Politics always comes into play

15th January 2010 at 00:00

I agree with sociologist Frank Furedi (TESS, November 6) that politicians overestimate the potential of education to solve all society's problems. There are those who would argue that Scotland's four capacities are a manifestation of this.

In his book, Wasted: Why Education Isn't Educating, Mr Furedi bemoans the shift from teaching to learning, the decline in the valuation of the knowledge-led and intellectually demanding curriculum and the demotion of the authority of the teacher into a supporter of the learner.

He seems to want a shift back to a golden era when teachers simply taught from the front, when a central role was assigned to the deep study of subject-based knowledge and when the role of education was not simply to respond to a changing world but to preserve the past.

It would be easy to dismiss Mr Furedi as conservative and elitist, but there is a danger that we are replacing old myths with new ones. Education is not an "either-or" but a "both-and" activity. It requires classrooms where there is an ingenious combination of learning and teaching, methodology and content, support and challenge.

It requires a curriculum that specifies experiences and outcomes, learning to learn and learning content and skills, understanding and knowledge.

It requires a school system that broadens access and preserves standards, that respects the authority of the teacher and the rights of young people, and that responds to a rapidly-changing world.

People who hold the kind of views I have need people like Mr Furedi to remind us that teaching is a high-wire act, and we need to be careful we don't fall off on the left side of the wire.

I refer to the high wire having a left and right side deliberately. Where Mr Furedi is not only wrong but hopelessly naive is his assertion that "education needs to become insulated from politics".

Some readers will know the story of the well-known scientist quoted in Stephen Hawking's book A Brief History of Time.

It is about a scientist who was giving a public lecture on astronomy where he described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the centre of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, an old lady at the back of the room said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise." The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?" "You're very clever, young man, very clever", said the old lady. "But it's turtles all the way down!"

Paulo Freire was absolutely right when he said that neutral education cannot exist. Education is political "all the way down", from the First Minister's office to the interactions between students and teachers.

Let us go "all the way down" to the deepest and most crucial level, namely the politics of the classroom. Society gives teachers authority and they need to use that power they are given and use it well.

Teachers earn respect by being leaders of learning: by being knowledgeable about the subject being studied and by being able to generate discussion where appropriate.

But, crucially, teachers earn respect first and foremost by giving it - by respecting and trusting young people and establishing a community of learners in their classroom which makes discussion and dialogue possible, even in challenging classrooms.

Unless we give teachers adequate support to understand how they can best do this and to deal with politics at classroom level, we won't produce world-class scientists and young people who have developed the four capacities.

Ian Smith is founder of Learning Unlimited.

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