I graduated recently. I have a BA degree and Primary PGCE., but after nearly two decades of being 'educated' I have decided that I don't want anything more to do with education.
This makes me uncomfortable when I am with friends who have chosen to pursue a teaching career. I don't like to argue, but if I write it all down they can engage with it on whatever level they are comfortable with and even stop reading altogether without having to make an excuse. That's why I need to write this article.
My own experience of being 'educated'
When I took my GCSEs at the age of sixteen they meant absolutely everything to me. This was not just because I needed good grades to get a good job, but because, as far as I could see, they were an infallible measure of my brain's ability. I wasn't alone in feeling this.
I had high hopes for my Biology exam. I had memorised a number of sentences, including one about osmosis: 'Osmosis is the movement of water molecules from an area of high water concentration to an area of low water concentration through a partially permeable membrane'. A relevant question came up in the exam, and I got a B in Biology for my efforts. I was pretty happy with that. The way I saw it, I clearly wasn't as intelligent as the people who got an A or A* but at least I was better than the oiks that got C or lower. It didn't occur to me that memorising a bunch of sentences had nothing to do with actually understanding any of it. I did do some coursework where I carried out an experiment, but that was purely to get the grade and nothing to do with the joy of discovery or anything as lofty as that. The questions I asked myself were never "What is the true nature of life? What is biology all about?" but rather "What do they want from me? What do I need to do in order to get the mark?" This attitude persisted right through my A-Levels.
It was only after I had left school that I slowly began to realise that grades weren't actually a natural law; that although they served some purpose they were only man-made, contrived, and fallible. I saw that 'learning' and 'exam success' were not synonymous and I slowly became interested in learning things for their own sake. I realised that learning was actually quite fun in itself. By the time I went to university I had the impression that although they had some obvious uses, grades didn't tell the whole story of a person's learning experience.
This idea was confirmed for me when I received my first university grades. I had recently completed two modules, one of which I found absolutely fascinating, and the other which I really didn't care about at all. For the former I read constantly and passionately, whilst for the latter I waited until the night before the deadline, got out a dozen or so books, flicked through them and then argued in general terms until I'd rattled off enough words. The grades came out and, in an experience I suspect isn't familiar only to me, I did better in the module that I didn't actually care about. For one of these essays I took things in which I'll never forget: the syllabus for the other I'd forgotten about by the time the grades came out. At one time I would have just shrugged it off and taken the examiners' word for it but in this case the disparity in my attitudes towards these modules was so obvious to me that I couldn't ignore it.
Luckily I was doing an Educational Studies degree so this was a relevant issue for me in more than one way. The next term I did a module on the different theories of creativity. We had a passionate guest lecturer. She started full of energy with a stimulating speech about how 'expressing your feelings can help you tune into your real feelings, work through your problems and live for today!' When she had finished speaking the first question she was asked was: 'Are we going to need this for the essay? Because you were speaking so fast that I couldn't write it all down.'
I knew at this point that something had gone seriously wrong. How could somebody listen to such a passionate lecture about life and miss the point so entirely? This led me to a conclusion that I still believe: that in an educational setting what always takes precedence over learning is the immediate need to survive. The questioner in this story was so enmeshed in seeing learning as purely as preparation for an upcoming exam that the meaning of the lecture had passed unnoticed. The lecturer was trying to teach something about life itself, but her message could not get through.
Babies learn to walk and talk without any formal tuition, simply by observing those around them, realising that the skill is relevant and useful, and then persevering over time until they can do it themselves. When children start school most of them have all kinds of questions about the world around them and an eagerness to explore it. Soon they come to realise that in order to survive they have to internalise the logic of the institution in which they have found themselves. Children's curiosity and interest in things are bound to be endearing, but they can be really quite awkward and a real source of discomfort in a conventional classroom. This is because schools hardly offer children any choice as to what they learn about, and slowly, subtly, over the course of many years, convince children that their personal interests, no matter what they are, aren't nearly as important as the official curriculum. Each avenue of a child's personal curiosity is blocked by a locked door with 'Not relevant to what we are doing' written on it, and the children slowly learn not to question and explore any more. They learn that if they put their own thoughts to one side and just do as they're told then they will have a comfortable life.
I don't want to devalue the role of the teacher. Teachers are really stuck between a rock and a hard place. It is not generally any teacher's intention to shun an honest question but they often really don't have much choice. They are under pressure to follow the curriculum and their jobs and even careers depend on it. I understand the dilemma that teachers face, and indeed, it is largely because of that dilemma that I didn't want to go into teaching. Obviously some teachers internalise the logic of the system, but, in my own experience at least, many teachers are concerned about this issue and are constantly trying to find a workable balance between their own passion for infusing the children with an interest in learning, and the often completely arbitrary obligations thrust upon them by people who have never met and will never meet the children in the class. It is the teacher of a class, and not someone who has never met the children in it, who is better informed about what they are interested in and what they will benefit most from.
Since children have no choice about what they are taught for the vast majority of their time in school, they come to confuse learning-by-compulsion with learning in general. It is possible to say that learning can still be fun even if it's done under compulsion, but how can a child ever say 'yes' to something on any true and meaningful level, if there has never been any opportunity to say 'no'? Children lose their curiosity and come to see learning as an obligation, distinctly separate from 'fun'.
