Tag Archives: education

Measuring your worth

I write this on A Level results day in the UK, a day on which measuring the worth of young people happens every year, and happens badly. I don’t really think any system of assessment is going to deliver fairness – it could not hope to do so without the context of a fair society. The child who goes to school hungry is not going to get the best results they are capable of at eighteen. The child who has no quiet place to study is set back. Inequality means that testing is in part a test of privilege.

Exams measure your ability to remember and recall. They measure your ability to perform quickly under pressure. Stress and trauma make accurate speed under pressure that bit harder. Not everyone is fast thinking, and speed is not the only measure of capability. I have known a few amazing slow thinkers in my life, and their not being fast has everything to do with the remarkable fine detail they are able to contemplate. Exams are not a great way to measure creativity or original thinking. They probably aren’t the best way to measure problem solving skills. They do not measure social skills, emotional intelligence, compassion, dedication, or what a person might be capable of in the future. Sometimes they do a very good job of measuring sheer luck.

We don’t live in a meritocracy. Your chances of being rich have far more to do with the wealth of your parents than any personal attributes. The cream does not naturally rise to the top. The well connected stay at the top and tell us they are the naturally rising cream in a meritocracy. Exam results can create an illusion of mobility, but you only have to look at who is in power and what kinds of backgrounds they have to know that in the UK, most of us don’t have that many options.

Imagine how the education system would look if our primary concern was to help young people become healthy, happy, well rounded adults. Imagine what would change if we considered education to be a lifelong endeavour, and not something you have to crack in your teens. What would education look like if it was not primarily about readying people for an ever shrinking jobs market? Imagine if it wasn’t about getting a job! What would we want our young people to learn if we accepted that many of them might not find meaningful work? What would we want them to learn if we were focused on the implications of climate crisis?

The school system we have is not inevitable, and not the only way of doing things. The ways in which we measure worth underpins a social structure that doesn’t work for most of us.

Gender education

We’ve had issues in the UK for some time now about parents wanting their kids not to be exposed to LGBTQ information at school. Some teachers appear not to be keen either. Today I want to talk about what happens when we let kids grow up thinking that straight if the normal default.

I assume there are a subset of people who believe if you tell your kid that gay is a thing, it will turn them gay. If they don’t know, they’ll be straight. This is a perspective that assumes gay is a deviance that a person chooses, and can choose not to be. There are of course people who can choose – we’re called bisexuals, and we are often made invisible, even to ourselves.

A young person who does not know LGBTQ people exist may go through childhood aware they are out of kilter with people around them. They have no words for this. They will feel isolated, lonely, lost and all kinds of other distress. Eventually they will figure out who they are. Rather than growing up feeling secure and validated, they grow up without that. That’s a cruel thing to do to a child. Our sexual identities start to show up pre-puberty. No one should be frightened by the nature of their childhood crushes.

If queer is so abnormal you can’t talk about it, the suspicion of queerness becomes grounds for bullying.

If you grow up straight, with straight being treated like the only option, you’ll likely give little thought to your orientation. Straight kids don’t have to come out to their parents as straight. Now, if we bring kids up aware of diversity, they may all have to look at themselves along the way and figure out who they are. No one is default normal any more, and no one is the weird outsider, and everyone has to give it some thought – that’s a much more level playing field.

There seems to be an unspoken assumption that straight kids who get to grow up feeling normal and never having to come out to anyone are advantaged – and indeed in some ways they are. But it also has a price tag, and that price tag is never having to think about who you are. I think there are a lot of benefits in asking questions. I also think there are bisexuals who are pushed into straight identities because they have no idea who they are. And if straight is normal and queer is deviant and you can pass as normal if you hide part of yourself – this is not a good way to live.

