Category Archives: Education

Give a man a fire and he’s warm for a day, but set fire to him and he’s warm for the rest of his life. 

Last night I attended an event organised by the Stephen Perse Foundation – a collection of Independent schools in and around Cambridge – one of a series of talks organised under the heading Inspire Me.

The concept is simple: invite successful people to come and talk and take questions about the work they do, in the hope that it will inspire the next generation of young people to consider things beyond their immediate horizon.  As far as I know this – careers-advice with a hefty dollop of reality – is unique, though the BBC’s Economics Editor, Robert Peston, offers a match-making service: inviting well-known figures to give up a bit of their time to visit schools and give a talk.

I was motivated to go because the topic was Jobs in the Third Sector. Dame Fiona Reynolds spoke for twenty minutes or so on her work with the National Trust, and the rewards of volunteering.  Equally striking was another short presentation given by a Year 11 student at the school outlining, with genuine enthusiasm, all the things the pupils do each year to raise money for their charity, Barnardo’s. Two other panelists also answered questions about their positive experiences working for charities.

And I came away thinking that surely this is the educational bottom line. Beyond exam grades. Beyond subject knowledge even. To show what’s possible. To forge a dream. To light the flame, then watch as they run with it.


The End Product

A recent e-mail from Bob Clary at Webucator got me pondering what our somewhat conveyor-belt-exam-oriented education factories churn out, and how that interfaces with what further learning institutions or businesses need.

  • What do we want the next generation to be able to do?
  • What nuggets can we give them to ensure they have a happy, productive life?
  • Really what’s the balance between what they should know, what they need to be able to do, and the type of person (we think) they should be?

I’ve sat and listened to people who say the world’s changing so fast that our subjects are almost obsolete already, and thought: the basic tenants of every subject will remain the same. We do have much to offer.

I’ve heard them say there’s all the information out there already, probably produced more slickly than we can – just be a facilitator, and thought: no it’s never tailored to the needs of those in my charge.

I’ve taught the spectrum of young people, from the most privileged right down to well, the most humble experiencing all sorts of horrors, and seen them all at their best: well turned out, well mannered and thoughtful – despite everything!

So what’s a real education? Slaking curiosity and developing an appetite for more? Encouraging interests? Enabling talents to flourish? Modelling behaviours? All of that!

And what of the product? Well if they’re capable, yet still open to learn. If they’re trustworthy, kind and generous. And if they’ve got a vision for a better world than the one they’ve inherited, then maybe, we’ll have done all right!

I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.

I’ve always thought that pupils learn best through practical enquiry.  By developing programmes of study that require investigation,  students develop the skills necessary to accompany the knowledge too.  This is backed up by research into learning retention rates:

But of course, this is just “Leftie progressive” nonsense! :/

Latest Ofsted directive: ‘We don’t want child-centered teaching.’


I’ve got a lesson for you, Mr. Wilshaw:

it’s the pupils’ role to learn.

Therefore learning is student-centred.

Ergo teaching is scholar-focussed!

What are you suggesting we do? Lecture from the front of the class – casting our knowledge indiscriminately in the hope that some of it will hit the appropriate place at just the right time?  And hoping that, whilst we’re doing that, the pupils will also somehow magically acquire the relevant practical skills which inevitably accompanies the knowledge? Guess what? That’s what the internet does. And just how good have undirected MOOCs turned out to be, huh?

  • It’s the role of the teacher to ascertain what each student knows and what still needs to be learnt.
  • It’s the role of the teacher to break that down into manageable chunks and to present it in a way that’s easy to grasp.  And
  • it’s the role of the teacher to ensure that the student also acquires the skills needed to accompany the knowledge.

This is not dumbing-down education Sir Michael, this IS education.


A friend of mine swears by her Casio calculator which has a set of physical constants accessible at the touch of a button – she finds it very useful.  It’s ageing though, and it turns out that Casio only sell that model in Hong Kong now – a long way to go to get a replacement!

The effect of Science usurping Religion’s place in our quest for understanding, is that we now expect everything to be sown up; understood beyond question; black and white and quantified to two decimal places.

This manifests itself in all sorts of ways.  Friends wanting to know if they’ve

  • picked the best thing on the menu;
  • circled the right answers so that a mindless pop-survey turns out right or
  • answered the questions on an adoption form correctly.

Students wanting to know whether they’ve got

As if having the right answer is the only thing that matters.

Do you remember getting all your correct answers marked wrong in Maths, just because you neglected to show your working?

Stephen Hawking said last week that he no longer thinks that Black Holes exist – at least, not in the way we’ve come to envisage them.

So it turns out there’re few constants!

The value of an education is not the learning of many facts, but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks

I was at a party some time ago, talking to a physicist.  The hosts’ todler happened to be pushing at a gate, and enjoying the moment of it returning.  The physicist mused that it would be years before the child could fully understand what was happening in her ‘experiment’ – because the maths was quite difficult – by which time the curiosity engendered by such a ‘simple thing’ would have long-since evaporated.

Since Mr. Gove’s enthronement at the DofE, there’s been much talk of knowledge as a fundamental, as if, as in Bloom’s Taxonomy, knowledge is the bedrock upon which everything else is then built.

It doesn’t work quite like that though.

Nor is it quite right to turn the triangle on its point, and say that entry should always be through creativity and experimentation because, whilst experimentation is a natural habit, and all well and good,  you do need some stuff to base things on.

So I’m wondering if a tiered triangle is the right model at all!  Is creativity prized because of its rarity? No – it’s not rare at all! Is knowledge undervalued because it’s everywhere?  It still has to be mined.

Perhaps education is a spinning £2 coin. Made up of two metals, and with an image on either side: there’s knowledge and comprehending, and there’s using, re-purposing and creating.  And as the coin spins, it all sort-of melds together.

Never forgetting of course, that on the edge of the coin is engraved the words Sir Isaac Newton used: “[If I have seen further, it is by] Standing on the shoulders of giants”.


Don’t let them diminish the role of teacher to (e-)librarian or minder. Don’t let them denigrate one of the most honourable, important, worthwhile functions of humanity.  Never let them downgrade your job to facilitator. You are so much more than that:

  • You have studied long and hard, and continue to research: you are an authority on your subject;
  • You have thought carefully about how to present material in the best way possible, so that each student will understand well;
  • You are the embodiment of your subject;
  • You are a guiding light in their new and uncertain landscape – a role model to emulate;

You are the enabler of the next generation,

And the most precious resource a school has.