Education for the 21st Century

P1130707_252008a_2 As the Government unveils its new curriculum and as I enter my final week as a teacher (for the forseeable future), it got me thinking what kind of curriculum do I think young people need today. It goes to questions of what is the purpose of education and that takes me back to David Ford's suggestion that education is for gaining wisdom. Our hope must be that young people's education enables them to become wise, which is not the same as gaining knowledge. Julian Stern says if we are asked to value each subject, what value would we give it? If all subjects in school were worth 1,000 units, how much would each subject be worth and why? (Teaching Religious Education, 2006, 89). What I find interesting about the government's proposals are that lots of the new additions such as financial capability and cooking were once (in my view) the task of parents. It seems increasingly that schools are having to become more parental and teachers are expecting to be able to fulfil numerous roles for which time and ability is often lacking. It also reflects how schools are becoming, or they are being asked to become, centres of the community, which raises interesting questions for the place of the church.

Reading the government's proposals as they have been reported, many of them sounds sensible and quite exciting. The idea of moving away from traditional subjects to topics, I think is worth exploring, but schools and teachers need to have time to prepare in order for it to be beneficial. Too many new ideas are given to teachers  without any time to make them worthwhile and so become merely a paper-filling exercise. If I think about my own subject RE, this has many links to history, geography, english, science, art (and others) that go unexplored. I like the idea of shorter lessons. I  have some classes for whom 1 hour is too long and if they had two 25-30 minutes lessons, a lot more would learning would get done.

Young people need a curriculum that enables them recognise they are both global and local citizens (I use the word 'citizens', but believe it is often an ambiguous word). Too many young are unaware of what is going on in the world or has happened in the world.

Young people need a curriculum where a subject brings its knowledge and skills to bear on everyday and future life. (Admittedly in some subjects I think they are already trying to do this) So a study of the holocaust is not a history exercise, but an exercise that explores moral, ethical, philosophical and theological questions - what is evil? what does it mean to be human? where was God? how to we cope with difference? Or an art lesson becomes as much about drawing and painting, as about how do we read and understand this piece of art - what does it say about the painter? what does it say about us? does it have a point? does it need one?

Young people need a curriculum that is not about keeping young people's options open as long as possible or givng them too many choices. As ultimately some subjects end up getting devalued. Or young people make their choices and then find the school can't fit them into the timetable and have to do something else. I think young people should begin to become subject specialists earlier on.

Young people need a curriculum where teachers have more say in what is taught and where they don't end up teach the same topic year after year. Teachers need to continue to study in the their specialism, to bring new knowledge and reading into the classroom.

Young people need a curriculum where religion, philosophy and ethics is included in every subject, just as teachers have to tick the ICT and literacy boxes. Although hopefully it wouldn't be a tick boxes exercise. A curriculum that has its centre in religious, philosophical and ethical questions is a curriculum interested in wisdom.

Young people need a curriculum where homework is thought about, where its not about the quantity set, but about the quality. Too many homeworks young people are asked to do are (in my opinion) basically pointless.

Young people need a curriculum where they have to think. Too many lessons in too many subjects don't stretch young people to actually think.

Young people need a curriculum where out of school visits are encouraged and part of the norm. Reading about Sikhism in a textbook is a poor substitute to visiting a gurdwara and listening to a Sikh talk about their beliefs and life. Reading a Shakespeare play in class is a poor substitute to seeing it done (well) on a stage. A visit somewhere can have much more impact than any number of lessons on a topic.

Young people need a curriculum which puts ICT in its place.

"committed to national testing and performance tables"

I read this article in the Observer this morning that calls for all testing under 16 to be scrapped as it hasn't improved education, but just introduced (new levels of) pressure for children and young people across the country. The government's response was 'we are firmly committed to national testing and performance tables'. To which the response is, 'yes we know, we want you to be firmly committed to education.' The government spokesman goes on to say: 'Parents need and greatly value the information they get from tables.' I'm not sure parents were that bothered before they were introduced and anyway, the concern should for the young person's education, not on the parents ability to choose (which is a myth and detrimental anyway).  The government's commitment to performance tables and excessive targets has not brought freedom and choice as was promised. It has just accentuated the gap between the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor, the successful and the failing. See The Trap for more on this argument.

Should children do homework?

