I f You’re Not Interested In Learning about Learning, Keep Out of School

One of the great pleasures of my current work is that I regularly get to talk to Estelle Morris (ex-Secretary of State for Education) about learning. Apart from being the most knowledgeable of education secretaries we’ve had for years (she was formerly a classroom teacher), Baroness Morris is also a genuine, sincere and likeable person. So when she resigned claiming she ‘wasn’t quite up to the job’, she had it the wrong way round – the job wasn’t up to her high standards of honesty and integrity. These days she limits her public opinions on schooling to a regular column in the Guardian. So, when she talked about keeping politicians out of the classroom, in the run-up to the general election this week, it was sure to be thought-provoking (if perhaps futile). Her most telling comment, among a piece reflecting upon our inability to really evaluate what has worked in educational policy is when she says ‘I fail to see the political ideology in the pedagogy of reading or the practice of how to support school leaders’.

True. She goes on to argue that there is an increasing tendency to  develop education policies to suit party political purposes, rather than through a dispassionate analysis of what might yield the best results.

Over the coming months, the party manifestos will no doubt repeatedly be talking about ‘change’, and will be prioritising education. School leaders will give a world-weary shrug, since change is all they’ve known in a profession which desperately needs an absence of change, at least for a while. But when so few politicians see a visit to a school as anything more than a photo op, we’re not likely to get any kind of informed discussion about how learning happens, or how it sticks. Instead, we’ll get more of the usual bandying around of statistics, and the language of industrial ‘instrumentalism’ – as if we didn’t need to understand the complex nature of how human beings learn best, just crank the lever a little harder, squeeze a bit more juice out of the lemon, and then castigate schools for not achieving 100% success for all our children (the italics are compulsory when you’re campaigning).

So, here’s my party political broadcast: learning which lasts longer than a revision period is really quite complex, requiring a range of strategies, which start with securing motivation, engagement and desire to learn and don’t end with a mark on an exam paper. It needs to integrate the head, hands and heart and has to be done with the young person’s consent, and not  to them. They should not be forced to recite facts, figures and equations that will be irrelevant to them in their adult daily lives, instead they should acquire skills, competencies and personal attributes which our society desperately needs. Even with the best learning, some kids will fail some exams, yet still lead fulfilling, purposeful and compassionate lives – therefore, if they leave school  feeling prepared for life, they will not be branded as ‘failures’, and schools will be commended for having reduced the cost of the health, social  and prison services .

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