Education, education, education

I watched part of the film that came free with Saturday’s Grauniad, last night (until a phone call took priority). Slightly higher pundates’-opinions-to-evidence ratio than I like in a documentary, and some lazy cinematic cliches (polar bears on melting ice for “the challenges the world faces”, etc), but still thought-provoking. Some of it we (Grauniad readers) already know. Yes, of course, the education system (by which they seem to mean the school system; in the bit I saw there was no mention of higher education other than some establishing shots of Cambridge looking pretty, as scene-setting for the Germaine Greer interview) is often training people to pass tests, not to think; and the more you test them, the more incentive there is to learn to pass tests, rather than to think. The moment at which I cheered at the TV was when one of the teachers interviewed said words to the effect of “sometimes the [pupils] I worry about are the ones who succeed; they learn how to succeed by being really good at doing what we tell them, and how do they cope when they leave school and don’t have that safe framework for success?”

Of course if I were really cynical I’d say “well, perhaps they go and work in one of the many jobs that used to be professions, and are now surrounded by people telling them exactly what to do and how to succeed – like teaching…” (Incidentally, there was one throwaway comment with which I couldn’t agree – that the education system seemed to be designed for future “university lecturers”. The education system, up to age 16, may have liked me, but I strongly disliked it).

The point still holds. And it gives food for thought. The film also shows one young man’s struggle with the school system and its struggle with him, and depicts very effectively (this being its point) an enormous and sad waste of time, energy and human potential.

As someone who both takes from and puts into the education system (teaching undergraduates many of whom go on to be teachers), I am worried about the”do what it takes to pass” culture, the anxiety about “getting it right”, and the ways in which it kills learning. I’m not particularly happy, either, about the way the larger system of which I am part selects for, and labels, success and failure.

I do, I think, still believe (see a previous post on my other blog) that an arts/humanities degree gives people important skills, attitudes or virtues (hat tip to Mike Higton there) that make a difference to their ability to contribute to the greater good, and that are worth devoting time to. I am not always sure, to be honest, how the capacity to develop these skills, attitudes or virtues meshes with the capacity to do well in the education system.

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