As a challenge, I’ve made a list of ten things that I think students need to understand in order to take part in contemporary society, most of which are only brushed over by the current system:
- An understanding of the political process – including a broad understanding of the core ideals of the major political parties, and the responsibilities of MPs. I cannot believe that we can expect to run a genuinely democratic society while spending longer educating people about 16th Century poetry than we do the workings of parliament. In some utopian future they’ll look back on this fact with a mixture of bemusement and pity.
- Economics, Macro and Micro – this is the most commonly called for subject by students, many of whom think you can rent a two-bedroom flat in Brighton for £150 a month – or is that too much? They should have experience running imaginary budgets for households and countries, which would include an understanding of GDP, APR and inflation, and would also include an understanding of the positive and negative effects of a loan based society; as well as giving them at least a rough idea of how much life actually costs. This kind of thing is also really useful to teach basic arithmetic.
- An ability to interrogate the modern media – this would range from the ability to critically read anything from films and newspapers to an understanding of how the industry of the media affects the output – the relationship between the medium and the message. This should help them understand the narratives that they build their own lives around as well as being able to involve themselves more responsibly in their broader society. Infinitely more useful than another lesson spent learning how to spell onomatopoeia.
- An understanding of the current effects of technology and an actual debate about the changes offered by near future developments – this isn’t actually as tough as it sounds. They just need to study sci-fi (and maybe watch Black Mirror.) Inexplicably, given the state of society, science fiction has never been a key genre in English literature…?? I’ll say that again: In a world driven by technological progress, a world where the very future of humanity rests on our ability to develop technology capable of saving us from ecological armageddon, science fiction has never been a key genre in English. The mind boggles!
- Climate change and the ecology – this is currently covered I’m sure, but it needs to be cross curricular. This isn’t a problem that scientists can fix alone, and an understanding of how lobbyists and PR influence decision makers should be central to points 1, 3 and 5.
- Emotional and social wellbeing – again, this is covered in parts, but doesn’t get anything like the recognition it deserves. Mental and emotional health, in a wide range of forms, is very real for today’s students and they’re far more capable of dealing with it than we think. We can’t brush this under the table any more. Implementing it might be seen as a hot potato, but, really, it might not mean anything more than reading contemporary fiction with them.
- Literacy – this seems like a nuts thing to add to a list of changes to changes in education, but the reality is that a lot of the kids I teach don’t read and can’t really read. At the moment the problem is that ‘literacy’ isn’t separate from ‘literature,’ so before kids can really read properly we’re going to them with Shakespeare and Dickens. It’s like trying to teach someone to weight-lift by giving them 50 kilos to bench press. Literacy means reading and writing, plain and simple. Let them read contemporary fiction – and not study, but read. Just read. This way they can go through three or four interesting books a year, as a kind of reading group. They can reflect on the issues, explore the ideas and develop their understanding together. BUT they’ll only do this if the books are relevant enough to be enjoyed WITHOUT being studied. There are a number of nuanced differences being highlighted there, and it’s important to understand the difference between studying a book and reading one. That’s for another post, but the base line is in understanding that no text, really, should be so complicated that a kid can’t understand it on first reading. The depth can be eye opening, but their understanding of the plot and characters should come without teacher input. This means: retire the cannon from secondary schools.
- Globalisation – really, this means studying the world today. Too many students are stuck in an ‘empire mentality,’ mainly because throughout their educations they’ve been taught about times in history when that’s what everyone thought; at the moment they’re not capable of looking at our world as an interconnected society where the news is real, it’s happening, and they can affect it, because they spend their days being told about things that happened centuries ago and are then expected – in some theoretical alternate-reality – to apply this learning to things that are happening in the real world, though no-one’s ever told them about that. This is also a response to the fact that, because history is a topic that’s covered in some depth, a lot of students will leave school knowing more about the 18th or 19th Centuries that the 20th or 21st. Madness!
- Domesticity – this is a big one for me, mainly because it’s a chance to bring a bit of magic to the regular world around them. Into this bracket I’d stick DIY – so kids can team-build flat-pack on a timer (they’d love it) – and cooking, which they do already; but why not add car repairs, gardening, wiring a plug! It’s amazing to think that a bright kid could leave school and tell you what equation connects power, energy and time but couldn’t wire a plug. It’s shocking.
- Exercise – again, I know it’s there already, but until you’ve spent an hour trying to calm down a room full of 14-year-old boys who are shaking they’re pumped so full of hormones (and Haribo,) you can’t appreciate the extent to which most kids need to spend a lot more time running their little socks off. They should physically work until they’re physically spent and then they’ll be ready to learn. Middle of the day is marking time. Lessons finish later. And we could certainly be a bit more imaginative with our nutrition training as well. They genuinely don’t understand what a diet of sweets and Lucozade does to them.
- The Law – I know, there’s 11 here now but… really… we live in a world where ignorance is no excuse for breaking the law and yet we NEVER teach people what the law actually is. They know nothing about their rights, they know nothing about how laws are setup, arranged, or why they’re there and yet they’re expected to follow them – despite not even knowing what they are?!?!? This, for me, is surely, the maddest thing on an insane list…
I know that nothing comes without a price, and that making these changes might mean that future students leave school without having studied one 16th Century play a year for 6 years on the trot, or knowing how to calculate the internal angles of a triangle; it means they might know more about the digital revolution than the industrial one and they won’t understand the struggles faced by women in the 19th C. because they’ll have been too busy studying the role of women in the world they live in but … I guess, all things being equal, that’s a price I’m willing to pay.
The world is changing. Education is not. The answers are there for us. Let’s at least do the obvious…