Don't run scared of questioning minds

2nd February 2001 at 00:00
To be too 'uncomfortable' to take on citizenship issues in the classroom is to condemn children to a world of tabloid morals, says Mary Simpson

Fred Forrester's dispiriting response (TESS, January 5) to the Education for Citizenship document prompts me to respond with a comment from a 15-year-old pupil. "So what do you think of GM foods then?" I asked. "Rubbish," he replied with enthusiasm and confidence.

"What do you mean, rubbish?" I pursued. "Well (long pause) that's all they are. (Long pause) Rubbish. I wouldn't eat them."

Are we satisfied with this as the informed, articulate response? Where do pupils expect to get their information on genetically modified foods - what the terms mean, what kinds of modification have already been done, the implications for world food supply, key elements of the debates on potential damage to the ecosystem, what a patent is, the range of imminent genetic modifications of primates, especially humans, and the arguments for and against the freedom of choice of individual parents as against the good of society?

We inevitably find ourselves moving from basic science to difficult, contested moral and political arenas, and clearly this is what the core of the modern curriculum for young people should comprise. Is their education on how to develop views about such issues as global warming, climate changes, energy use, genetic modification, the changes in the ozone layer to be left to the tabloids? It is insulting to say these topics are beyond the understanding of young people. These matters are on the television news and in the press and they are listening and taking stances - largely uninformed by their educational experiences.

They need to learn to formulate different kinds of questions for different purposes. To distinguish between those questions through which they can explore the soundness, provenance and relevance of the information bombarding them and competing for their attention, or questions such as those posed by Mr Forrester, designed to misrepresent the opposition's case in order to ridicule and discredit it.

Michael Bassey recently suggested the following definition of education:

"The experience of and nurture of personal and social development towards worthwhile living; and second, the acquisition, development, transmission, conservation, discovery and renewal of worthwhile culture."

It is clear that in these urgent debates some uderstanding of scientific, social, economic and moral information and the relationships between these spheres is central. This is what the Education for Citizenship document is all about. From Mr Forrester's argument, however, teachers would seem justified in absolving themselves from any role in these areas. "Citizenship," he warns, "comes perilously close to current mainstream political, social and moral debates. Many teachers will be uncomfortable."

Perhaps not as uncomfortable as the rest of us feel seeing uninformed tabloid opinions, mob rule and lynch law on the ascendancy on many current social dilemmas.

A teacher recently told me: "I cannot possibly tell them anything about GM foods. I don't know enough." Here we have the central problem in a nutshell. The model of learning, which dominates our secondary curriculum, is still that of traditional information and its transmission from the expert by telling.

Teachers do not need to know all about these complex topics. They need to apply their professional expertise in helping youngsters to access relevant information and to use it to address different kinds of questions and form judgments on the validity and quality of contrasting information and arguments.

Soon the core skills in information and communications technology of most primary 7 pupils will outstrip those of many secondary teachers. The most innovative uses of ICT in education must include reaching out to pupil groups which have typically been unable to be fitted comfortably into our schools.

To the sick and disruptive, add the travelling children and, increasingly, the home schoolers. And in the future? Perhaps soon we will need to add the fast independent learners, the artistic, the lateral thinkers and those individualistic oddballs who add such richness to our communities, culture and economy. When, eventually, we have to add those who know more relevant modern science, mathematics and ways of viewing literature than their teachers, how comfortable then will the teachers be?

The education of adolescents is in severe need of the attention of all of us. If teachers are to have a central role in education rather than merely in training and grading, they need to take Education for Citizenship as a wake-up call. Democracy cannot be seen as too hot to handle.

Mary Simpson is professor of classroom learning in the faculty of education, Edinburgh University.

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