Kids are not led astray by knowing more about the breadth of human possibility. You don’t turn people gay by telling them that gay exists. What you do is save them from having to live either as outsiders, or trying to fake being something they are not. Anyone who thinks heterosexuality is so fragile that it can only be maintained by never letting children know about the other stuff, doesn’t really believe that being straight is as natural and normal as they make out. I wonder, with great discomfort, how many of the most vocal people protesting that kids who know about LGBTQ will be corrupted by it, are in fact bisexual people who have been cultured to hate part of themselves. As a bisexual person, this makes me uncomfortable, but we are the people who can choose whether to get into a queer relationship. It’s not a choice for other people. Just us.

If you are a straight person who has chosen to be straight, because you could have gone the other way, you aren’t straight. You’re bisexual and you’ve made choices.

Epic fail

I’d meant to write about something else entirely today, but I’m so angry about this that I need to vent. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/oct/11/genetics-teaching-gove-adviser
Apparently government advisor Dominic Cummings thinks that genetics play a far greater part in a child’s learning ability than any teaching. This is clearly meant to be a justification for dumping on the scrap heap any child who doesn’t achieve enough at a speed the government approves of. Einstein was a late starter. Not everyone blooms at the same pace, and every child deserves a chance no matter what the issues of their background.

What really makes me sick is that, scientifically speaking, this is bullshit. It’s more than twenty years out of date bullshit as well. We’ve been studying intelligence in humans for more than a century. We know, firstly, that intelligence isn’t one thing. There are many different, identifiable forms of intelligence – the physical intelligence of a footballer is very different from the abstract reasoning intelligence of a mathematician, which is different again from the social intelligence of a charismatic leader and so forth. It can take a while to figure out where a person’s strengths are, and current education is geared towards academic thinking. Which intelligence were you talking about, Mr Cummings?

What the current scientific thinking identifies is a range of influences on the development of intelligence. Yes, your genetics are one of those. The culture of your family, what praise and support you get, the culture of your peer group, and to some degree, your educational experience are also in the mix. No, education alone won’t do it AND WE’VE KNOWN THAT FOR AGES. The culture the child is in makes a huge difference so VALUING EDUCATION is a critical part of making a culture that allows people to flourish. We’ve known for a good twenty years that the most critical role of genetic intelligence comes when the environment is deprived. In a stimulating environment, genetic intelligence is less informative of outcomes. In an impoverished environment, genetic qualities really stick out. A few minutes with a search engine will fill you in, if you want more details.

We also know that the single greatest indicator of your likely success in life, is how much money your parents have. Not how clever they are, but how rich they are. The two do not dependably go together (see the royal family, half of America’s ruling elite, and the Tory government for clear evidence that there is no correlation between wealth/power and intelligence). Mr Cummings, it appears may be unable to distinguish between the effects of wealth, and the effects of genetics. Whether this is because he lacks the wit to put it together, or it’s a consequence of serving a political agenda remains to be seen, but either way I hold that such an under-informed, under-read person should not be in any position at all to make pronouncements about education.

I was, for the record, the first person in my immediate line of descent to go to university. This was not due to a blip in family intelligence, but to opportunity. Most of my cousins have also been able to do this. since It was never about the brains, it was about being able to afford to go. Judge me by my ‘genetics’ by the level of formal education my parents or grandparents had, and I’d have been booted out of education at 16 and sent to stack shelves.

The politics of childhood

Apparently UK education minister Michael Gove thinks children should have much longer school days and much shorter holidays to bring us in line with Hong Kong. He’s also a fan of rote learning and filling children’s heads with ‘facts’ – names and dates from history and the such. Childhood can be a loaded political issue. I note how much this Gove policy resembles the attitude of early Maoist China to children. That stemmed from a deliberate intention to break family units and make everyone more engaged with the state. So, what’s Gove’s agenda, you have to wonder?

What is childhood for? Obviously children need to grow up into functional adults. They need life skills too. I would argue that developing the ability to learn, reason, analyse, research, create, innovate and the such is the best education a child can have. The world changes all the time. The young person who can flex, learn and adapt is the one who can do best for themselves and their communities. Knowing historical dates and spurious statistics won’t do you any good in the real world.

