Tom Bennett on why so many people want us to teach children everything, ever
Sometimes, the tides of social media wash up unlikely flotsam. Recently Nick Gibb (MP, Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) had a brief and curous parley with Lily Rose Beatrice Allen (popular minstrel, alma mater, Bedales) about, of course, curriculum relevance. What else? Apropos of apparently nothing, the bard of Hammersmith decided to tackle Gibb on why schools taught what they did:
Unsatisfied with the extent of this campaign, she divebombed a LBC phone-in to develop her new learning model. She recommended, among other things, that children learn a 'beginner's guide to food', as well as 'divorce and the dangers of marriage.'
'I've never been able to get my head around my finances. I was terrible at maths. I've had an accountant in employment since the age of 19.
'If my daughter came to me with any questions about any of this stuff (mortgages etc.), I would not have a clue. It's more me worrying about my children and them having to face the big, bad world without the necessary tools to do so... It seems people get themselves into all sorts of situations and they have to spend extortionate amounts of money on accountants and lawyers to sort it out.'
We can try to ignore the shocking revelation that Lily Allen appears to own not a single bunsen burner. She's perfectly entitled to an opinion. More generally though, this is a familiar argument to those of us who actually teach children. After we have tried to answer 'why do we teach?' the next question is 'and what?' It is tempting to be seduced by the lure of relevance; that all edcuation should have a clear and practical, utilitarian outcome. Fans of bedroom rappers will remember this Jasper:
I wrote about this, and his very similar arguments, before. I reproduce my responses here because the argument is roughly the same:
There’s a video doing the rounds that you might have seen. It’s called Don’t Stay in School and it’s by a passionate young rapper called Dave Brown. I'll be playing the ball here, not the man. I delight in effort, and earnestness, and zeal, and what I know about rap could be comfortably encompassed by the lasso of a Times New Roman zero. But the video is an angry attack on the school curriculum and how we teach it, so GAME ON.
Dave stands in a country lane and spits truth to power about what he thinks should be on the school curriculum, and what it should replace; something that I’d be keen to see the secretary of state do now and again, frankly. And boy, is he angry. For your comfort and ease, I have summarised his ‘one in, one out’ demands:
Things that shouldn’t stay in school
Loads about Shakespeare’s classics
How mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell
The Old American West
How Henry VIII killed his women
The wavelengths of different hues of light
Igneous, metamorphic, sedimentary rocks
Quadratic equations (THAT’S INSANE, THAT’S ABSOLUTELY INSANE, he’s quite clear about that)
If numbers are prime
The ancient Hippocratic method (eh?)
Mental maths (maths is obviously a sore point)
Using a condom
Being fluent in only one language
The Solar System
Things that should go to school, probably
How to get a job
How to pay tax
How to vote
How to look after your health
What laws there are (HE WAS NEVER TAUGHT WHAT LAWS THERE ARE, he’s particularly annoyed about this)
My human rights. Apparently there’s 30. Do you know them? I DON’T
Reciting these rights by rote
Where does money come from?
Budget (see: disperse my earnings)
The cost of raising a kid
What an affidavit is
Basic first aid
Recognise the most likely mental disorders
Diseases with preventable causes
How to buy a house with a mortgage
Advice that could literally save thousands of lives
Present day practical medicines
Domestic abuse (and get the facts)
How to help my depressed friend with a mental state
Teaching the kids how to parent
How to have kids when you want one
Being fluent in two languages
What I’m voting on
What policies exist
Now, it’s perfectly right that people constantly question what we teach and why. The content of the state school curriculum is not a settled matter, and must reflect to some extent the desires, needs and heritage of the community in which it is contained. But that doesn’t mean that any criticism is valid. And the only reason I’m bothering to dissect this is because:
a) It’s representative of an unwelcome view that constantly rubs itself up against teachers.
b) It’s got considerable traction; MC Dave has 40 million views under his belt, and the comments burst with fist-bumps of approval. Ken Robinson’s RSA video suffers from similar celebrity.
So here’s why he's wrong:
Most of these are actually taught in school anyway
He appears to have never heard of citizenship, or PAL lessons, which comfortably encompass almost all of his wish list: voting; taxes; laws and financial advice. MFL deals with the "fluent in two languages" thing (and I am curious to know which schools don’t teach languages, that he even thought this).
How to look after your health: PE teachers all over the country will be tearing their tabards at this; never mind all the healthy eating advice that gets given out in various ways. And still kids will come into school with their lunch boxes (packed by their parents) full of lard and Toblerones. All the star jumps and lentil school dinners in the world can't overcome the habits of home.
Some of them aren’t exactly hard to find out
How to vote? Have you ever seen anyone outside a polling station, constipated about how to tick a box? Or does he imagine schools should teach about individual candidates and their policies? Which would be both weird and a minefield.
