largely the point. A population that was no longer ignorant – not even its least educated member – about the world it inhabits would be better equipped to deal with the modern world – including changing it to suit their needs. Indeed, if I were looking for a recipe for eliminating political apathy, this would certainly be high on my list of innovations.

Likewise for every other topic. Personally I would replace the current obsession history teachers have with the Tudors and the origins of the First World War with a general course on world history – not the Euro-centric nonsense that condemns the vast majority of humanity to the void and ignores the real history of the modern world – and a more detailed political history of post-War Britain. And then between 16 and 18 I would teach the same things again, by with a greater focus on the mechanisms of globalisation and how Britain got to be like it is.

And so on. Even English would be taught quite differently – by looking at the use of language around us, in advertising, in politics, in the media, and so on. Conversely, would 16-year old biology students study dialysis? No, of course not. Nor would anyone else, perhaps, except a specialist in renal medicine. It’s not hard to think of a hundred alternative curricula, sharing only the fact that they lead to education rather than exam certificates.

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