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30 August 2015

(originally published in the Q News)




“The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil.”

(Ralph Waldo Emerson)








The American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson continues by saying that it is not for the teacher to choose what the students shall know or do.  Each student holds the key to their own secret.


If that is the case:  what exactly is the purpose of education, and where does the responsibility for us teachers and educators lie?


In my view, our responsibility is to help the students in our care find the key to their own secret, to help them discover what their particular strengths are, to empower them to make their own decisions independently and to guide them towards making informed choices.  This is not an easy task, especially in our fast-moving world where the rapid changes in technology are often dazzling rather than empowering and the sheer abundance of choice can appear confusing rather than exciting.  Feeling lost in the overwhelming maze of opportunities can often be at the root of mental health issues in young adults these days.


Nowadays, pupils will often be told that in this new world they need to learn transferable skills which will equip them to deal flexibly with multiple career changes – unlike previous eras where you were likely to choose a career for life.


There may be an element of truth in this, but what our children and young adults need more than ever is a firm grounding and a belief in lasting values that underpin everything they are doing.  They need to find their own identity, unearth the secret of who they are, gain the courage to be true to themselves and the kindness to serve others.


They also need to rediscover the joys of learning for learning’s sake rather than falling for the myth that nowadays only transferable skills matter in the workplace.  Proper factual subject knowledge remains as crucial as it has ever been, and the belief that a quick check on Wikipedia can replace traditional learning is misguided. Teachers have an important role to play here, and sometimes we do need to be the sage on the stage rather than merely the guide by the side.


For those who would like to read more about this:  I can warmly recommend Daisy Christodoulou’s well-written and thoroughly researched study Seven Myths about Education (Abingdon 2014).  The myths she is debunking (convincingly, passionately, knowledgeably) are that


  1. Facts prevent understanding

  2. Teacher-led instruction is passive

  3. The 21st century fundamentally changes everything

  4. You can always just look it up

  5. We should teach transferable skills

  6. Projects and activities are the best way to learn

  7. Teaching knowledge is indoctrination.

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