An elephant in the staffroom?

Why do we have to learn algebra*? When am I ever going to use it?

Every teacher in the land will have heard a phrase like this at some point (*insert a curriculum theme of your choice, naturally). There are blogposts, articles, and plenty of staffroom conversations around that suggest a set of responses to these questons. Links to careers abound; examples of ‘real-life’ uses, and ‘real-life’ users aplenty. And yet, none quite gets to the nub of the problem in my opinion.

Because the reality is that for many of our students – particularly as they get older – much of what we teach them will never be directly useful to them in a career or daily life. I’ve never used trigonometry, or asked a Frenchman where I can buy bread, or needed to know the difference between ionic and covalent bonding. But that’s not the point. And as teachers, we know that. We know that there is much more to the purpose of schooling, education, learning. But only too rarely do we share that with our students.

The system implies that we must value examinations, national curriculum levels, progress, attainment… but these are merely indicators and measures. They should not – indeed must not – be allowed to become the purpose.

Frequently, when international comparisons are drawn, arguments are made about the different perceptions of education in, say, Korea or Japan. And they are right. Yet we seem to do little to address these. Similarly, when private education is mentioned, those of us in the state sector point to the importance of the values of those who choose to pay for education. And surely we recognise that it has an impact.

As schools battle to increase percentages of students at level 4, or achieving 5 A*-Cs, or gaining places at Oxbridge, how often do we look for interventions, teaching strategies, programmes and booster sessions? We vaunt the importance of attaining goals to allow access to something more – but never for the value of learning itself.

Similarly, in the current debate about relevance/engagement versus challenge and ‘rigour’, how often do we consider ways in which we can make learning “fun” or “engaging” through some other element, rather than valuing the learning itself?

What if we really began to teach what matters: the value of learning? What if, from the earliest age we taught the children in our care that they are privileged to receive such education, that the value is not in what can be attained in the short term, but in the process itself? What if we were honest enough to say to our students: you might never use this information, but do you know what – it’s worth learning anyway? Consistently. To all of them. At every age.

Then maybe we might start to see students themselves valuing the process, and recognising the outcomes merely as recognition of their journey, rather than as barriers to be overcome.

Many agree with the oft-quoted phrase that “Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire”, but in this analogy at the moment we’re too often working with firelighters & spirits and fanning a feeble flame to cook a single sausage. How much better might it be if we could just start off with dry twigs and kindling and let our students enjoy the full feast? It’s not as easy as a punctuation booster session, but the impact could just knock everything else out of the park.

Next time a student asks me what use some piece of learning will be in their future life, my answer will be the same:

I have no idea. And amazingly, neither do you.


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