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Should teachers teach?

By Danny Harrington

Stupid question, right? Perhaps not. In January, Nick Gibb, the UK Schools Minister [for 12 years now] spoke to the Education World Forum about teacher-led education. These kind of things are important because they are often the seat of government policy around the world and ideas that happen here can influence education in any country for any child. I’ve met Nick at the British Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong where I used to chair the Education Committee. While I don’t agree with everything he says, he does come across as a thoughtful politician, genuinely trying to do the best he can for children in the UK education system. This, his longevity in post and the influence he has mean he is someone we need to listen and respond to.

You can read the full speech transcript here [it’s not too long, you need 10 minutes]. The thrust is that Mr Gibb feels too many children are educated in a student-led fashion, which has no evidence to indicate it “works”, and that there should therefore be a strong return to teacher-led education, based around core set curricula, an approach which has evidence to indicate “success”. So he advocates policy which insists on teachers teaching knowledge-based content in classrooms. This is based heavily on the OECD PISA data and rankings and on the slightly more anecdotal feeling that he has “never met anyone who advocates teaching children knowledge with the explicit intent that it not be used or applied.”

I have two main issues to take with this. One, that if you measure success only by measuring the outcomes particular to a specific approach then of course the results are going to be skewed. By this I mean that if I test students on how well they do at a test then those who have learned to do the test will do better than those who have not. And when you test hundreds of thousands of students within a common framework [as PISA does] then where teachers lead the preparation for that you will get higher scores than where they don’t. Now, if as humanity we think the outcomes tested by PISA are the outcomes we want of our children then I will have to agree with Mr Gibb. But I’m not convinced they are and I’m not at all convinced by blanket approaches to anything let alone education.

The second issue leads from this and his statement about intent. I would agree that no-one teaches something intending it not to be used, but we all know that much, if not most of what we teach, will in fact not be explicitly used. This is especially true for poor old Geography teachers like me. Most of our students will not explicitly use that school taught Geography content to further their education or to build any other knowledge or activity they go on to do. So the reality is we need to think about how we use content to show students how to develop the skills and approaches they will use in the future while allowing the few who will continue the subject to have the ability to do so. Mr Gibb does suggest the application of knowledge is important but not nearly enough to my mind.

Which leads us on to the big question, should teachers teach? And if so, what? I think the problem for Mr Gibb and his counterparts is the age old tension between the individual and the group. At government level, policies are needed to deliver education for the mass of society. In the UK 89% of students are educated by the state. But this often means a system which is over-regulated and overly rigid, not allowing individual students the leeway to develop at their own pace, in the subjects they enjoy and are good at. Equally, I don’t advocate total freedom of choice for school students, those experiments have proved fairly disastrous [certainly from a societal point of view, the individuals may be very happy]. This is why private school flourish and why many students choose home learning options as well.

We cannot blindly see the system as the correct way to do things for all. We need to balance the framework of the curriculum, the expertise of teachers and the needs of students. And that requires devolving responsibility to schools and teachers. I always find it ironic that Conservative government seeks to strong-arm education so much when right-wing ideology suggests the state should be less involved. I think this stems from the other ideology that exams are the only measure of success in an education system and so the tension is created. The problem is an intractable one, and I certainly don’t have “the answer” but perhaps that is because there isn’t one. We can only really hope to go on trying to balance these different needs. Meanwhile, teachers get on with teaching and should be left to do so.

ITS Education Asia runs schools in Hong Kong and online for individuals to follow their own programme of study at their own pace but still leading to UK qualifications such as IGCSEA-level and BTEC.

Dulwich College Singapore

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