Educational philosophy

I’ve been thinking about this a little bit, recently, and was suprised to discover that I have one, and that it’s slightly better thought out than I’d realised (though that may not be saying much).

I think I slightly scandalised my mum, at the weekend, by telling her that I wasn’t particularly bothered about the kids doing GCSEs. The fact is, I’ve become quite hostile to the idea of certification getting in the way of education.  Myself, I’m qualified to the hilt, with no particular evidence of it having done me any good – except in the sense that I really rather enjoyed writing my MA dissertation, and I’m still quite proud of it as a piece of work.  And I think that’s the key.  There are odd essays from my undergrad and postgrad career that I feel almost as proud of – they’re the ones that I enjoyed writing, got thoroughly involved in, and which consequently included moments of utter clarity, when I could suddenly see, and better yet, articulate, what was going on. I think I’ve lost my Freud essay, which is a shame, because I was rather partial to it.

The point is, the best bits of my education were when I stopped being in it for the qualifications, and started focussing on the education. The most satisfying, fulfilling, stimulating parts of the process were about the exhilaration of learning and discovering, for the sheer satisfaction of doing so. It was about intellectual achievement, not about doing the grunt-work towards getting a certificate.

That’s what I want for my children. I want their education – at every level – to be about the joy of doing something you couldn’t do yesterday, of understanding something you didn’t understand yesterday, of making a connection you hadn’t made yesterday. I don’t want it to be about slaving away at something that doesn’t interest you, just to get to the certificate.

Now, there are exceptions to this rule; I’m not sure if that’s because I’m applying it inconsistently, or because life simply isn’t that good. I do still think that learning to read is important, that qualifications in Maths and English are expected by almost everyone you’ll meet in adult life, and that certain goals require a certain amount of grunt-work to get to them. If, for example, you decide you want to be a doctor (example rather than maternal aspiration), you have to study medicine at University, and you have to achieve the minimum requirements to access that course – probably sciencey A Levels, and probably Maths and English GCSE to boot. In order to study A levels, you may be required to take more GCSEs than that, too, and almost certainly, some of that process will be boring – however, if you’ve stepped onto that treadmill with a specific goal in mind, and done it consciously, you’re likely to be less hostile towards the boring bits, because you’re committed to achieving your goal.

A visual representation of the forest that had to be chopped down to support my educational journey, ages 4-28.
A visual representation of the forest that had to be chopped down to support my educational journey, ages 4-28.

It’s not the same thing as studying as many GCSEs as you can fit into your timetable, with very few real choices as to what they are (in my day, the choice amounted, for most people, to History or Geography, and I get the impression it’s even more prescriptive, now), and then choosing the subjects you hate least to study as many A Levels as you can, so you can go to University, because everyone has told you that you simply MUST go to University.

Don’t get me wrong. University is great, not least because it’s the very first time you get a free choice of what to study, and in what depth. Sadly, most undergrads (myself included) take a long time to get out of the habit of studying because you have to, and into studying because you want to. Lots never manage it. Having got so far on doing work, to get marks, to get grades, to get qualified, to have a piece of paper to wave about saying how qualified you are, the joy of learning is so long since squashed that it’s irreparable. But, if you’re careful, if you choose your course properly, and keep your eye out for the bits that are genuinely interesting to you, University can be the place learn how to enjoy learning again – to essentially relearn what came so utterly naturally to you before you ever started school, because young children love learning; nothing gives them greater pleasure.

I coasted for most of my academic career, and actually, that’s not terribly fulfilling.  I was lucky – I was bright enough to get away with it.  My mum is convinced that in a different school, I would have gained straight As at GCSE, but that I lacked the ethos of work around me to get me to put in the effort.  I’m not convinced.  I mean, she might be right, but I’m not convinced it would have changed my life’s direction in the slightest.  Instead, I learned fairly early on how much effort was required to achieve what I need to achieve.  I didn’t get straight As, but I got C and above for all my subjects.  Since no-one ever requires a GCSE A grade, it was perfectly adequate, and since I wasn’t engaged with the process of learning for it’s own sake, I saw no reason to work any harder than I needed to.  But since my desired A level course accepted me, and my desired degree course accepted me (well, my second choice did, and there were extenuating circumstances around the time of the exams), I’m now more or less where I was always heading.  A different environment might have changed my attitude, but not my outcome.

