If the young aspire only to fame and fortune, where does that leave our 19th century fact-driven curriculum?

15th April 2011 at 01:00

A recent survey of 10-year-olds asked them: "What is the best thing in the world?" The top spot was "money and getting rich", beating the usual favourite "being famous" into second place. "God" came in at Number 10, just below "nice food".

Are these children right in believing that the best life for them is one of wealth and fame? Do they need guidance on alternative accounts of it? Is it any part of the school's job to give this?

If the Coalition gets its way, probably not. The current review of the national curriculum asks for a greater focus on subject content and essential knowledge. PSHE, where you might expect these things to be discussed, is being pushed into the sidings. Cameron's pre-election enthusiasm for enhancing people's well-being now seems a long time ago.

What does Michael Gove think his essential knowledge is for? Presumably, to help us all to lead more flourishing lives, personally and as citizens. But if so, why not put the spotlight directly on this wider aim, rather than on curriculum content? Why not start by asking how schools can best prepare children for a life of well-being, rather than focusing on what is at most only one way of doing this?

Banging away about traditional knowledge is likely to get things out of kilter. Agreed, if we are to flourish, we need all kinds of understanding - not least about opportunities open to us, how people tick, the society in which we are to make our way, its scientific and technological basis, and all sorts of other things. Whether a traditional education is best able to provide this is another question. But the main point is that knowledge isn't everything. Ten A* grades alone won't gift you a fulfilled life.

What will? This is a hard question, but it is where thinking about the school curriculum should begin. If our 10-year-olds are misguided in their attachment to fame and riches, what more adequate picture of personal well-being can we put in its place?

Some schools now have so-called "happiness" lessons, in which such questions are explored. This is fine, but too limited. "Personal well-being" is still clinging on - but for how long? - as a subject in the secondary national curriculum. But you can't make up for the limitations of a 19th century, fact-driven curriculum by creating yet another school subject to fill what is in fact a major gap in policy.

If a main purpose of education is to help us all to lead flourishing lives, it must pervade everything a school does. This is why we need clear thinking about what this aim involves. It certainly means being a success in life, rather than a failure. Not in our 10-year-olds' sense, perhaps. And not as being successful in achieving one's major goals in life, whatever these may be (dominating others?). The philosopher Joseph Raz is nearer the mark in his idea of well-being as wholehearted and successful engagement in worthwhile relationships and activities.

There is a lot more to do in spelling this out, but if it is right schools need to become very different places. Children will be apprenticed to lead fulfilling lives as adults by regular experience of fulfilment when young. A system that wants children to lose themselves in what they are doing will think twice about the stoppings and startings of the traditional timetable. If it wants its alumni to become autonomous choosers, it will encourage them, as they go through school, to make more decisions about what they learn and when.

Central to most people's well-being are relationships, collaborative activities, conversation and discussion, practical pursuits, meaningful work, reading, music, film and other arts. Curling up with a book on algebra or honing one's skills in French or Latin are few people's cup of tea. Schools would do well to remember this. Although much of what is learnt in well-being will remain the same as now, content will no longer be king.

Covering the ground will be less important than learning to throw oneself into all kinds of valuable pursuits.

Personal qualities will also be centre stage. We need all kinds of virtues if we are to flourish: sensible regulation of our emotions, and of our bodily desires for food, drink and sex; persistence, self-awareness, a sense of priorities, good judgment, imaginativeness, a sense of humour, and many others. Devising activities that encourage these dispositions is as much the school's task as teaching about atomic structure.

The regime I have in mind will send school leavers out into the world having thoroughly enjoyed learning and experiencing new things, and eager for more of the same. This is scarcely the highest priority in the system we know - a system dominated by tests and examinations that leaves many of its successes with an over-instrumental attitude to learning and many of its failures turned off it for life.

Secondary schools as we know them can sometimes be better vehicles for generating distress than fulfilment: boredom, fear of authority figures and bullies, anxiety about exams, overwork, envy, disappointment, seeing oneself as a loser. Are the schools happy with this? I am sure they want, deep down, to equip all their students to lead flourishing lives. If so, they and their political masters should think hard about better ways of doing this.

John White is emeritus professor of philosophy of education at the Institute of Education, University of London. His new book Exploring Well-Being in Schools: A guide to make children's lives more fulfilling is published by Routledge.

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