The Victorians romanticised childhood, and did away with labour for children, taking them out of the workplace and putting them into schools. But, what is education for? Is it simply to keep children out of the way while parents work? Is school there to train the employees of the future, or should learning be more about developing rounded, functional people who are capable of thinking? I don’t think the latter precludes going on to be economically successful. I’d say there’s a case that it makes for a better, smarter, more flexible country having people educated that way. It doesn’t give you cogs for your machine, or people trained to serve and obey. I have to ask, what is the Tory agenda here? I think it’s all about serving the minority at the expense of the majority.

As a Pagan, I feel strongly about creatures being able to live freely in their natural habitats. I include humans in this. Humans are not meant to be battery farmed any more than chickens or pigs are. We too need fresh air, freedom to move, time to rest. Adults and children alike should not be pushed towards ever longer work hours just to serve the corporate machine. It is a morally wrong approach. Humanity does not exist to serve GDP.

As a parent, I want to spend time with my child. I want to talk with him, play with him, share life with him. I did not become a parent with a view to handing over my child to the state and hardly ever seeing him. I suspect I’m not alone in this. Back at the last election, the Tories talked about championing family life. Well, if you want family life, you have to have time for it, and longer school hours, longer work hours doesn’t achieve that. Tired people falling into bed do not have a family life. This is not a move towards a better work life balance.

Stressed, overworked, overtired humans who lack for social and emotional contact are more likely to become sick, depressed and dysfunctional. School is tiring for young humans whose bodies are growing and changing all the time. They need periods of rest, they need unstructured time to learn and grow properly. If we go the Gove route, we will not beget success. Instead we’ll be saving for a long term crisis in mental health and social cohesion.

Hard work should only exist where it furthers human causes. We are not here to make other people wealthy. We should not sacrifice our lives to the insane, dysfunctional and wrongheaded dictats of a ruling ‘elite’ that seems to have no grip on reality whatsoever. It looks like children are the next targets or their insane and toxic policies. We have to fight.

Paganism in schools

Every time moves are made to teach younger people about paganism, we get scaremongering, panic laden reactions from people who show the most depressing levels of ignorance and bigotry. I doubt anyone who needs to read this will get anywhere near it, but perhaps someone will find some useful ammo here.

Religion can, and should be taught as an academic subject. This does not mean teaching students how to be pagans, any more than my RS lessons bleep years ago taught me how to be a Hindu, or a Muslim. Religious studies should cover ethical issues from a range of perspectives and include, in my opinion, what atheist means, and agnosticism. In terms of figures, there are a lot of pagans in the UK – we were the 6th biggest faith at the 2001 census. Teaching about paganism would not involve any deep study of our mysteries – a broad overview of the main paths, a quick whip round the festivals, some words about polytheism and animism perhaps. Plenty of room for playing compare and contrast with other world religions too.

One of the complaints that the idea raises, is that we should, as a ‘Christian’ country only be teaching people Christian values. This makes about as much logical sense as saying we should, as an English country, only teach the English language, the geography of England, the history, literature and politics of England. Perhaps it would be a logical extension to suggest that we should not teach students what communism, fascism, tyranny, feudalism and monarchy are all about either. After all, they live in a democracy, why would they need to know? School is not a political tool for turning out obedient little clones who cannot think for themselves. Education should be there to enable young people to learn about all aspects of the world so that they can grow up able to think for themselves, and able to make good choices. Religion, is not only part of the world, but a major cause of war, genocide, conflict and hatred. I’d like to see a syllabus which pays plenty of attention to the history of religious hatred, and the violence it has inspired. Let’s teach children about the persecution of heretics, that the abuse of the Jews was not unique to Hitler, and that people have been using religion in the most disgusting ways throughout human history.

