Monday, 15 April 2013

My educational philosophy

Most of us can remember very little of what we learnt at school. Beyond the broad brushstrokes, the specifics will be hazy. So there is a lot of truth in Einstein’s observation that:

'Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.'

The best education changes you deep down as a person - it has absolutely nothing to do with learning facts or passing exams. It becomes most evident when the chips are down, which is why the first headmaster of Stowe said he wanted his school to turn out children who were:

‘...acceptable at a dance, but invaluable in a shipwreck.’

I think ultimately that's what schools should be about. Inculcating common decency, good manners, integrity, humanity and, to borrow the Royal Marines’ phrase a certain ‘cheerfulness in adversity’. Once stellar exam results and mind boggling musical or sporting talent are stripped away, it's what left that marks someone out as having been well schooled.

So in a sense, notwithstanding anything else I'm about to say that's it. It really is that simple. What marks a school out as successful is its ability, year in year out, in good times as well as bad, to produce men and women who would do the right thing in a shipwreck.

But I suspect you'll want more, so I'll continue:

* Boarding
- I don’t think it’s for everyone but for the majority who are suited to it it is fantastic. It has come to define me - I boarded since the age of 7 and loved every minute of it. Boarding gives schools the time to run the sort of curriculum that all schools would love to. But it also teaches children how to live alongside one another. Boarders are confident and contrary to the stereotype - have a high degree of emotional intelligence. The best education money can buy is one modelled around boarding.

* Progressive vs traditionalist - people like me who spend too long on Twitter are constantly exposed to the fierce debate between traditionalists and progressives. To stereotype the two camps the progressives want group work, experiential learning and teachers as facilitators; the traditionalists want children sitting silently in rows, whilst the teacher holds court and the pupils eagerly note down everything he or she is saying. To get into philosophy here this is the scourge of essentialism. It bedevils the educational debate - people must be pigeonholed as one or the other. It afflicts other areas of the education debate too: do you believe in co-ed or single-sex? are you a disciplinarian or a libertarian? Essentialism might have worked for Plato - a circle is a circle; distinct from a triangle however much you might like to argue the case but it doesn’t work in education. Teachers deal with wonderfully complex individuals - no two the same. Teaching is an art, not a science and so categories are blurred, fuzzy, they overlap. On the issue of traditional vs progressive I am a pragmatist. I’ve seen both work wonderfully - most teachers use their common sense and mix and match anyway.
* Growth mindset - I want to mention briefly here the work of the American psychologist Carol Dweck. Those of you who have followed her work will know that she gave a group of young children a task that was too difficult for them and divided the children into those who gave up and those who plugged away. She then tracked these pupils in a longitudinal study over many years - and you can probably guess what she found. The upshot of her work is this: failure isn’t bad, failing to try is. The growth mindset can be contrasted to the more widespread fixed mindset thus:
Intelligence is static - you've either got it or you've not.
Nonsense. Through discipline and hard work you can learn to do almost anything.
Avoid challenges, stick with what you know.
Go out on a limb, take a risk.
Give up when things get tough, if it's not effortless it's not cool.
Embrace challenges, see effort as the path to mastery.
Ignore useful negative feedback.
Learn from criticism.
Feel threatened by the success of others.
Find lessons and inspiration in others' success.
A growth mindset infuses the culture and ethos of all the best schools - even though they might not label it as such.
* Exams - recently Tony Little, the Headmaster of Eton, suggested that exams are an outdated Victorian idea in need of retirement. But I want to go out on a limb here and voice my disagreement. Exams give structure and purpose to a school’s operations. They expose children to the kind of high stakes pass or fail situations that they will still encounter as they progress with their careers (exactly like this presentation). They are still the fairest system we have at our disposal for sifting the pupil population and directing individuals to career paths that will suit them and their particular aptitudes. Lastly for teenagers - not a group normally disposed to hard work - they are a useful spur to learning. Studies have shown, for example, that the number of French words in the vocabulary of GCSE French pupils increases five-fold in the three months prior to their exam.
* The curriculum - I haven’t really got time to talk in detail here about this but if you read my blog you’ll see my thoughts on the matter. Suffice it to say that I am a traditionalist where curriculum matters are concerned. Anyone who’s ever seen Boris Johnson speak won’t need convincing that exposure to a bit of Latin and Greek is a good thing. And I am viscerally opposed to right-on curriculum innovations such as happiness lessons. You can no more teach someone to be happy than you can teach them to fall in love. The problem is being approached from the wrong angle.
Lastly, I want to address the future. We’ve started to hear in recent years that teaching in its traditional form is dead. Why would you need a teacher when the whole canon of human knowledge is just one click away on the internet? Sugata Mitra’s hole in the wall experiments seem to show that you can just set up an internet kiosk anywhere you like and children will learn themselves. Mitra himself is circumspect about his findings but they have been jumped upon by certain members of the educational fraternity to suggest that from now on teachers are just ‘facilitators’ learning technicians: guides from the side as opposed to sages on the stage.
I repudiate this in the strongest possible terms. Learning, particularly for children, has a significant human element. You become switched on by it because an individual has inspired you - a teacher real, human, knowable not a machine.
Also, there are times when learning is hard - there are setbacks, it’s boring or difficult. To gain mastery of a subject you need the help and encouragement of a teacher - just as it’s easier to train for a marathon with a partner than on your own.
No-one champions new technology as enthusiastically as I do. Making use of what’s out there by flipping the classroom has huge potential BUT I wouldn’t want to learn without a teacher, nor would I want my own children to. The best schools are ones where human relationships are at the very forefront of the educational experience.
Computers don’t work in shipwrecks!