This is the big question in today's Independent. A great question, to which I think the answer is yes, but much less than they do. I believe children should be set less homework, especially in the humanities subjects, but the homework they set is better. Too much homework are pointless activities. Teachers should be given time to set thought-provoking and interesting homework which students would be given two or three weeks to complete. This would enable students to engage with a homework and develop their learning, rather than rushing something off the night before or in breaktime (which I sure some students would still do). Time outside school should be more school-free. The problem is too children and young people don't use their evenings well. Too many spend their free time playing games or watching crap tv. Instead of students doing loads of homework, I would encourage them to read, spend time with family, watch good TV, be creative, etc. There are lots of good, interesting, and dare I say it, educational programmes on tv, which students should be encouraged to watch.

indoctrination, education & God

I heard Terence Copley, professor of education at the university of Exeter lecture today on indoctrination.  He began by asking would we know if we were being indoctrinated? He wants to argue, I think rightly, that the UK education system indoctrinates young people into secularism, where religion is marginalised, omitted or excluded. In contrast he argues that all good RE is the opposite to indoctrination and is about giving young people wisdom and choice. Indoctrination is teaching that God must exist or must not exist, whereas RE should be about the possibility of God. For more see his book Indoctrination, education and God (2005, SPCK)

The One, the Three and Danish Cartoons

There's a great post on the difference the doctrine of the Trinity makes here on Faith and Theology (which by the way is a great blog for those interested in theology, although fairly academic). Jason Clark is at the Emergent Theology Conversations with Mirsolav Volf and blogging each day, day one is here. I was tempted to blog about Danish Cartoons, but instead will point you in the direction of Richard Sudsworth and Big Bulky Anglican. A colleague and I taught a lesson today around the related issues - free speech and stereotyping. There is a big need for education of your children and young people (and a lot of adults), who don't know who the Prophet Muhammad is and see all Muslims as extremists - this is probably not helped by the response worldwide by some Muslims with their violent messages. We need to avoid language of 'us 'and 'them' and polarising the issue into the West on one hand and Islam on the other. Tariq Ramadan made some helpful points in yesterday's Guardian:

We are facing an incredible simplification, a gross polarisation: apparently a clash of civilisations, a confrontation between principles, with defenders, in one corner, of inalienable freedom of speech and, in the other, of the inviolable sacred sphere. Presented in such terms, the debate has unfortunately become a battle of wills, and the question becomes: who will win? Muslims, wanting apologies, threaten to attack European interests, even to attack people; western governments, intellectuals and journalists refuse to bend under threats, and certain media outlets have added to the controversy by republishing the cartoons. Most people around the world, observing these excesses, are perplexed: what sort of madness is this, they ask?

It is critical we find a way out of this infernal circle and demand from those stoking this fire that they stop their polemics at once and create a space for serious, open, indepth debate and peaceful dialogue. This is not the predicted clash of civilisations. This affair does not symbolise the confrontation between the principles of Enlightenment and those of religion. Absolutely not. What is at stake at the heart of this sad story is whether or not the duelling sides have the capacity to be free, rational (whether believers or atheists) and, at the same time, reasonable.

The fracture is not between the west and Islam but between those who, in both worlds, are able to assert who they are and what they stand for with calm - in the name of faith or reason, or both - and those driven by exclusive certainties, blind passions, reductive perceptions of the other and a liking for hasty conclusions. The latter character traits are shared equally by some intellectuals, religious scholars, journalists and ordinary people on both sides. Facing the dangerous consequences these attitudes entail, it is urgent we launch a general call for wisdom.


However, it is just as excessive and irresponsible to invoke the "right to freedom of expression" - the right to say anything, in any way, against anybody. Freedom of expression is not absolute. Countries have laws that define the framework for exercising this right and which, for instance, condemn racist language. There are also specific rules pertaining to the cultures, traditions and collective psychologies in the respective societies that regulate the relationship between individuals and the diversity of cultures and religions.


We are at a crossroads. The time has come for women and men who reject this dangerous division of people into two worlds to start building bridges based on common values. They must assert the inalienable right to freedom of expression and, at the same time, demand measured exercise of it. We need to promote an open, self-critical approach, to repudiate exclusive truths and narrow-minded, binary visions of the world.

Faith Schools - Yes or No?

Richard Dawkins tonight argued - Religion: the Root of all Evil? (C4) - that it was wrong to bring up  child in religious communities and especially was concerned about faith schools. He was using language like 'virus' and 'distorted' to argue that it is harmful to "indoctrinate" children in religious beliefs, mainly because he believe religious belief to be anti-rational. The question of faith schools, aside from Dawkin's concerns though, is an important one. A first point, made by many others, is that a non-faith-affliated school does not mean it is without a set of beliefs is to miss that secularism and atheism itself are a set of beliefs. Most schools are educating children to be secularists. Secondly, the entire education British system has it roots in British churches. Generally I don't think I have a problem with faith schools, in terms of CofE and Roman Catholic, because here the term 'faith school' reflects the ethos and the life of the school, rather than what is taught in lessons. I do have a problem with the kind of school that Dawkins visited in his programme which indoctrinates children into a narrow conservative evangelical worldview, where the Bible is taught for all intents and purposes to be read literally. Where education takes a back seat to the fundamentalist teachings of USA bible belt. Schools should be a place where we encourage the cultivation of wisdom in all its varied forms, and wisdom encourages the pursuit of truth. Schools should be a place where we encourage creativity - where children can creatively engage and question the world, arts, science and belief. 

the unteachables?

