A metaphor for employability

3rd October 2008 at 01:00

You have perhaps read Finlay ^J Macdonald's damning account of his first day at school in Harris. Dressed in his scratchy tweed suit, he loosed his father's hand and entered a world where his native Gaelic was banned. He learnt his first word of English when the teacher placed her hands firmly on his shoulders, and pressed him down on to a wooden bench. Sit, she said. And so, he wrote, "I learnt my first word of English as if I were being groomed for Crufts."

My Friday class was shocked when I recounted this story to them. They have come through an education system which is designed to nurture and empower them. And when they come to us, they do so through choice; so we look after them.

There is a strong element of the "customer" ethos in FE. We could adopt a slogan at our car park exits: "Thank you for learning with us." Or we could hang a banner above our revolving doors: "Helping you learn more." In practice, though, the relationship is neither dog and master, nor customer and provider. It's much more complex. Our learners are partners in the enterprise of their education.

They choose to come and choice em- powers. What do our learners want? What kind of world do they want to prepare for? A glance at Teach Your Granny To Text, a book published by We Are What We Do, the social change group, is reassuringly sensible and gratifyingly inspirational about the kind of world young people want.

The book is the result of a competition which asked children to come up with small ideas that could make the world a better place. The suggestions include getting dad off the furniture and out for a walk, cooking a meal from scratch and (the winning idea, which gives the book its title) teach your granny how to text.

The suggestions are revealing. They both reassure those of us in education that we all want the same thing - and move the bar that much higher for us as providers.

We prepare our learners for work or further training, but there's also the x factor. We have an eye, too, on the world they will inhabit and prepare them for that. Employability isn't just being equipped with a skill. It means having a positive attitude towards lifelong learning. It means staying in the loop in an increasingly complex and technological society. It means flexibility, so that change is seen as an opportunity. And it means social skills, so that life might be smoother and happier.

So a few weeks into the new session, there's no barking out commands. Instead, I'm still negotiating relationships, finding the right buttons to press. Joe sits in front of me, looking exactly like his brother from last year's class, but nothing like his brother in the way he wants to learn. Craig's language would shame Gordon Ramsay, so we had a game: when he got overheated, we took it one word at a time. "Watch this adjective now, OK, now watch this noun . " He learnt a bit of grammar and I learnt a few new expletives. Fair exchange.

Teach Your Granny to Text is a great metaphor for a shared learning experience, for inclusiveness, for lifelong learning - in fact, for everything that FE aims for. Now maybe that's the catchy banner we should put above our revolving doors.

Carol Gow lectures in media at Dundee College.

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