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What is education?

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Blog - What is education?

Wednesday 9 February 2011

There are very strange and far-reaching things afoot in the world of education.  Last week at a conference of headteachers from around the country, I had the opportunity to debate and reflect on some of these.  Michael Gove (or Mr Gove, which everyone seems to choose to refer to him as – what does this choice of language indicate?) has ordered a review of the National Curriculum, specifying that it should by much ‘slimmer’ and much more ‘knowledge’ based than the current version (which was last only revised only in 2008).  In fact, we hear, he has specified that there are to be no references to ‘skills’ in the new curriculum at all; it is to be a ‘list’ of essential knowledge which all will acquire.  There are a number of thoughts which occur in the light of this.

Firstly, at a time when schools are being encouraged to take greater autonomy, and when the culmination of that autonomy, ‘academy’ status, exempts schools from the national curriculum anyway, it seems a bit odd to be setting so much store by a revised national curriculum in the first place.  This is compounded by the decision to introduce the English Baccalaureate, which is basically a way to use the ‘league tables’ to influence schools in the direction of a more traditional curriculum.  Why expend any further energy over a national curriculum which is apparently going to be side-lined anyway?

Secondly, it is probably important, in the interests of balance, to note that one can see where he is coming from on the ‘knowledge versus skills’ debate.  There are all sorts of anecdotal examples of basic knowledge apparently not being conveyed in modern teaching programmes.  One drawn to my attention earlier this week – reported in the media so to be taken with a generous pinch of salt – concerned a geography unit on Kenya which spent a lot of time looking at geopolitical issues faced by that country but failed to point out where Kenya actually was located.  Making sure that all students have a basic grasp of key facts does have its place, I would agree.  Education is partly about transmitting culture and knowledge from one generation to the enxt, and a certain amount of learning is required for that.

The third point I would want to make, though, is a more serious one: setting up a ‘skills versus knowledge’ opposition is potentially very misleading and can lead to very distorting consequences.  To start with, there are many areas of learning where you can’t separate out skills and knowledge.  Is learning a foreign language the acquisition of a skill or the learning of knowledge?  You need to learn the words and the grammar off by heart, but you need to develop a skill and a facility to use them to communicate, otherwise they are useless to you.  Is maths the memorising of formulae, or is it learning to apply these correctly in different contexts?  To be fair, I don’t think Michael Gove is crudely suggesting that all learning should be reduced to rote learning, but the tone of the debate he is creating is allowing some people, already suspicious of his underlying philosophy, to caricature his views in this way and mislead those eavesdropping on the education debate more widely.

So what is education, actually?  One of my favourite definitions is summarised by the poet Yeats: “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.”  Other writers and thinkers have summarized the meaning of education in similar ways.  The novelist Muriel Spark wrote that “to me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education. I call it intrusion.”  The idea that education is a kindling of a fire using the raw material which is already present in the student is a very important one which we would do well to remember in the current debate.  It also chimes with a Christian notion that, created as we are in the divine image, we have innate potential which it is the role of the educator to find and illuminate. 

An awareness that my potential has been found, valued and developed, gives me more confidence and greater ability to play a constructive role in society than any amount of rote-learnt facts, or indeed any amount of vocational training.  As the ancient Greek writer Aeschylus commented: “I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning to sail my ship.”   Now, is learning to sail a ship knowledge or is it ‘just’ a skill?