Some of them are incredibly hard to actually teach in a meaningful way
How to have kids if you want one: I’m going to take a punt here and propose that most people have a rough idea how this happens. And even then, it usually gets taught along with the condoms.
What laws there are. This really, really upsets him, along with the human rights stuff. Given that in 2010 alone, over 3500 laws were introduced to the statute books, I’ll take a rain check, cheers. Citizenship, RE and history mention specific laws frequently. And I’ve just taught a unit on human rights in Year 11 AND Year 13 religious studies, so forgive me if I wonder what I’m doing wrong.
Teaching kids how to parent: yeah, good luck with that. Even parents don’t know how to do that, it’s like juggling apples in a NASA centrifuge. Somehow, I can’t see much of what we could teach about this sticking for very long with your average 13-year-old.
But there’s a much broader problem, and perhaps unwittingly it’s one he’s stumbled across which is a live issue in education: relevance.
Irrelevance: Never Forget
His main agenda appears to be that of utility: how useful in the real world is what we teach children? After all, the saw goes, when will you ever be asked to solve a quadratic equation? But that misses an important point about why we teach, and therefore what we teach. We don't aim for irrelevance, but simple usefulness itself isn’t our aim either. What we aim for is value.
We do not teach because it appears to be immediately practical and useful; we teach because we are helping children to inherit their intellectual heritage, the pearls and rubies of science, art, the humanities. We don't teach it because we think it will help them change a plug (yeah, why isn't he raging about that? Or a million other things I’ll categorise as ‘handy to know’?) We teach them literature, and mathematics, and art, and science, and a dozen other taxonomic milestones, because they are valuable; because they are important. Because without their acquisition, this generation is dislocated from the last one and every one prior to that, and every cultural and scientific asset is lost.
In any closed system, this is vital – if we’re teaching x, we teach less y. It’s easy to imagine, in the manner of a student procrastinating before their finals, or a teacher at the start of the summer break, that time is in infinite supply, and that the hour will never be late. But teachers have approximately 200 days of five hours apiece per year. As it stands, we barely get them through the syllabuses. Every week I hear a different call from a segment of the chattering classes, insisting that some social ill or other be fixed by (of course) shoehorning something into the curriculum. That’s what they aways say: teach it in schools, and the evil evaporates: sexism; body image; bullying; vandalism….
But if we focus on what will expedite practical matters alone, we rob them of their birthright. Worse (and here I’ll make a practical point), you’ve hobbled their further studies. If they’re learning about mortgages and how to sign on the dole, the cruel mathematics of time insists they don’t learn about Under Milk Wood, or Stalin, or Copernicus. If we dispute that a child should learn quadratic equations, then we leave the next generation of mathematicians helpless until university. And it’s no good, no good at all to bleat, "Well, we should teach them both then." We can’t, we just can’t. There aren’t enough hours in the day.
This is one reason why it is so maddening that teachers are so regularly and comprehensively sidelined from discussions about education. We know what can be done; frequently, we know how to pull off miracles. But we can’t change the laws of physics. Other people, external to the system, are free to say what they like; to imagine that the teaching week is infinitely elastic, and worse, to believe that any dogma or ideology can be transmitted as easily as a jingle. We can teach them healthy eating, but we can’t make them eat healthily. We could teach them about compassionate relationships, but that wouldn't cure cruelty.
A curious assumption appears to underpin this attitude: that everything that ails society could be mended, if only the education system were tinkered with and tuned in just the right way. A drop more Tolpuddle Martyrs, a pinch less Planck. The curious continuation of this philosophy leads us inevitably to the conclusion that we, the schools, the teachers, are the enemies of utopia; we are the barrier to a new Golden Age. Well, to hell with that.
If it barks and lives in a kennel, I call it a dog; if someone claims that what we teach them is worthless and abstract when we pour our souls into its service, I call that an insult to the profession. If this were a Westminster suit raging against the curricular machine, they’d be damned as teacher-bashers. But if you’re a rapper, or indeed Ken Robinson, tilting against the windmills of the timetable, they call you Gandhi.
Appealing as such appeals might be, they’re made of mist, a TED happy thought with no respect for the reality of what we try to do. There are many people interested in education, and they’re all entitled to their opinion. But that doesn’t mean that their opinion is equally valid, informed or desirable. And those of us who stay in schools need to say that more often.
The current selection of subjects we offer to our children is by no means perfect. But it wasn't cobbled together by accident. Some care has gone into its creation, and evolution. Ad hoc additions based on short term perceived utility are as welcome as changing your socks while you're running the 100 metres. I, too, would like children to know everything. But until we invent a Time Turner, we'll learn as much as we can, and try to prioritise the important stuff. We can always learn about divorce later.