I’ve just been reading a lecture by Philip Pullman. If you care about the education of our children I suggest you read it. It is filled with much I agree with in his critique of current practice. There is a particularly good description of what it feels like to write creatively and the difference from what children are being now asked to do:
“Writing a story feels to me like fishing in a boat at night. The sea is much bigger than you are, and the light of your little lamp doesn’t show you very much of it. You hope it’ll attract some curious fish, but perhaps you’ll sit here all night long and not get a bite.”
And he goes on to elaborate the metaphor, describing some of the perils and rewards of creative work. All this in contrast to what children are now being asked to do by the people who devised the system, which, as he says, misses the point:
“They miss it because they don’t know how anyone writes a story. They think that the way to write a story is to spend fifteen minutes planning, and, by the way, fill in the planning format to show that you’ve planned it properly; and then spend forty-five minutes writing the story according to your plan; and then you’ve done it.”
But despite the fact that much of what he had to say resonated with me very strongly, after my first reading I felt a sense of unease. On my second reading that unease hardened. The problem is that I think he is missing the point.
Early on in the lecture he suggests that something went wrong in education in England about twenty-five years ago. My sense is that for as long as we have had mass education there has been something wrong. Not wrong for everybody, not wrong for all our children and young people, but wrong for a very large number, if not a majority.
Philip Putnam put his finger on it in the last of his five recommendations of how we could improve our educational system:
“Make this the golden rule, the equivalent of the Hippocratic oath: Everything we ask a child to do should be worth doing.”
Over the years I must have seen several hundred people, who have passed through the educational system, without feeling much or any of what they were asked to do at school was worthwhile or made them feel worthwhile. This was not because they were stupid or lacked ability. It was because they did not connect with school. It was something they had to do and they were glad when it ended.
Now I must emphasise that I also know many people who did find their experience of school worthwhile and who enjoyed the whole experience. But my sense is that they are a minority, a significant minority, but a minority never-the-less. The majority put up with school with varying degrees of tolerance.
Now I happen to think that helping our children find things that they find worthwhile doing and developing self-respect from developing mastery of things they find worthwhile doing is one of the most important things we could do as a society. The question is how could we achieve this?
Many years ago, when I was heavily involved in educational research, I came across a quote from some educational researchers, which made a deep impression on me and subsequent experience has supported. Sadly I have lost both the source and the quote, but the sense remains. What these two forgotten (by me) researchers were saying was that everything we have learned from research into learning suggest that people are different and that a successful educational system would acknowledge and cater for those differences.
If we were serious about providing worthwhile learning for our children, that would be the place to start, rather than look back at Golden Age that never existed.