I would much rather my children were engaged with learning, than engaged with gaining qualifications, on the off-chance that they might need them one day.  And on the day that they decide that they want to do X, and that the best way to achieve that is go through the process of Y and Z, they’ll know why they’re doing it, and hopefully be motivated by that knowledge.

3 thoughts on “Educational philosophy

  1. Interesting stuff Ruth, I find the whole subject fansinating – the way we learn, the narrowness of the system in which we learn…

    I’ve really enjoyed the last few college courses because there’s a real freedom in being able to learn something just for the joy of it – I don’t think all education can ever or should be like this. You have to learn there are things you need to do that you don’t enjoy – but with a less general education system there is so much potential to explain those things more quickly and make less fuss about it. When you’re in a class of 30+ and you get stuck on something fundamental things can overtake you and leave you behind.

    They teach kids a lot more about how to learn how-a-days don’t they? That might have been useful. I appreaciate my mum encouraging me to learn new things – I wasn’t terribly successful at some of them (trampolining, french) – but generally it showed me the potential of what you can learn and how it can move you to where you want to be(maths, badminton).

    How are you planning to structure things over the next few years? Are you using any particular material?

    S

  2. You probably do have to learn that some things need to be done, whether or not you enjoy them, but I’m not convinced that those things have to be educational. I despise all forms of housework (except laundry – I like laundry), but it has to be done. Daisy loathes having her hair brushed, but she still has to do it. As a life lesson, that one’s pretty much covered, and as an educational approach, I’m not necessarily convinced by it. There are things that are mighty useful to know, but if a person is truly and thoroughly hostile towards learning them, I can talk till I’m blue in the face, and have no impact at all.

    I can’t think of many things that I would really fret about them not knowing, if they took exception to learning them, but the big three are probably literacy, numeracy, and logical/analytical thinking. Hopefully, all of those things are so clearly useful in the day-to-day, that D and H would be naturally interested in them. Without numeracy, you can’t take your birthday money to the shop and spend it. Without literacy, you’ve only the haziest idea of what’s going on around you – you can’t even pick the the post from the mat and know who to give it to. Without some kind of logical analysis, you can’t solve problems, of any sort, in any arena. Even if they hate the business of learning those things, I think a child can see the benefit of knowing them, and be prepared to work towards the long-haul – especially as they get older, and more able to comprehend the future. Those skills are useful and important, but there’s nothing to be gained from trying to force them on a child before they’re developmentally ready to take them on.

    As far as the next few years go, I don’t have any formal plans. Part of what I am trying to keep my kids away from, is the introduction of formal schooling at a terribly young age, and two years from now, Daisy will still be barely six. We will continue to work on pre-reading skills, and counting skills, as and when we feel like it. At the moment that can mean some formal work every day for a week (I’ve been using Jolly Phonics, but very loosely), but then nothing for a while – I’ve found that she consolidates what she’s learned when we back off from the structured stuff, and if we come back to it in a month, she’ll suddenly be able to remember letters sounds that she couldn’t remember before. It sometimes feels like trying to teach her anything is conterproductive – she learns more when I stop!

    Numeracy up to now has been about counting – she can more or less count to twenty, with the occasional stumble around the mid-teens, but she finds numbers above twenty confusing. There’s a clear logic there, that she hasn’t yet stumbled upon, but she will. We’re also starting to do more with counting on, and “if we need eight and we’ve only got five, how many should I go and get?” type problems, which is where adding and subtracting start. We may, over the course of two years, get from oral problems to written sums, but as I said, she’ll only just be six, and if we’re only just starting that by then, it’s hardly a disaster.

    Most of what she’s learnt to date has arisen, rather than been taught, and I envisage that will continue, to a large extent. One-to-one conversation covers a vast range of subject matter, at this age, when she’s really trying to pick up concepts rather than knowledge, I think it will serve us well. I also think that if there’s a need for a more formal approach, it will become apparent over time.

    Logical thinking is even harder to “teach” – it really is about how you approach day-to-day problem solving, and helping her to be systematic about it. Taking learning opportunities from life helps to stop education from becoming divorced from the real, meaningful business of living, and that in itself is of value.

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