Have faith in learning, not learning faith

17th October 2008 at 01:00
In last week's TESS, Bob McKay raised the issue of the rights of young people and their parents when questions of religious education and observance arise in schools.

This is a timely reminder, since A Curriculum for Excellence takes as its starting point the Unesco aims for education: "learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together and learning to be." While there is no simple one-to-one correspondence with the four purposes of ACfE - successful learners, effective contributors, responsible citizens and confident individuals - the links can be made.

My contention is that "learning to be" is fundamental to the whole process of education. Perspectives on the "big issues" of who we are and why we are here (and whether we are alone in the universe) are important to many young people and are part of "learning to be"; which impinges on what it is to be a learner. Carol Dweck argues that a "fixed mindset", based on the myth that intelligence is a single entity which is fixed, stable over time and able to be used as a predictor of future success, makes young people more likely to give up when they encounter failure. But, if they understand that intelligence can grow and develop when they encounter failure, they are likely to be more resilient and look for alternative strategies. Such self-knowledge is part of "learning to be".

Schools should not be places where assumptions are blindly made, but places where young people are encouraged to ask questions and be critical of ideas, belief systems and orthodoxies. The UN Charter on the Rights of the Child obliges governments to consult young people on decisions which materially affect their future life chances. Yet in our schools, young people are routinely put into "sets" according to judgments made about their potential, based on dubious test scores.

ACfE is potentially ground-breaking in its commitment to put pedagogy at the heart of the curriculum. It encourages teachers to share learning intentions with pupils, to engage them in creative and critical thinking, to have a dialogue with one another and the teacher and to achieve a deep understanding. Teachers, for the first time in a generation, are being trusted to engage with ideas rather than being told what and when to teach.

If we want thinking pupils, we need reflective teachers prepared to engage with the principles which underpin successful learning and teaching. Schools should be learning organisations with a commitment to deep learning, not to the passive acceptance of dogma or belief.

Schools should be places where shibboleths are opened to critical scrutiny. Rational debate is required where ideas are challenged and the views of pupils are acknowledged and discussed, if young people are to operate in a democratic society. The least the curriculum can do is ensure that alternative value systems should have equal prominence with those which have dominated the discourse for too long.

Humanism offers an important counterbalance to faith and, as such, should enjoy equal status within the curriculum. Schools should not be places where young people are labelled, either by their parents' belief system or by narrow measures of prior attainment derived from doubtful tests or exams.

Brian Boyd is emeritus professor of education at Strathclyde University.

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