I graduated recently. I have a BA degree and Primary PGCE., but after nearly two decades of being ‘educated’ I have decided that I don’t want anything more to do with education.
This makes me uncomfortable when I am with friends who have chosen to pursue a teaching career. I don’t like to argue, but if I write it all down they can engage with it on whatever level they are comfortable with and even stop reading altogether without having to make an excuse. That’s why I need to write this article.
My own experience of being ‘educated’
When I took my GCSEs at the age of sixteen they meant absolutely everything to me. This was not just because I needed good grades to get a good job, but because, as far as I could see, they were an infallible measure of my brain’s ability. I wasn’t alone in feeling this.
I had high hopes for my Biology exam. I had memorised a number of sentences, including one about osmosis: ‘Osmosis is the movement of water molecules from an area of high water concentration to an area of low water concentration through a partially permeable membrane’. A relevant question came up in the exam, and I got a B in Biology for my efforts. I was pretty happy with that. The way I saw it, I clearly wasn’t as intelligent as the people who got an A or A* but at least I was better than the oiks that got C or lower. It didn’t occur to me that memorising a bunch of sentences had nothing to do with actually understanding any of it. I did do some coursework where I carried out an experiment, but that was purely to get the grade and nothing to do with the joy of discovery or anything as lofty as that. The questions I asked myself were never “What is the true nature of life? What is biology all about?” but rather “What do they want from me? What do I need to do in order to get the mark?” This attitude persisted right through my A-Levels.
It was only after I had left school that I slowly began to realise that grades weren’t actually a natural law; that although they served some purpose they were only man-made, contrived, and fallible. I saw that ‘learning’ and ‘exam success’ were not synonymous and I slowly became interested in learning things for their own sake. I realised that learning was actually quite fun in itself. By the time I went to university I had the impression that although they had some obvious uses, grades didn’t tell the whole story of a person’s learning experience.
This idea was confirmed for me when I received my first university grades. I had recently completed two modules, one of which I found absolutely fascinating, and the other which I really didn’t care about at all. For the former I read constantly and passionately, whilst for the latter I waited until the night before the deadline, got out a dozen or so books, flicked through them and then argued in general terms until I’d rattled off enough words. The grades came out and, in an experience I suspect isn’t familiar only to me, I did better in the module that I didn’t actually care about. For one of these essays I took things in which I’ll never forget: the syllabus for the other I’d forgotten about by the time the grades came out. At one time I would have just shrugged it off and taken the examiners’ word for it but in this case the disparity in my attitudes towards these modules was so obvious to me that I couldn’t ignore it.
Luckily I was doing an Educational Studies degree so this was a relevant issue for me in more than one way. The next term I did a module on the different theories of creativity. We had a passionate guest lecturer. She started full of energy with a stimulating speech about how ‘expressing your feelings can help you tune into your real feelings, work through your problems and live for today!’ When she had finished speaking the first question she was asked was: ‘Are we going to need this for the essay? Because you were speaking so fast that I couldn’t write it all down.’
I knew at this point that something had gone seriously wrong. How could somebody listen to such a passionate lecture about life and miss the point so entirely? This led me to a conclusion that I still believe: that in an educational setting what always takes precedence over learning is the immediate need to survive. The questioner in this story was so enmeshed in seeing learning as purely as preparation for of an upcoming exam that the meaning of the lecture had passed unnoticed. The lecturer was trying to teach something about life itself, but her message could not get through.
Babies learn to walk and talk without any formal tuition, simply by observing those around them, realising that the skill is relevant and useful, and then persevering over time until they can do it themselves. When children start school most of them have all kinds of questions about the world around them and an eagerness to explore it. Soon they come to realise that in order to survive they have to internalise the logic of the institution in which they have found themselves. Children’s curiosity and interest in things are bound to be endearing, but they can be really quite awkward and a real source of discomfort in a conventional classroom. This is because schools hardly offer children any choice as to what they learn about, and slowly, subtly, over the course of many years, convince children that their personal interests, no matter what they are, aren’t nearly as important as the official curriculum. Each avenue of a child’s personal curiosity is blocked by a locked door with ‘Not relevant to what we are doing’ written on it, and the children slowly learn not to question and explore any more. They learn that if they put their own thoughts to one side and just do as they’re told then they will have a comfortable life.
I don’t want to devalue the role of the teacher. Teachers are really stuck between a rock and a hard place. It is not generally any teacher’s intention to shun an honest question but they often really don’t have much choice. They are under pressure to follow the curriculum and their jobs and even careers depend on it. I understand the dilemma that teachers face, and indeed, it is largely because of that dilemma that I didn’t want to go into teaching. Obviously some teachers internalise the logic of the system, but, in my own experience at least, many teachers are concerned about this issue and are constantly trying to find a workable balance between their own passion for infusing the children with an interest in learning, and the often completely arbitrary obligations thrust upon them by people who have never met and will never meet the children in the class. It is the teacher of a class, and not someone who has never met the children in it, who is better informed about what they are interested in and what they will benefit most from.
Since children have no choice about what they are taught for the vast majority of their time in school, they come to confuse learning-by-compulsion with learning in general. It is possible to say that learning can still be fun even if it’s done under compulsion, but how can a child ever say ‘yes’ to something on any true and meaningful level, if there has never been any opportunity to say ‘no’? Children lose their curiosity and come to see learning as an obligation, distinctly separate from ‘fun’.
By the time young people leave education they see learning as something completely separate from the world they are actually living in. The only point of learning is to gain qualifications. Having fun comes to mean having the time to buy and consume things. After all, what else is there to do with one’s spare time? Not everybody ends up like that, but the attitude is fostered implicitly by the way schools are run. The fact that the word ‘school’ itself actually comes from the Ancient Greek for ‘leisure’ only underlines the irony of it all.