What is education? Now there’s a question for you. I looked it up in the OED and here’s what it came up with “The process of receiving or giving systematic instruction, especially at a school or university” The font of all modern knowledge Wikipedia, however, states that “Education in its general sense is a form of learning in which the knowledge, skills, and habits of a group of people are transferred from one generation to the next through teaching, training, or research.” The truth probably lies somewhere in between the two. The OED definition alludes to the systematic nature of our system; accountability, curricula and testing whereas the Wikipedia definition regards education in a much more holistic way; the handing down of skills and habits. Humans have of course been educating each other since the Stone Age and for me that basic premiss of passing on skills knowledge and habits remains to this day. Yet in a modern world where every last grade must be accounted for and if little Jonny didn’t quite get a grade C then questions will be asked and somebody (but not little Jonny) will be blamed, we seem to have rather lost our way. Education is about so much more than testing.
As the Wikipedia definition points out it is also about passing on skills and HABITS. There is some recognition from the government and the media of this element of education. We can all no doubt can recall news stories of this ilk ” Britain has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe.” What was the government’s solution? That’s right, put more sex education in schools, let the teachers sort it out. This kind of kind of “recognition” also drives me mad because not only is education so much more than testing it’s also so much more that prescriptive hours of PSHE. I digress, forgive me.
Ask yourself this, why did you become a teacher in the first place? Maybe it was for the love of your subject, maybe you simply enjoy working with young children or teenagers or maybe it was that you simply loved the idea of educating people and having the opportunity to pass on skills and knowledge. I have yet to meet a teacher who says that they joined the profession in order to a) make money or b) make sure they got a positive residual post exam results.
Let’s just take a typical lesson as a most basic example of how holistic education actually is.
Action: students enter classroom teacher greets them with smile and a cheery “Good morning!” Lesson: politeness.
Action: silence whilst the register is taken. Lesson: in life there are very formal, serious situations in which we must behave in a certain way.
Action: starter Q&A listening and responding to each other in the classroom. Lesson: respect.
And so it goes on, you get the idea. In a school day we probably teach more about good habits than anything else yet testing is king and why? Because you can measure it!
Were our system solely based on testing and accountability and yes, at times, it feels like it is. We would not have made huge strides as a nation towards great racial integration and acceptance nor would we have civil partnerships and same sex marriages, the problem is you can’t measure the impact of holistic teaching that is to say, knowledge and habits over short periods of time. The effects of years and years of fabulous pastoral care and modelling of good habits regarding acceptance of different races and sexual orientation is only just now being felt. The over politicisation of the education system and the fact that the average government lasts for 4-8 years means that this vital element of education is pushed to one side in favour of the headline grabbing “GCSE results improve.”
We all no doubt have anecdotal evidence of how modelling good habits within the classroom has impacted the lives of the young people in our care. I was a Head of Year for 5 years and although I had to monitor attendance and track attainment and counsel my C/D borderline students the majority of my work was about passing on good habits. Teaching students about, listening to and caring for each other and themselves. These days I am classroom based but the teaching of good habits and the modelling of them remains a high priority in my classroom. A few years ago, I had two boys in my class; David and Mark they had been friends since they were 2 years old. They were like chalk and cheese but they got on like a house in fire. One afternoon in Y11 Mark appears at my door asking to speak to me. He wants me to move him to a different seat in the classroom because he suspects that David is gay and he, Mark, is the object of his affections! I of course laugh, which was probably not the best reaction but in doing so I was modelling behaviour by showing him how ridiculous his request was. My questions were these; what if he sat next to a girl and she fancied him but he didn’t fancy her? Does the fact that David might fancy you change all the other great qualities that you have seen in your friend since you were 2? Don’t you think you should talk to David about this? I also pointed out that IF David did fancy him then he was damn luck as David was smart, funny and good looking and he clearly saw similar traits in those that he liked. Mark left. I had resolved nothing for him, but I had taught him lots. Homosexuality was no big deal, friendship is important it is the bread and butter of life you simply don’t give up in it and finally talking and listening to each other is essential even if the topic is awkward. A few days later David came to see me. He came to thank me. His oldest friend had broached the subject of sexuality with him, he had clarified that he was a) gay b) didn’t fancy Mark c) really needed Mark as a friend at that time as he was just coming to terms with his sexual orientation himself. I saw David recently, he’s now 21 he’s still friends with Mark and thanks to the way that his oldest friend reacted to his “gayness” he found that the rest of his year group were much more accepting of him. I’m proud of them both that lesson will last them a lifetime and hopefully it will have ingrained a habit that they will pass on to future generations. You can’t measure the impact of that short conversation one lunchtime years ago yet it’s impact will, I am certain be far reaching.
Tests are a necessary evil of our system that enable students to jump through the hoops into adult life but it is the forming of positive social habits that, in my opinion have the most far reaching impact.
“The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.”
― Samuel Johnson