inquisitive, prying, doubting and reading

The Christmas edition of the Economist had something on the birth of the tabloid press. There was a great line in quote from a treatise on the British press by an unknown author in 1824 that went, ‘the people of these kingdoms have been an inquisitive, prying, doubting and reading people’.

I suspect this line should be painted on the walls of every school. It’s exactly what UK education should aspire to. What better aim for education than that we become an ‘inquisitive, prying, doubting and reading people’!

Citizenship is Sound

If we hold to enlightenment ideals, for example of the importance of reasoning and the full development of the human mind, we should feel required to try to throw open society for examination. This is another example of education as having a function beyond its own intrinsic value. Education allows ‘what is’ to be analysed and criticised in order that ‘what ought to be’ may be discussed. Moreover, education should be concerned with discussing the blurred and shifting boundary between what is and what ought to be – it is here that we discover what constitutes the values of a society.
Citizenship is, however, more than opening the status quo to criticism. The social sciences, of course, already have a role in this, although not in the form that they currently exist in schools. I suspect, for example, that not many secondary school history teachers teach constitutional history to the present day or the current workings of the judiciary system, and I don’t know many schools that offer KS4 politics. As well as critical analysis, citizenship is also about functioning within society. This is not a contradiction. Indeed it is an absolute cornerstone of enlightened, liberal, democratic societies that one can be a part of, and function, indeed flourish, within society whilst engaging in criticism of it. This kind of education, learning how to function in society, does not have to be inherently conservative if its purpose is to teach ‘political literacy’ – what are the levers of power that cause change and how to use them.

What is potential?

When we say that we want every child to achieve their potential, what do we mean? Do all pupils have inherent potentials – some things they may be able to do or become as opposed to other things they never will? If a teacher’s job is to unlock potential, what if the pupil’s potential is to become a burglar?!

I don’t think we can really ever measure or categorise meaningfully the positive potential for anything. We can maybe measure potential negatively and for easily definable achievements – a man with no legs probably doesn’t have the potential to be the fastest man on the day and win the Olympic Hundred Metres in 2012. But what positive criteria would we use to measure whether a pupil has the potential to become, say, Prime Minister? Would we give it a score? So that pupil X, in the debating team and developing his empathy skills well, has a Prime Ministerial potential score of 50%, possibly alongside a CEO of middle-sized corporation potential of 85%? More importantly, if we could find such a measure, what use would it be?

I heard a nice definition of potential the other day. ‘Potential’ simply recognises that given motivating circumstances pupils do better. Achieving their potential really means providing the most motivating circumstances. This is useful. It means we can start to describe motivating circumstances. We can take two groups of pupils, with intelligence as the constant, observe which group performs better and begin to define what ‘motivating circumstances’ are.

It is, of course, the motivating circumstances that explain the stories behind the statistic that says the biggest determinant of success at GCSE is socio-economic status. And those motivating circumstances include the physical, social and emotional prerequisites mentioned in the previous post on social work.

Should we teach values?

If we accept, as we must, that education doesn’t happen in a vacuum; that education serves inevitably to renew society (for good or ill) – then we must accept that school has some duty to present or reinforce the values of society. Schools should produce ‘good’ citizens, not just intelligent ones.

And to all those who indignantly cry “indoctrination” and “whose values?”, the only response is “wake up”. Schools, as the most significant institution during the most formative years, cannot help but impact on values education. Either we accept that values education will be random, therefore sometimes subject as much to factional, divisive influences as to anything positive, or we accept that society can have a more active role in shaping its future.

Moreover, the values that we are attributing to ‘good’ are pretty uncontroversial. They might include: individual responsibility, open-mindedness, enquiry and critical thinking, that hard work leads to achievement… And frankly, whilst these are pretty consensual across society, they are saved from becoming bland truisms by the observation that they are by no means universally acknowledged by pupils in our most challenging schools, in the poorest areas.