What (and How) Should We Teach our Children?

In the world of social media and ChatGPT, a post-Covid world and a world where climate change and war put everything and everyone under new strains and worse, what should our students – at school or university – be taught and (not necessarily quite the same thing) learn? Two recent papers raise these issues, with a looking-to-the-future slant.

“In the past 14 years of Conservative government, the focus of the education system has been on the narrow task of getting children through exams, with little thought as to whether it will adequately prepare children to navigate this transformed world.”…. Half (50%) of Britons think that schools are not preparing students for the world of work. 50% think that schools are failing to prepare children for life in general.”

So says a Labour Together newsletter reporting on a recent polling of parents carried out in December, designed to go along with their new report Broad and Bold: Building a Modern Curriculum. The argument of this report comes firmly down on the side of “learning a broader range of knowledge and skills in different contexts is a better bet for the future. More, in this case, does indeed mean more. Breadth matters…”.

This is very much the line the Royal Society has been taking for a number of years, with its push for a ‘broad and balanced curriculum’. This philosophy, if not this phrase, certainly dates back to their Vision for Science and Mathematics Education project report from 2014 (a report I was associated with), when the overarching vision was described as ‘All young people study mathematics and science up to the age of 18’. The Government has indeed recently made a push for everyone to study maths to 18 although, as has been frequently pointed out, there aren’t the teachers to provide this. However, their concept of the Advanced British Standard, currently out for consultation, doesn’t really amount to significant broadening of education post-16, nor does it address anything that happens before that age. It really isn’t possible to introduce a meaningful post-16 baccalaureate style education without thinking about a child’s learning and progression throughout their school days from first entry. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be on the agenda. For any Government, let alone one shortly to face a General Election, rethinking the entire education system is a big ask.

Simon Margison, in his lecture this month to the Centre for Global Education, highlighted a different problem within our education, specifically higher education, saying:

“education focused solely on productivity and employability, now dominates policy and public debate in many countries concerned about graduate under-employment…governments more confidently press for the remaking of higher education by pushing the sphere of work back into education and measuring education in vocational economic terms, installing extrinsic job preparation inside the intrinsic core of higher education….The bottom line is that neo-liberal policy does not see higher education as personal formation in knowledge as optimal for productivity and growth.”

So, we face a problem both at school and university, a tension between knowledge and skills, which the appearance of AI on the map, hallucinating or not, brings into sharp focus. Do we teach deep disciplinary knowledge, the memorising and regurgitating of facts in exams that have been standard for decades? Do we assume that is unnecessary because Google and ChatGPT have all the answers and simply teach life-skills such as team working and project management? Clearly that would be unwise. I am reminded of an exchange I had with Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education at the time, regarding careers advice at school, in which he told me that ‘any self-respecting 16 year old can find all they need to know on the web.’ I would have liked to dispute that then (but was swiftly shut up) and I would still dispute it now: the web is great if you know exactly what question to ask and can spot ‘fake news’ when it provides garbage. Otherwise, human intervention – about careers or so much else – is really necessary.

However, it is undoubtedly the case that we need to think harder about the content of our curricula, at school and university, to rebalance how we teach fact versus understanding, all coupled with a good dose of life-skills. Sadly, this debate is too often mired in political dogma as well as the genuinely massive challenge that a rethink would bring. England is a real outlier in terms of the breadth (or more accurately, narrowness) of its post-16 curriculum. The changes to Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence were intended to provide breadth (the Scottish system was anyhow broader than England’s) and, according to the Scottish Government at the time of introduction, ‘provide a holistic, competency-based curriculum for those aged 3-18 years aims to prepare children and young people for the workplace and citizenship in the 21st Century’. Instead, it seems to have led to a decline in standards and a narrowing not broadening of subject-study at the later years. According to a 2023 Nuffield Foundation report there is

“Significant evidence of the existence of a culture of performativity in many schools, encouraging the instrumental selection of content and/or organisation of curriculum provision to maximise attainment in the Senior Phase.”

English politicians can point to this as demonstrating the unwisdom of changing the ‘Gold Standard’ A-level system.

Nevertheless, perverse incentives imposed by any government, as in English league tables of schools, constant harping on about ‘mickey-mouse’ degrees and using salary post-degree as a measure of success, may all be defeating the purpose of educating, as opposed to training, students at both school and university. I have no confidence we are providing the education our future citizens need in science – or languages or even literacy and numeracy – to face the 21st century, but feel the debate is hardly started. It is to be hoped the next Government will take on this challenge. Starting with early years, as Bridget Philipson has made clear would be her own priority if she becomes the next Secretary of State for Education, is no bad thing. If children (many still badly affected by the pandemic) don’t learn the basics at primary school, it is all but impossible for them to thrive thereafter. The more so if they come from a less-than-privileged background. There is a lot of work to be done.

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2 Responses to What (and How) Should We Teach our Children?

  1. Ana says:

    What comes to mind: when does one learn to face a library?

  2. Lucy Mason says:

    We should teach emotional literacy and mindfulness: it would solve a lot of adult problems in future

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