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Three tensions at the heart of education

September 7, 2012 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

Is education a public service or is it for an individual’s private gain? This question has been asked for at least the last two thousand years. There are two fundamental issues in education. One, is education primarily for the indivdual’s gain or two, is education for society’s benefit?

In looking at these issues we discover three tensions.

1 Public good versus private gain

Are we educating people to make a better society or are we educating people so that each person can make as much money as possible? This is an absolute tension and that tension has been there for thousands of years.

2 Process versus content

Is education more about learning how to do something or is it about amassing a vast amount of material in your brain of stuff that you know. In technical terms, is education about process or is it about content?

And that leads to the inevitable tension around examination results. Good results make us believe that a student can think well. But that is not necessarily the case, as Roger Aschsam, private tutor to Queen Elizabeth I, pointed out in 1563 the distinction between what he called ‘quick wits’ and ‘hard wits’.

It is relatively easy for skilled teachers to provide students with just enough of what they need to memorise and know to get a good result from an exam. But that is not the same as giving students the skills to be able to work things out for themselves.

3 Inheritance versus experience

In the last 25 years a third issue has arisen: is intelligence something that is genetically inherited or is it something that is gained by the individual through their life experience?

Both Plato and Confuscius talked about this but they didn’t know what was technically going on inside the brain.

Now neurobiology – which is able to look at the way the brain is working – mixed with cognitive science and a whole lot of other sciences have provided us with a very good understanding that it is actually neither just inheritance or culture, it is these two elements coming together.

And now we understand why the early years are so very, very important. If a child is in a stimulating environment and has a lot of opportunity to play before the age of seven, he or she will develop a brain totally different – far more energetic, far more open to possibilities – than the child who is just sat down and told what to do without that inspiration.

Research bears this out. A study carried out in Wisconsin in the US asked a wide-ranging question about the biggest predictors of success at the age of 18.  The biggest predictor of success, which was four times more significant than any other factor, was the quantity and quality of dialogue in the child’s home before the fifth birthday.

So it wasn’t the child being talked at or the child being left to talk by itself it was dialogue, exploring an idea, that mattered most. This goes right to the heart of what primary education is about.

When a child asks a really good question don’t immediately give them the answer because if that child asks a really good question it means they are very nearly ready to solve it. So don’t give the child your answer – prompt another question to enable the child to work out the answer for themselves. The child who says I have worked it out will remember it forever.

These three tensions are constantly coming together. In the context of 2012 at a global, political level we have fallen into a trap in which our happiness is dependent on how much money we have, which is dependent on how well we sell things and which is in turn dependent on how long we work for.

The result? We are under enormous pressure to find short cuts to enable every child to function in present society – not to their own satisfaction, but to the satisfaction of the economy and by doing so we are constantly at risk of taking dangerous short cuts.