Farm-fresh in the classroom

27th December 1996 at 00:00
Reinventing. There's a loaded word. Remember a few years back in the heltery-skeltery days of Baker and McGregor and Patten when the initiatives were coming down the tube, one a week?

Then the only reassuring thing we could call across the committee table was: "Hang on, hang on a minute, Carruthers, we're already doing this aren't we? Well, all but. Just a little adjustment here and there will do the trick. I mean, we don't have to reinvent the wheel."

Reinvent. The word came to my mind recently. I was listening to a newly appointed editor of a national daily commenting that no British newspaper, no matter how popular, has found the formula for everlasting success. All of them have to keep reinventing themselves.

What does that mean? To me, it means periodically shaking up the layout and rearranging the content, or fresh packaging for what remains essentially the same product.

This is true of newspapers and true of supermarkets. But is it true of education? Does education as a delivered package get 'reinvented'? That is what successive ministers have tried to be seen to be doing.

This is not another moan about political interference in what we do - OK, well maybe a barb here and there. This is a meditation on constancy.

I want to talk about farming because no metaphor suits education better than the image of a field. One year we plough it this way, another year we plough it that way. We try different crops and experiments with nutrients. We weigh the yield. We aim the product at different markets. Backs break and hearts break over it.

Right now the overseer is a Shepherd. And, guess what? If you're up with the latest agricultural technology you'll know that fertilisation of the land is now being measured and controlled by satellites in space.

Some tinfoil-wrapped dustbin in orbit that wouldn't know an ear of wheat if you poked one in its eye is laying down the law to tractors.

Well, we all know about that, don't we.

In the end, however, it's still a field, with dimensions just so much, soil just so deep, potential broad but finite - and needing, now and then, a time for clover and long grass.

How can anyone argue against reinvention? Isn't every re-reading of a favourite poem, every performance of Hamlet, every play of a piece of loved music, a rekindling of delight?

Every time I walk into my classroom I'm rekindling the ideas the children are working with, overlaying a fresh gloss on it.

Whether or not delight is the result is open to debate. However, things that don't reinvent themselves turn into antiques, become the vicar's annual sermon.

We're talking extinction here. The notion simply means hanging onto the best, and then building.

We may curse the upheavals of the past 15 years - and the errors are appalling: clumsy, over-loaded curricula, vast sums of money misdirected, tabloid-standard judgements on the profession - yet the searching spirit is a healthy reflection of the value we put on getting the nutrient-to-crop ratio just right, for every seed. We are inching towards fine-tuning the application.

And hanging on to the best?

This has to be the truths about learning which never change, have never changed, will never change.

* We learn when we discover for ourselves.

* In the final analysis, people teach themselves.

* Taking decisions and accepting responsibility for the consequences makes people grow up.

* Every encounter with another human being teaches us abut ourselves.

* Rubbing along with all sorts of other people is essential preparation for life.

* Before the acquisition of all academic knowledge must come self-confidence.

* Giving children real responsibility - for nothing less than the survival of the species, including care for the very old and the very young, growing food, building houses and manufacturing necessities of life - is the best education any society could ever devise.

When education manages to encompass these things and puts them at the forefront of its priorities, then we remove the necessity to reinvent education.

The real world will have taken over.

Rowland Molony is senior sixth-form tutor at Sidmouth College, Devon.

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