What is the point of school?

Rethinking school for the post-Covid world

Dr Brian Lighthill

Over a decade working as a workshop facilitator with the aim of making Shakespeare’s plays relevant to learners of all ages

In my first blog for Big Education’s Learning from Lockdown site, I made the argument for considering an integrated (cross-curricula, trans-disciplinary…whatever you want to call it) curriculum as a way forward in order to create a more real education for young learners, which could be of greater use than the current teach-in-subject-silos syllabus. 

In this second blog I would like to explore what I think is the ‘point’ of school? What are we trying to develop in young learners? Are we merely trying to teach students pre-ordained ‘useful’ information (i.e. the national school curriculum), or are we trying to teach young learners how to learn, how to explore like detectives the how and why of any and everything that they encounter in their  lives? 

Learning life-long skills

I believe that learning and discovery does not just take place in school but is an all-embracing life-long skill which needs to be developed so that learner can develop the skills of being reactive, adaptive, creative and, above all else, ‘self-motivated’ As I wrote in my previous blog, it could be argued that the workforce of tomorrow need to become less compartmentalised because the workforce of tomorrow need to develop the ability to think outside the box and outside the silos of subject specificity if they are going to be able to contribute to this ‘brave new world’. 

Oh yes, and might I add that learning is fun – and that this could/should become the dominant educational mantra – something that took me 55 years to discover!  All learning is fun, if it is approached as a challenge to be overcome; a mystery to be solved; a way to join up the dots of subjects-in-silos; and a way to develop the skills to get the best life students can imagine for themselves. Not just Habermas’s ‘good life’ but the ‘best life’ imaginable. As arguably the greatest philosopher ever said, “to go to infinity and beyond!” (Buzz Lightyear, 1995).

A holistic, integrated search for knowledge

Can we develop in learners the skill to look at a field and think that it is more than just a green space to play on: that it is a space where different, amazing animal interact; a place where complex ecological systems are taking place to the benefit of that field, our immediate wellbeing, the ecology of the country, the survival of the world, our place in this universe. 

Can we teach young learners that from the time we get up: ‘Why do I need a pee first thing in the morning?’ (Biology, Neuroscience); to getting dressed: ‘Where do these clothes come from, how are they made, why are some clothes shops cheaper than others?’ (Geography, Sociology, Politics, Economics, Morality); to ‘What cereal do I fancy this morning?’ (Power of Advertising, Art, T.D., Psychology, Farming, International Trade) we live like detectives by encouraging, and allowing the inquiring mind to spring into action.

And because we could design an education system which encourages the mind to be so inquiring, rather than to be a mere knowledge-hoover which can, at regular intervals, be examined, such an active response to the world around us would become normal – not exceptional. And consider for a moment the after-life of a schooled students – how much more prepared, adept, adaptable and able to solve problems and contribute to day-to-day challenges might the young be as they go out into a world, where the jobs of tomorrow are not even in our wildest imaginings today. As Virgil noted, with such a developed enquiring mind the workforce of tomorrow will ‘fly’, because of their integrated schooling, ‘they think they can’.

But what might an integrated curriculum look like?

If this is a pedagogic paradigm worth working towards then I think that the two key questions which arise are: 

First, “…how to design and deliver a curriculum which best serves the students – rather than that which best serves politicians, educationalists, or school administrators?” I hope that my first Blog went some way to illustrate the power and common sense behind an integrated curriculum. 

And second, “…how to open up students’ minds to the possibility that information is out there for them to find, discover, use, re-use and – sitting on the shoulders of giants – allow them to integrate those discoveries into their own knowledge-bank. And with their own new discoveries learners can develop their own thinking and their own individual skill-set – which all teachers hope will lead their students towards the best life they can possibly imagine?”

Three quotes bring me to the foundations on which my thinking is built:

…that ‘the purpose of education is to lead children towards intellectual development’ (Renner). 

…that the aim of education is ‘learning to learn’ (Piaget). 

and the third quote, which synthesises the first two: 

…that the happiness of mankind comes from education for life, which is about learning how to develop mental facilities, how to express opinions and how to develop dialectic reasoning. What I call the ‘Socratic method’ or, as Leonard Nelson wrote, ‘making philosophers of students’. ‘Philosophers’ – a grand label, but one I think we should not shy away from pointing our students towards.

The Socratic method…

Nelson’s thinking was a contemporised version of how Socrates examined ‘the reputed wisdom of anyone he happened to meet’. In the ‘marketplace’ (in our model, ‘the classroom’) Socrates began by asking the stranger a question. Following the strangers answer a series of other questions elicit more answers. At this point, the stranger either revises his initial answer, offers an entirely new answer, admits to being unable to say what he knows, professes his ignorance – or marches off in a ‘huff’…which is not what we want our students to do! (We do not need to push them that far.) 

We want students to understand, and embrace the concept that, only through constant pressure to speak one’s mind, meet questions with judged answers, can the universal truth be understood that ‘non-knowledge’ is the first step on the road to ‘deep-learning’ – and that ‘non-knowledge’ does not equate to ‘failure’.

Finley (2005) advocates that the aim and objective of pedagogy is for children to embrace their understandings of themselves and society and in so doing ‘encourage them to imagine all that they can do and be in their lives’ (Ibid., p.690). Finley (2005) writes that the teacher’s task is to provide tools for constructing new autobiographical images – by taking students back to the past, in order to contextualise their present inheritance of a previous society’s discoveries, and then point learners towards exploration of their own possible futures. This is a humanistic way of thinking about an educational system which aims to empower students, rather than treat them like empty vessels into which facts are poured. 

An integrated curriculum (revisited)

My research points me towards an integrated curriculum which is less about ‘knowledge transfer’ and more about ‘transformational knowledge’. I think that an integrated curriculum is mutually beneficial for the students and, my research showed, for the teachers too who get to know their students better. Teacher C noted that, “I feel really close to my form now. During form time I feel I really know those students. Coming together, doing very personal work…helping them to make discoveries, have stood me in really good stead”.

I think that in this Covid induced moment of reassessing education practice, there is an opportunity for a radical rethink on the modus operandi of delivering the curriculum. I think that we have an imperative as educationalist/facilitators to focus on developing in our students dispositions such as: creativity, critical thinking, decision-making, problem-solving, collaboration, resilience, and adaptability. This would be a change in mindset from ‘knowing’ to ‘thinking’ – and through forums like Big Education, we have an opportunity to rethink “What’s the ‘point’ of school?”

Thinking about that question has made me more certain than ever that an integrated curriculum is the way forward because it is the simplest way to develop the skills which will be needed in our students’ future-life. And to my mind – and in a nutshell – that is the ‘point’ of school.

In my final Blog I will explore what an integrated curriculum would look like and how, to those who must be obeyed, such a curriculum could still be assessed. 

Let’s enter into a dialogue on this matter, because I really do not have all the answers – so all contributions will be gratefully received…

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