Learning about being human

23rd January 2009 at 00:00

I am pleased to respond to the issues raised by Bill Boyd in his letter to The TESS last week. My consistent opposition to a A Curriculum for Excellence is not sashayed out simply to be controversial but because I genuinely believe it is not a step forward.

Mr Boyd asks me: "What would I wish my students to achieve, other than good exam results, on leaving school and how do I see the future of secondary education in Scotland?" My Higher English teacher, a totally inspiring lady, once said to our class: "Learning about literature is important, but what will touch your hearts is applying the meaning of literature to your own lives." The nurturing of such empathy, often not recognised, is a vital part of a holistic education. This informal strand of the curriculum should always transcend the content of formal subjects, and I have always aspired to help my pupils to recognise their value as human beings and to achieve their potential.

Pupils always say that the quality of their relationships with their teachers matters. Good exam results are much more likely to be achieved in the context of a caring relationship which is characterised by mutual respect, understanding, open communication, humour and the capacity to listen.

While it is a delight that so many of my pupils achieve A grade passes, this for me is the tip of the iceberg. What is most engaging are the moments of illumination when pupils share their insights during hugely stimulating class discussions. When pupils display autonomy of thought combined with sensitivity to others, I feel privileged to be a facilitator.

It is difficult to select from the indelible moments of deep significance. I reflect on two occasions. On a history trip from our school, I stood at the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme and shared a sense of common tragedy for the fallen young soldiers of the Great War. The red poppies of Flanders added another dimension to the work of the war poets which is not possible to appreciate fully in the classroom. Seeing the 72,000 names on the vast monument brought the futility of war home to the pupils.

On February 3, 2007, I paid my respects at a service to celebrate the life of a much loved 17-year-old pupil who had died in a road traffic accident. That experience of grieving with my pupils increased rather than diminished me as a human being. When tragedy makes a level playing field of us all and we are overwhelmed by sorrow, the classroom obviously has to be a safe haven as well as a learning space for academic content.

So what should an excellent curriculum consist of? Children have a huge desire to satisfy their aesthetic and cognitive needs. Therefore, we need meaningful content and viable skills. Learning to drive, for instance, is a skill, but we do need a body of essential knowledge to enable us to drive responsibly.

Bill Boyd wonders what I wish to contribute to the development of my students. I see education as infinitely more than the imparting of course content. It is also important to contribute to their emotional and psychological well-being. I am content that we work together as well as we do and, through that experience, understand what it means to be human and feel a sense of bonded kinship.

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

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