Occasionally, when I get into school, I give myself a boost by playing this:
The song highlights a range of problems, most as real today as they were in 1980:
My people, people, can’t you see/
What’s really going on?/
Unemployment’s high, the houses bad/
And the schools are teaching wrong/
Cancer from the water, pollution in the air/
But you’re partying hard, like you just don’t care/
Wake up y’all, you know that ain’t right/
‘Cos that hurts everybody, black or white”
It’s easy to get mired in the variety, depth and interconnectedness of the problems we face, in society as a whole or at the smaller scale of our individual schools or classrooms. Which is to say, I find it easy to get mired in their apparent intractability.
I’m sure we gain by stepping back and seeking clarity about what we wish to achieve, then thinking through what we as individuals can do towards this. Yet, almost invariably we seem to favour the immediate, often to the exclusion of the long-term thinking that should guide the day-to-day.
The wise appear unanimous in insisting that great teachers plan backwards; while I may struggle to do this as often as I should for my lessons, some of the leadership development work I’ve done over the last couple of years has helped me to gain a fairly clear idea of what I want for my students. With apologies to those who suspect the word, I’ll describe this as a vision, because no other word fully conveys the idea of envisaging, and then working towards, a future situation.
By the age of eighteen, what do I wish for my students?
All students will be wise, empowered and intellectually-able citizens.
Each word incorporates multiple ideas. Wisdom implies an understanding of the past, an appreciation of the world around them and of the needs and lives of others, and students’ deep knowledge of themselves. Empowered conveys knowledge as power, be it how to write a persuasive letter or why habeas corpus matters; it also suggests the importance of students understanding themselves as having agency, a power to make choices as individuals and to influence the world around them. Intellectual ability includes the knowledge and skills needed to learn, researching, working, sharing what has been gained with others. Citizens are conscious of their role within society, locally, nationally and internationally and act accordingly.
So, what is the purpose of education?
The other key word is all: I see the purpose of education, schools, teachers, to be ensuring this vision is realised for every student. Breathtakingly simple and incredibly complicated, because each individual will need something different to achieve this. Nothing about a student’s background debars anyone from succeeding in all of these goals, but the role of the school will be different depending on what students arrive having done, experienced, achieved and struggled with: not only must the support be differentiated, some will need substantially more of it than others. Each child will enter in Year 7 having developed their literacy, love of learning and self-awareness, for example, to differing degrees. While one student may need little more than a smattering of fuel for a strongly-burning flame, a book recommendation and subsequent discussion, for example, another may need intensive literacy support, modelling and pressure to begin reading at all.
This picture of the different needs of individuals in a class or school is a snapshot of what a school or a teacher may need to provide at any given time; equally, these needs will change for each individual as they mature. I described this process recently in the context of a student at my former school: when I met her, in Year 9, I wanted her to get involved in lessons and direct her her wit and brilliance to mastering history, not arguing with me. Next year, as I taught her for GCSE, I was focused on building her effort and confidence and getting her the A* she was capable of. As she entered Sixth Form, it was about guiding her university choices, helping her with unfamiliar subjects and starting to develop her experience of supporting younger students towards a career in teaching.
In some senses, she was unusual – I was lucky enough to teach her for three consecutive years. Sometimes, we may only teach students for part of this journey – in which case we may seek to achieve as much as possible in the time available. On the other hand, another part of the teacher’s role, I believe, is to retain this interest: any student I’ve ever taught remains on my ‘books’ as someone to look out for. Some may be absolutely fine and never require anything more from me; others may reappear, a year or two after I have been teaching them, needing help again.
Is the purpose of education achievable?
In order to achieve this vision, can we possibly provide what every student needs from us, given the limitations of time, resources and our own wellbeing? The question seems almost heretical – who can admit they can’t? Laura McInerney and Redorgreenpen are unusual in having explored this dilemma; for a synthesis, see Laura’s ‘Redorgreenpen Problem.’ I don’t think this is the place to try to answer my question, or Laura and Red’s. All I’ll close by asserting is that inaction is not an option:
Damn, get out of your seat/
Damn, get on your feet/
And say damn, and I will repeat/
We mean damn, we’re tired of defeat
Damn, no more sitting around/
We say damn, it’s time for throwing down/
Damn, let’s even the score/
‘Cos we’re fired up, and won’t take no more….
How we gonna make the black nation rise?/
It has always troubled me how little our students seem to understand of the purposes we hold for their education and our vision for them. This is surely as important as formulating powerful visions ourselves. I tried to communicate some of this to my students last year in this assembly: ‘What’s the point of education?‘
Recently, Tom Sherrington has offered a powerful consideration of the the importance of vision.
I wrote a tranche of stuff about how history contributes to my vision and the interaction between what society needs of education and what the individual needs. I’ve saved it for another day.