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.
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.