What is knowledge? Who decided that we had to learn the classics, but not how to put up shelves?

13th April 2001 at 01:00
A few weeks ago someone drove into me and one of the front tyres burst on my car. Or that's the version that I told in the staffroom and to various male members of my family. What actually happened is that I was trying to change the tape, scraped a wall, and burst the tyre. Admittedly, the first version does have a few gaps but, tactfully, no one bothered to question me any further.

This minor accident left me in a complete decline. I was late for school because I had to wait for a cab, I missed my first lesson, my class rioted, I spent the next week keeping most of them back in detention. I had to get a lift home from a colleague, who had to leave immediately after school, so I didn't have time to sort out the work that I needed to do, and then I couldn't drive to the supermarket, so I didn't have any foodI you get the picture? The reverberations lasted a week. And it all could have been avoided if I'd known how to change a car tyre. My brother did it for me and it took about 10 minutes. Problem solved.

Why didn't anyone teach me this stuff in school? Why didn't I learn something in school that is remotely useful to me now? I know that learning is an accumulative process, that you pick up skills all the way through, that school is a vital stepping stone for later life - these are the things that I tell my kids when they ask me this very same question. I'm sure that my formative years in school did much to shape the kind of professional person that I am, even though it doesn't feel like it.

But I want results, and I don't mean A-level results. I mean practical results, and I want them now. Why can't I cook, for example? The whole world can rustle up a lasagne and I have to slavishly follow every line of a recipe if I want to try to make a meal that isn't zapped in the microwave. Why didn't I do cooking at school? They did have a home economics room but it was at the time when they were frightened of stereotyping girls, so they gave us extra science. I spent time fricasseeing magnesium sulphate - or something like that. Hardly a nutritious meal.

I wish I had been stereotyped, then I might not be so ungry all the time. I might not spend a fortune on poncey cookbooks that are so complicated I spend my time wheeling round Sainsbury's looking for root of lemongrass and then not knowing what to do with it.

What is knowledge anyway? Who decided that we had to learn the classics to be educated, and not learn how to put up shelves? I remember very little of the knowledge that I learnt in school. I passed GCSEs in French, German and Spanish, and now I can barely understand any of them. People say that you retain the knowledge that is most useful to you, that practice is the key to keeping knowledge and understanding clear in your head. Well, if I'd needed these things, surely I'd remember them. However, I do need to know how to apply for a mortgage. Can I do it? Can I bugger.

To burden schools with producing mini-versions of Handy Andy would be another way of saying that schools are wholly responsible for the learning that goes on in society. That is unrealistic and untrue. Who teaches you is as important as what you learn. Learning for yourself is as important as being told. Sometimes, simple transmission of knowledge isn't enough. If it was, maybe there'd be no crime, or no teenage pregnancies. Or maybe you don't acquire a thirst for learning until you're past school age. "Usefulness" probably changes.

I've started to learn to knit, and it's taking me forever. My grandma was an expert, but she died before I could value the knowledge she could give me. At the time, I thought that knitting was stupid and boring and something that old people did because they didn't have a life. Now I see it as relaxing and a chance to be creative. If only I could cast on. I've reached the stage when I'm aware of how much there is to know, and when I was younger I thought I knew everything. Perhaps we should pass on that knowledge before we try to teach anything else.

Gemma Warren teaches at the Latymer school, Edmonton, north London. Email:gemmaw@callnetuk.com. She has written a guide for new teachers, published by The TES, pound;2.99. Order from The TES bookshop at www.tes.co.uk or call the shop on 01454 617370

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