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September 18, 2015

I like to think about the future. I like to think about my future children and what I might want to teach them. I think about the lessons that I had that helped make me who I am, and the lessons I wish I’d learned earlier. Once upon a time, and not that far away, I wanted to be a teacher. And along those lines I used to think about my approach to the challenge of teaching kids. About getting and keeping their attention. Gaining their trust and respect. Imparting knowledge along the way. And inspiring them. I think that’s the key point.

I was actually thinking about this a lot recently. During the General Election I thought a lot about education, as I think it is the most important issue of any to discuss in the context of our nation. And then I watched a programme about Chinese education which also got me thinking. And then I heard all about GCSE and A Level results day on the radio. That got me thinking too. And the main thing I’ve been thinking is just how bloody wrong we’ve got it.

Content, style, approach, attitude, discipline. None of it seems right. I’m no educational guru by any means. I am not qualified to elicit change; but I think the idea of change is one that needs to be nurtured. Since the National Curriculum was introduced the state of England and the UK has moved on a great deal more than has its education. I am not calling for evolution, but revolution; and with a subtle and fragile thing as is a child’s education, that is a scary word.

There are so many issues I want to raise it is hard to know where to begin. I guess I’ll start with the approach.

The Chinese method I have seen recently has been a prescriptive method of lecturing and writing things down. It is simplistic, it is efficient; but it is far from holistic. It is not engaging or inspirational, and I sympathised with the lack of focus and enjoyment on behalf of the kids. This sympathy only took me so far, as the lion’s share was reserved for the Chinese teacher’s who faced a shocking lack of discipline. Shocking to me now; but at their age, it probably would have been funny. I wasn’t a badly behaved student; but I wasn’t exactly dialled in to lessons, per se. I suppose this suggestion is the least radical: there needs to be a balance between discipline and freedom. The Chinese nurture their students through a sense of competition. After school they need to get jobs because they cannot rely on a welfare state. I work in a GP surgery so I could talk about welfare enough to fill multiple blogs of frustration; it certainly is something else that needs to change. And just so you know, this is coming from someone who was unable to work for nearly three years through illness so I’m not just on a high horse here. ANYWAY. Chinese students know they have to do well in school. In the UK we do not. In China they need to pass physical aptitude tests as well. Here we do not. We can blame all the factors we want, but if it works in China it could work on our tiny island.

The main thing that I think will draw the balance between the Chinese method of competition and discipline, and our method of welfare and pandering, is rewarding effort. Genuine effort. If anyone, anyone, makes genuine effort; they will improve. And that really is that simple. Rewarding effort is the simplest way of inspiring our kids. And that is the key point- remember?

The guest speakers on the radio who were talking about results day spent most of the time spouting the message: Don’t worry, I failed, he failed, they failed, and we’re all doing fine. Examples are everywhere of people who failed their exams and of course did perfectly well, or even greatly succeeded. Does everyone need to pass their exams to have a fruitful life? No. But is that really the message we should be conveying? The Chinese are perhaps wrong in the modern day to reward only results. But the UK have got their system so wrong that we reward only results, yet preach that they don’t matter.

What does matter is the effort. And effort towards an English and Maths GCSE that you aren’t going to need in a career is not effort wasted. It’s a lesson in itself.

The UK teachers’ points of view of the Chinese method was unsurprising. They feared and dreaded being shown that it was the best way to teach, because it was none of the things that modern education should be: engaging, inspiring, enjoyable, and holistic. On the other side of the coin they were saying that the reason the children misbehaved in class was because of this monotonous delivery. That may be the effect, but it is not the cause. The cause was a lack of respect for the position of teacher. The cause was a lack of desire to learn. The cause was a lack of repercussions for doing poorly, and a lack of discipline that will be a gaping hole in an otherwise holistic education. The children did not care about getting in trouble, they did not care about the struggles of the teacher. They were not embarrassed to be singled out, or even have their parents contacted. This needs to change.

Moving on I want to talk about some ideas about the content of the curriculum. You might have noticed that I enjoy writing. I didn’t at school. I am writing a book in my spare time that includes a lot of Physics within the story. I find this interesting; I did not at school. I have grown up to enjoy learning about History, and Music, and many other things that didn’t interest me in school. And the thing is: I haven’t changed, the way I’m learning has changed. As an adult I can pursue the items that are interesting, inspiring, at my leisure. Now obviously this isn’t an available option for children. There needs to be a certain level of prescription; but in the UK, you guessed it, we’ve got it all wrong.

My memory of History is learning how to compare primary and secondary sources and give balanced arguments. That is something a Historian does. Someone who has chosen to pursue History because they were inspired in spite of school. My interest in History stems from comparing cultures and lifestyles, and things like art, architecture, and religion across time. Because the Egyptians and the Romans were interesting. Learning about them would make me want to learn History. And in so doing I would be inspired to pursue it, and develop those further skills.

My memory of Physics is wiring batteries, and calculating voltages and learning triangular equations for exams. My interest in Physics is based upon the fascinating marvels of the movement of planets, the Big Bang, and the fundamental particles that dictate everything we see and experience. Those things are interesting. Learning about them would make me want to learn Physics. And in so doing I would be inspired to pursue it, and develop those further skills.

We learn from a very young age what it’s like to be a professional in these different fields. But when I was young I didn’t want to be a professional; I wanted to be inspired. If you hook my imagination then putting the work in becomes a process rather than a battle.

Teachers will say that this is how education is moving; but it still isn’t quite right. My experience struck the wrong balance between application and inspiration that had me leaving school with decent grades, but no direction.

We need a more considered approach to choosing a curriculum that inspires people. We need to give slightly less consideration to the skills people need for careers and slightly more focus on what makes each subject worth learning in the first place. At least from a young age.

By the time they reach GCSE, many kids are so switched off from education that they can’t wait to leave. The ones that do stay on are frequently confused and anxious about which subjects to pursue. And having gone through University twice: let me give you a rundown of my personal educational progress:

By GCSE I had learned all about the nitty gritty of the subjects at hand, and found none of them particularly interesting. I chose the subjects that gave me the broadest base of career to choose from because I had no idea what I wanted to do. In Sixth From I was told in greater detail about the nitty gritty I had learned at GCSE. I didn’t learn anything particularly new or interesting. At University the first year was spent largely recapping Sixth Form.

When I pulled out of University I was so relieved to have time on my hands that I could spend constructively. Rather than hammering home facts for a degree I didn’t need for a job I didn’t want, I learnt by myself. I learnt how to write by reading books that looked interesting and writing for a hobby. I learnt about Sports Science through an interest in improving my own performances via nutrition, programming, psychology etc. I learnt about Music by trying to emulate some of my favourite guitarists. I even learnt how to cook properly, rather than just how to kill an hour baking a cake I won’t eat.

I know that maturity has a large part to play with how receptive and willing I was to learn; but if you can grab the attention of a child, you can achieve special things.

By GCSE everyone should know what makes each subject worth knowing. At A-Level you should start to learn how they can be applied to a career. And at University you should be expected to put in the leg work to bring to fruition.

One Comment
  1. Isabelle permalink

    First off, I like the title! And I watched that Chinese education series. It was great and a real eye opener. The school wasn’t even a top school in the UK, more like 235 or somethin. Anyway, I agree that in China competition after school is fierce and that’s why they all work so hard, and that in the UK, people are more relaxed (even though we shouldn’t considering our unemployment rate). I’m still in school and I fully understand the Chinese method and while I don’t think we would adapt very well to it, I think it’s totally reasonable though slightly harsh on the chinese pupils.

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