What we should be teaching

2nd March 2001 at 00:00
The Education Minister should turn to the lectures of a modest American professor for advice on cleaning up the classroom, says Steve McDaid.

Two goals have been set out by Jack McConnell: raise morale among teachers and weed out the incompetents. But how stationary are these particular targets? Surely these things cannot be measured, some will protest. The debate is still not properly focused, others will say. In order to anchor these slippery, mobile goalposts, let us turn the clock back a century and try to direct a shaft of light into the discussion.

William James has unfortunately become a rather unfashionable figure today. How many people in education have read his Talks to Teachers? More importantly, how many of the esteemed educational theorists, school inspectors and government officials have read James's slim volume? The answer, it would appear, is quite clearly not enough.

But why should we bother reading a modest American professor's lectures delivered more than 100 years ago? I suggest that he can still help us understand why some classrooms in the past seven or eight years have become akin to the jungle or warzone. Perhaps James's most crucial idea is his belief that the primary school pupil is essentially a creature of habit:

"Could the young but realise how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state." This seems to be a simple truth, but it has profound consequences.

Since the early nineties, the majority of parents have been happy to encourage young children to spend increasing amounts of time in front of a screen. Much easier to give the little rascal an e-toy, screen or gadget, rather than make the effort to engage in wholehearted human conversation. And yet is it not obvious that what makes us human is our need to communicate in a shared physical space, making eye contact, listening to an expressive human voice that can convey so much more than a message that flashes across a screen? Human relationships develop at a level that e-communication cannever hope to approach.

Those of us over, say, 25, are fortunate in that we were able to gain an education centred on the presence of human beings in the same physical environment. Primary pupils today are facing the unpleasant inevitability of being denied the riches of such an essentially human education, at school and home.

Habits, good and bad, James reminds us, become ingrained: "(Even) most of the forms of our common speech are things of a type so fixed by repetition as almost to be classed as reflex actions." Can we draw the conclusion that today's young mischief-maker does not regard the teacher as a human being, that in fact he is not terribly concerned to see anyone as a human being?

Of course no one would suggest that the panacea for chronic indiscipline would be simply to throw all the IT facilities out of the primary classrooms. But it does seem reasonable to try to flag the possible contributory factors, and engage in damage limitation.

It would not do any harm to reflect for several moments on what may be just over the horizon. James wrote that education is "the organisation of acquired interests". He adds that it is the teacher's task to build on native interests, the assumption being that every child has such interests, something to act as a foundation. The problem for many teachers today is that they are presented with children who have no native interests.

But wait: it's the teacher's job to teach, is it not? And Jack McConnell as Education Minister does intend to point the finger at those who "are failing". So what exactly are we asking of the teacher today? That a child after six or seven years in a less than human environment, a child with no native interests at all, can somehow be rescued by the "competent" teacher, foundations miraculously appearing in a matter of months?

The debate should not be about the removal of incompetent teachers. We ought to be reflecting on the meaning of the phrase "less than human".

Steve McDaid was a tutor last year in the humanities department, Edinburgh College of Art.

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