What Do You Teach?

The answer to the question of course is children. You teach children. You might be teaching them maths or science or how to spell or, heaven forefend, the Kings and Queens of England but the answers to the question is always the same. You teach children about maths or science or how to spell or a string of facts that glorify our past, make it easy to test and please cabinet ministers but don’t actually contribute a great deal to anything.

But there is a bigger goal.

You must teach them to think.

The protests going on around the world currently (and I type this sitting in student protest-torn Santiago but reading about the student protests today in London) are the sound of people stirring. Ordinary people are waking up to the fact that, while they were busy getting on with paying their mortgage, holding a job, paying their credit card bills, watching The X-Factor and learning about the Kings and Queens of England, other people were quietly helping themselves to our world – to the money, to the power, to the privilege, to the press, to the land, to the resources. 

This is not a political point. While I trust the Right as far as I can throw them – and I can throw Eric Pickles as far as I can throw John Prescott – the Left have not showered themselves in glory either. Much of the last thirty years has seen Left Wing governments in both Chile and the UK although it is quite hard to tell.

Nor is it a Socialist/Capitalist point. There is a sense that the wealthy bankers and corporation directors are uncoupling themselves from the mess they created and leaving us to it. Maybe Berlusconi should be made to stay in power until he’s put right all his wrongs rather than pass a swath of austerity measures and disappear off to his villa with his latest, ahem, assistant. In fact, calling movements such as the Occupy Wall Street and the others taking place around the world ‘anti-capitalist’ is wrong anyway. I don’t think anyone is against people adding value to the world and being paid for it. Although whether being head of an Academy chain with a handful of schools is worth about five time the salary of a headteacher I’m not sure…

I am not advocating teaching children what to think politically one way or the other. Far from it. So don’t let those people who decry talking to young people about politics and power and the ways of the world and those who run it as ‘politicising children’.  You may well not teach Modern Foreign Languages for turning them French.

What I am saying is that beyond the goal of teaching children to know things, to pass exams, to get through school, to find a place in the system, we need to teach children to reflect critically on what is going on around them and to ask whether that’s the way it should be.  For example, where Gove tells us he wants history lessons to ‘celebrate the distinguished role of these islands in the history of the world

We need children who can stop and think and start to wonder what it was like for the people on the receiving end of British ambitions in the world.  While Gove cites Britain’s role in eradicating the slave trade as a what makes us a ‘beacon of liberty for others to emulate’ and the country is celebrating the ingenuity of an engineer like James Watt on the new £50 note, writers like Eduardo Galeano in his 1973 book The Open Veins of Latin America, points out: 

‘Capital accumulated in the triangular trade made possible the invention of the steam engine: James Watt was subsidized by businessmen who had made their fortunes in that trade’ 

Not to mention the list that appeared in New Scientist a few weeks ago detailing the ‘Twenty deadliest events in human history’ in which the British (or more accurately the English) appear in no fewer than six of them.

By bringing these to people’s attention, the only ‘anti’ thing I’m being is ‘anti’ ignorant. If children want to grow up to be Genghis Khan or Rupert Murdoch or best friend to the Secretary of State for Defence then there is only so much teachers can do about it. But at least we will have taught them to see the world from different sides, to know that there is always another way, that the louder someone says something is ‘fact’, the more likely it is that it is simply their opinion.

The great quote from Desmond Tutu sums it up in many ways. He once said that ‘When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, “Let us pray.” We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land’. Make it about bankers and the rest of us and add something about watching Big Brother instead of praying and you have where we are now.

There are student protests going on around the world today as young people start to open their eyes and begin to understand what has happened. Do you talk to your students about them, encourage them to be part of it, to understand the issues, to decide whether to participate or not but and do so as a conscious decision, not one born out of apathy or ignorance?

A fascinating post when up to today on the Times Higher Education website detailing Britain’s great  – but rather hushed up – heritage of student protests and school strikes. What was the response of the authorities then? To dismiss them as rebels. Same as today. After all, according to the November 1889 issue of The Educational News, ‘Obedience is the first rule of school life…School strikes are therefore not merely acts of disobedience, but a reversal of the primary purpose of schools…They are manifestations of a serious deterioration in the moral fibre of the rising generation…They will prove dangerous centres of moral contamination’.

If your students went on strike how would you treat them? If you led your students in a protest how would your boss treat you?

So, teach children to open their eyes, to see what is around them, to question, to ask why and why not. Don’t teach children to the exam. For the exam maybe but not simply to it. Qualifications are an unavoidable evil in the absence of any other way of assessing children currently so cover your back but sleep at night too. Know that you have done more than just school children, play the game, pass the exam and pass the buck. Open their minds to question, to reflect, to look beneath the surface, to have beliefs that they will fight for and fight for the beliefs of others even if they don’t agree with them.

In other words, what do you teach ? I teach children and I teach them to think for themselves, before it’s too late.