Had a long day in school because of year eight parent's evening. I came home in time to watch the last episode of the channel 4 series The Unteachables. A fantastic series which looked at ways in keeping excluded - unteachable - young people in the education system. The outcome saw 9 young people get stuck into learning and enjoy being in the classroom. The secret in part was a high dose of kinaesthetic learning - active out of your seat surprising interesting activities. Watching these students discover self-confidence, manage their behaviour in ways appropriate to their personality was very moving. The series is a wake up call to the government to not just invest in education, but invest particularly in developing the kind of teachers and the kind of schools that will help our unteachable students learn. The current school system fails to educate, fails to help every student learn, because it fails to recognise their individual learning needs - you can't do it with the size of classes and the kind of teachers we have. We do not have enough kinaesthetic teachers, who base their lessons not primarily on auditory or visual learning, but in getting young people really active. Is any young person unteachable? This series suggests perhaps still yes, but many who end up excluded, and therefore considered unteachable, are not adverse to wanting to and being able to learn. We need more youthworkers and more specialist teachers in our schools. We need to allow students to learn at their own space in their own way.

Should RE be scrapped?

Yesterday's Sunday Times had an article in its Review section by Chris Woodhead called Let's Banish God from the Classroom. He argued that RE is often so poorly taught that it cannot reach the aspirations of QCA and that  knowledge devoid of experience means RE is often worthless. He writes, 'It is the pusillanimity of the politicians responsible for what is taught in schools who approve the teaching of knowledge about different faiths, but who recoil nervously from the prospect of offering children any experience of that complex of doctrine, worship, ritual and prayer which is religion.'  Has an RE teacher do I think RE should be scrapped? Would the time be spent elsewhere? Does RE teach anything meaningful about religion?

RE that teaches the "facts" of the six major world religion is pointless, because its knowledge without the understanding or experience of what it means to be religious. Equally the idea that there is something which we can define as "religious" is false, different religions or worldviews (here I include postmodernism, humanism, etc) are different. Andy Wright writes that contemporary religion is

‘a set of ambiguous, competing and often overlapping narratives about the true nature of reality’ (Wright, 1996a: 173)

According to Wright, religion is concerned with claims to truth, to describing the world in certain categories.  Too often, Wright says, contemporary religious education tends to approach ‘openness to difference on a purely cultural level, requiring students to empathise with the life-styles of adherents of a range of religious traditions, but not to engage directly with the question of truth of their accounts of the ultimate order-of-things (Religion, Education and Post-modernity (2004) London, RoutledgeFalmer, p.226).  That is, RE is taught without any sense of controversy; we avoid asking the question, 'but is this or that true?'.

Good RE is needed more than ever in our present climate - our young people need to recognise the difference between a Muslim and a Muslim terrorist and even ask the question can you be a Muslim and a terrorist? Good RE puts religion in the public arena. RE, along with every subject in school, should be focused on transforming the lives of pupils, to widen their horizon and encourage them to articulate and own their worldview and also recognise that others have an alternative worldview, with which we can engage.  Good RE, Wright says, will have 3 virtues: honesty, receptivity and wisdom. With regard to receptivity, he writes,

'The virtue of receptivity requires students to become sensitive not merely to their own thoughts, feelings, narratives and meanings, but also to those of the other individuals, groups, narratives they encounter … If such receptivity is genuine then it will enable students to feel the full impact of alternative worldviews, and demand an informed and reflective response to them ... Receptivity to difference brings us face to face with a complex and ambiguous world, one that we can only hope to begin to understand by learning to become wiser persons (224)

That is a huge task for those who teach RE and recognises that we need more specialist RE teachers, who are honest about the agenda they bring to the classroom, but model receptivity and wisdom. That is, when I teach I am not out to rubbish Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or any other religion or worldview. In fact, the better question to ask is what can we learn from the Hindu, the Muslim or the Buddhist, but also with the willingness to ask questions of truth.

Over this last year I learnt, that perhaps more than any other subject, their is wide variety in how RE is taught, both historically and in the present - some approaches tackle it through a fact study of each religion; others go for a more (postmodern) experience-orientated approach, where the distinctives of a religion are underplayed (see the recent Spirituality Shopper for a popular version of this); others remove any religion and turn the subject into a secular ethics course; while others, like Andy Wright, approach it through questions of truth, what is known as the critical-realist approach.

RE is a subject very much still working itself out, often on the fringes of a child's education, where perhaps it should take a more central place, informing the whole of a child's education.  RE at its best should enable pupils to become wiser and more open to those ideas or people who are different from them. RE at its best reduces the 'fear' of the 'other'.  Woodhead suggests that a national drive to up the profile of RE would fail, I think, it would be a good place to start.

For more by Andy Wright see:
Religion, Education and Postmodernity (2004)
‘The Contours of Critical Religious Education: knowledge, wisdom, truth,’ British Journal of Religious Education, 2003, 25(4): 279-91