Another standard complaint is that not teaching just ‘Christian values’ is either about wishy washy liberalism, bowing to multiculturalism, or not upholding proper ethical values. Tolerance is a value. Inclusivity is a value. Respect is a value. Wasn’t it Jesus who said ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’? I don’t remember any caveats about checking their faith position first. When you start exploring religions, you find that the same core values turn up in all of them – variations on a theme of care and respect. Usually with more individual rules about how to honour the deity/deities. When you start looking at the history of religions, what emerges is a sense that the power hungry will happily use them to control and manipulate others, to justify war, and commit atrocities. The more mutual understanding there is between non-violent people of faith, the better a chance we have of not being collectively manipulated into aggression that is all about serving the egos and bank accounts of leaders. Now, why would anyone not want us to do that? Hmm.

When people say ‘Christian values’ do they mean all of Christianity? Are they proposing to teach children not only Protestant values, but also the subtly different values of Catholics, Methodists, Quakers, Unitarians, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Evangelicals, Seventh Day Adventists, Baptists… and what about the more extreme Christian cults? The sort that encourage mass suicide and practice brainwashing? Are we talking all of those variations on a theme of ‘Christian values’? You can bet we aren’t. We’re talking the Christianity approved of by the speaker, who probably has no better grasp of the diversity of their own faith, than they do anyone else’s. This is not really a debate about religion at all, or even about education, it’s about who has the right to tell us what to think. The answer should be ‘no one.’

Not being stupid in public is a really good reason for education. What could be more embarrassing than watching a journalist, politician or other public figure spouting their uninformed prejudices? Making judgements based on prejudice, imagination and the idiotic pronouncements of other uninformed bigots, is a reliable route to looking dumb. It’ also a guarantor of dreadful, unworkable policies.  Decent level of school education about religion will at least prevent our politicians and journalists of the future from publically shaming all of us with their atrocious levels of ignorance.

Philosophy without history

Generally speaking, if you dive into philosophy as a subject, what you get is a history lesson about who thought what, when. Compare and contrast different ways of understanding the world. I’ve stuck my nose in a few such books over the years and mostly they depress me. In much the same way that literature courses teach you about the history of fiction, philosophy tends to throw you at the thinking of others.

Now, compare this with maths. Can you imagine sitting in a maths class and being told all about who came up with what equations, when, who disagreed with them, who got in there with some totally unworkable theories about calculating the circumference of a circle and so forth? Of course not. When you study maths, you learn little or nothing about the history of maths, and everything about how to do it right now. The sciences all tend this way, which is a shame because a little more attention to the history of science as a subject would make clearer how flawed, subjective and politically motivated it can be.

Going through school, I found that art and music as subjects struck a decent balance between doing the thing and learning about grand masters who had previously done it a lot better than you could ever hope to do. So why is it that we teach some subjects with a view to being able to do them, and others with the intention of making sure people know all about the other people who did them?

I can say from experience that a degree in English literature gives you very few of the tools you need to write a novel. About the most useful one I picked up, was how to do research.

Philosophy, as a subject, is all about asking questions. Why are we here? What is life for? How do we live well? As well as a whole host of others. These are questions philosophers keep coming back to because there is no way of establishing a definite right answer. Philosophy is all about the things we cannot define, pin down or be certain about, and as a consequence takes us into areas of doubt that have huge significance for how we understand ourselves and how we live our lives.

What would happen if we started teaching philosophy to school children? Not in terms of Descartes thought this and Plato said that… but in terms of flagging up those big questions and inviting people to think about the answers. Throw in the wise words from history, by all means, but make people think for themselves! I would love to see philosophy taught as a practical subject, a ‘how to think and question’ topic, as much hands on as any pottery class. What I’m most interested in is not historical philosophy, but how each of us crafts the individual philosophy that guides us in life. So many people seem to do that unconsciously, not knowing there even could be an alternative.

Your homework for today, with all due reference to Douglas Adams, what is the ultimate question about life, the universe, and everything?