Give us back the wonder of learning

24th June 2005 at 01:00
There is not enough passion about teaching among the profession's leaders, says David Halliday

The education committee of the Scottish Parliament is currently taking evidence on what schools can do to motivate their pupils. Few involved in the secondary sector would dispute that it is a rare pupil who could be described as thirsting for knowledge. Much more apposite of many would be DH Lawrence's phrase "their dross of indifference" or, in cool celebrity argot, "I can't be arsed".

Teachers often feel frustrated, as their attempts to interest pupils are sometimes as effective as pushing on a piece of string. For many educators the apathy, and in some cases antipathy, that is endemic in many classrooms is increasingly accepted as inevitable. Everything from raging hormones to computer games is used to excuse our palpable failure to motivate young people to have a yearning to learn.

Aristotle stated that "all men by their nature desire to know". Despite the passage of two millennia, contemporary Darwinists, such as Dawkins, concur by emphasising the insatiable curiosity of Homo sapiens. How then do we square this with pupils who often appear as curious as cucumbers?

According to those responding to the education committee, "schools must have effective leaders and a good ethos" if they are to become places where children's desire to know can flourish (TESS, May 27). So what are we getting wrong? Far too many of those involved in the leadership of education, from regional to senior school management, are, astonishingly, not passionate about teaching and learning. They would be as content and well placed managing a supermarket. Generally, they are efficient at operating their clockwork, mechanistic schools. They are technocrats, devoid of the creativity necessary to produce an ethos conducive to induct all pupils, irrespective of ability, into the wonder of learning.

Unintentionally, their actions are an obstacle to creating the ethos that is the necessary prerequisite to form a genuine learning community. They labour tirelessly, indiscriminately rolling out one initiative after another. They mean well but have little conception of how to construct a dynamic environment where children's innate desire to know, without expending too much effort, can be harnessed by teachers dedicated to maximising their potential.

In recent years, it has become fashionable to view teachers as facilitators, who simply direct children. Often juxtaposed with this view is the equally erroneous idea that the task of the teacher is never to make judgments, that one point of view or book is no better or worse than any other - only different. Why push children to read Shakespeare or Eliot in preference to Bridget Jones?

Ironically this type of inverted snobbery is responsible for excluding so many children from experiencing our rich cultural heritage, as opposed to the crass superficial pap they are often fed by the media. For all the talk of inclusion, has there ever been a time when so many have been intellectually excluded as we dumb down our education to ensure it is instantly accessible, "fun", and relates to pupils' current experience?

Tragically, too many in education have been seduced by the fallacious message. Aristotle wisely stated that "the roots of education are bitter but the fruit is sweet," Fun is fine; but something has gone seriously awry when it becomes the criterion of success of any teacher or school.

Flexibility and a willingness to innovate and cater for a variety of learning styles need to be embraced by all teachers. We must work assiduously to create an ethos that convinces our pupils that the effort necessary for them to master food and nutrition, French and physics will be substantial, but it will be worth it. Worth it, not only in a utilitarian sense of equipping them with the basics to make their way in a global economy, but also to raise their horizons and to "know then thyself", allowing them to live a fulfilling life.

To even approach what unfortunately appear such lofty heights from our present prostrated position, we not only need educational leaders, evangelical about learning, but teachers who aspire to inspire their pupils. Thankfully they exist and I have witnessed them in action, but my fear is they are becoming an endangered species, crushed by a remorseless system that is producing initiative fatigue and confusion.

Our leaders and teachers should be in missionary mode, not plodding bureaucrats and burnt-out pedagogues peddling the latest initiative. It is our task in Scottish education to put in place much better schools with a strong work ethos that will allow young people to be infected by Goethe's sentiment that we are "here to wonder". Perhaps then we will not only have more motivated pupils, but young people who will go on to become lifelong learners.

David Halliday is a history and business education teacher at Eyemouth High.

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