By the time young people leave education they see learning as something completely separate from the world they are actually living in. The only point of learning is to gain qualifications. Having fun comes to mean having the time to buy and consume things. After all, what else is there to do with one's spare time? Not everybody ends up like that, but the attitude is fostered implicitly by the way schools are run. The fact that the word 'school' itself actually comes from the Ancient Greek for 'leisure' only underlines the irony of it all.
In spite of all these doubts I graduated from my Educational Studies degree and marched straight on to a Primary PGCE. I was suffering from the ridiculous illusion that I could change things. I honestly don't know why I thought that. I can only think that a part of me knew that I wouldn't be able to teach in the way I wanted to, but the idea of teaching had been in my head for so long that I couldn't imagine any alternative.
Anyway I persevered with my PGCE and received the appropriate qualification. I sometimes had to teach in a way which the idealist in me didn't in any way agree with, but I tried to see it as a lesson in pragmatism and persuade myself that if I did my best in difficult circumstances then I would be helping the children in my care. I abandoned that idea, though, towards the end of the course and decided that, actually, I wanted to enjoy my life and that my health and vitality were more important to me than anything else. I came to see that if I persisted I would turn into one of those old, resentful teachers who hate their schools and the children and despise themselves for putting up with it all. I sincerely - almost desperately - wanted to ignore all my reservations and just plug myself into the monolithic internal logic of the system, but I couldn't do it. It would have been nice to have had a job which was reasonably secure and had decent opportunities for career progression, but in the end I decided that it just wasn't worth it.
It took a long time but I think the moment when I finally accepted that teaching like this wasn't for me was towards the end of the year, during a placement when I was doing autobiographies with a Y5 class. I was marking the children's work and I read the 'autobiography' of a girl whose granddad had recently died. I had to give grades for all pieces of work, so alongside supportive comments welcoming her to speak to me about it if she wanted to, I gave a grade she would happy with. I was scared that there might have been a penalty if I had rocked the boat too much but I am still ashamed of giving a grade at all. What shocked me, though, was the fact that other teachers read the work and marked it down for incorrect usage of the apostrophe. These were teachers who were actually very pleasant; they were probably just referring to the APP grid and not paying much attention to actual content.
What a horrible lesson for that girl to learn though! I imagine it won't be long before she decides that it is safer just not to make herself vulnerable like that any more. It was then that I made the connection between this kind of experience and the way many adults cannot express themselves creatively. There are many adults I know who insist that they're 'just not creative' and it seems clear to me that whether or not it is true now, it was almost certainly not true before they went to school.
During my final placement I developed a good relationship with my class and there were times, especially towards the end of the course and especially after I had decided not pursue a teaching career, when I wanted to set aside half an hour or so and try to explain to them that learning in their own time, for the fun of it, is a completely different experience to learning for any kind of exam. I wanted to explain that the former really just involved realising what you were interested in and exploring it, while the latter was a complicated game where you had to figure out what was being asked of you and working out how to play along was arguably the most important thing you could do.
I don't want to deny the importance of grades and qualifications in themselves, but only the underlying assumption that they can define who a person is and predict the future. Of course grades are useful - there's no escaping their functionality - but I think schools should make it clear they only measure the performance of particular skills in a particular context. It must be made clear that a person's innate abilities cannot be measured, and the internalisation of grades as a form of self-definition that gives people a fixed, reductive, often inaccurate and always unhelpful view of themselves. People aren't fixed; they change. They change, that is, unless they view themselves as fixed by exam grades which give an essential measure of who they are.
I even sometimes felt tempted to question how the school was run. Why do you have to call me 'Mr Hansen' and not by my first name? For what reason do you all have to wear uniforms and why do I have to wear a suit? Why do we have to pray at the end of assembly?
It should be possible to open things up for debate. Only good can come from encouraging the children to question them. I hear people ask: 'But what if the children lose respect for wearing the uniforms? What if they no longer want to pray in assembly?' I can even imagine hysterical parents asking 'What if my child no longer wants to write in cursive writing!?' And I would respond to these questions with a question of my own: If we make children put up with arbitrary rules and regulations without giving any justification for them, how can we expect them to grow up and take an active and critical part in a democratic society? How can the first of these things possibly lead to the other?
There are people who think that our species is really in its infancy in terms of what we have the potential of accomplishing - politically, socially, technologically and so on. To have come this far though, from working with sticks and sharpened rocks to mapping the human genome and travelling in space, suggests that the desire to learn may well be an innate part of us - a natural instinct. I don't mean the desire to learn irrelevances, I mean the desire to learn things which interest us and are directly relevant to our lives.
I've been aware throughout writing this that many people may cast everything I'm saying to one side as being far too idealistic and completely unrealistic. I can only ask that these people consider, in a scientific spirit, whether there is any truth in what I have been saying rather than simply dismissing it as uncomfortable to think about. If enough people start thinking about these issues then we can begin to figure out how to take things forward. Unless the problem is recognised and discussed, there can be no chance of overcoming it.