Be careful what you wish for

There is so much talk around about how to create children who ‘love learning’ and who are ‘life-long learners’. Claxton and Lucas are very representative of this trend. They describe eight ‘learning orientated habits of the ‘life-long learning mind’. Within these there is stress on some other buzz words resilience and persistence. They interpret the research of people such as Carol Dweck as suggesting these can be inculcated in our children. Claxton and Lucas suggest that these habits of mind can be developed at school through:

  • Language used with students in the classroom for example to focus on learning as an activity and combat Dweck’s now well-known fixed mind set.
  • Teachers modelling good attitudes to learning
  • Encouraging students to evaluate and improve their own work
  • A curriculum that cultivates life skills
  • Encouraging parents to be learners also
  • A school environment that has less structure and more student control and leaders willing to implement this

Is this the way to create life-long learners with resilience and persistence? I really don’t think so.

Take my own Dad. He was a true Cockney, born into poverty in Stepney, 1911. I think he left school aged 12, to work in a Jewish draper’s shop because, he said, his dad wouldn’t get him a ticket to work on the docks. I was born when he was 62 and my memories of him are of an old man that talked like Alf Garnett, in a grimy button-less mac, a greasy trilby on his head, with cut down wellie boots and newspapers under his jumper throughout the winter. He lived off jam sandwiches and cups of tea made with leaves, three sugar cubes and topped up with Fussell’s condensed milk. He wasn’t very literate and for much of his adult life he was a road sweeper. However, he ‘loved learning’. Actually, no, he didn’t ‘love learning’ – that implies an indiscriminate desire to acquire any knowledge. My dad loved SOMETHING and wanted to learn about it, he loved ‘istry. As a young man he borrowed books from the library and most enjoyed stories of kings and queens. He could recite all the monarchs of England, from the conquest to present day, in order, with their ruling houses. He had a theory about the Princes in the Tower and a picture of Anne Hathaway’s Cottage that he felt must be very valuable and kept reverently wrapped in newspaper in his pantry.

As I try to tease out what made my dad enjoy history, nothing on the bulleted list above has any real relevance. Perhaps he liked stories that lifted him out of the drear tedium of daily life. Perhaps that explains his appetite for history. There was a hole to fill anyway. Thankfully he wasn’t educated by Claxton and Lucas who suggest:

‘Knowing the Kings and Queens of England…are not top priority life skills. Their claim for inclusion in the core curriculum rests on the extent to which they provide engaging and effective ‘exercise machines’ for stretching and strengthening generalizable habits of mind’

There is an irony here. Students are too busy being given the habits of mind to become lifelong learners to actually learn some stuff now, for its own sake. What a mechanistic approach to education, to just develop skills, rather than feed the mind…

I also enjoyed learning about history. Not because of what my father talked about, when he mentioned the past it wasn’t one I recognised from my school history lessons. I suppose in himself, as a family connection with a time that had generally long past, he made me curious. I was a total bookworm and when I lived with my mum, there were tea chests of books from jumble sales that we children could rummage through. We were neglected, there was no television and so we would go off to the library every Saturday, via my dad’s house and read all day. I think my interests were sparked by my reading and that was born of escapism. I continued to travel by buses to see my dad every week when I was fostered. I have tried to work out what gave me the persistence to keep seeing him when it took perhaps nearly two hours each way with a series of bus changes. He probably had some degree of dementia throughout my childhood and he was often unreasonably anxious and I would spend much of my visit trying, ineffectually, to clear the detritus in his rather squalid two room accommodation. When I think of times like that all the rhetoric about persistence, resilience and mindset seems incredibly shallow and pointless. In what possible way do you create a meaningful degree of resilience through, as Dweck’s research is used by some to suggest, talking a certain way in maths lessons? I would speculate that actually my commitment was because of the sense of duty that came from a religious upbringing and taking to heart Enid Blyton’s 1950s morality.

My dad did help me with my history though. At sixth form I studied the Tudors and we finally had a common language. He started to go to the library in the week and get books out for me. He was very concerned that I shouldn’t tell the teacher what we were doing. In his schooling extra books were like cribs. To find out extra information was cheating. ‘Ere y’are love, he’d say, as he handed over JJ Scarisbrick’s Henry VIII . He would chuckle at how we were tricking the teacher and point out the glorious number of facts the book contained that could be found by using the list at the back, called an index. Now, as an adult, I can see these memories are reason enough for my visits.

For myself and my father a ‘love of history’ grew to fill a need, it was not ignited by some spuriously ‘engaging’ school lesson activities. My own children also tend to read when other more instant sources of gratification are removed and they need a distraction. I do wonder what weak easily extinguished ‘love of learning’ grows up from school lessons that feed a love of fun rather than focusing on what is intrinsically interesting.

Education has an ongoing obsession with quick fixes. In society we are promised we can ‘get a new figure in four weeks’ and in education we are told we can get  skills without toil, learn to love learning history by playing ‘Weimar Germany Monopoly’ in class or develop resilience though being given open ended maths problems. I do think we can learn from work such as Dweck’s on Mindset but what on earth makes us think that facile adjustments to a child’s schooling can profoundly alter people? It is madness to ignore the need to feed the intellect in favour of unproven claims that faddish changes to education might possibly develop desirable attributes. We don’t know if the bullet pointed approaches above even cause the desired outcomes let alone whether acquisition will transfer to other situations.

As a child I was curious to learn but I think I worked hard because it was so obviously my route to a better life. I became resilient by surviving the rubbish my childhood threw at me and I wanted to learn about certain things because it was less boring than other options or a form of escapism. Love of learning about the things that interest you, the persistence to try and resilience to cope are desirable attributes but be careful what you wish for. My experience (and I think my father’s) suggests love is born of need and resilience is achieved through suffering.

My dad, Charlie Meers.



2 thoughts on “Be careful what you wish for

  1. Very interesting – well said. I think the one thing to remember here is that almost all current discussion about how to ‘improve’ education is coming at it entirely from the producer’s perspective – and within that very largely from people who have a vested interest in turning it into one great production machine, which they can then control.

    There is relatively little being said (except in the most generic of terms) about the qualitative impacts that education can have on individual lives. For all that qualitative effects are being dismissed, they are deeper, both in real effect and in the ways they can be cultivated, than most in the current discussion suggest or perhaps suspect.

  2. Thanks for encapsulating my so far very inarticulate reservations on the latest Lucas/Claxton outpourings. Much of the curriculum in the UK is prescribed. Pupils/students/lifelong learners are expected to sublimate to what Bourdieu termed the ‘small change of compliance’ in order to collect ‘symoblic tokens’ of entry and access to some pre-determined field, whether that be the workplace, higher level study etc. Teachers then carry out action research to ‘get the buggers to behave’, to improve engagement and the like, thereby missing the point that a well behaved and attentive pupil has simply learned how to sleep with his/her eyes open.

    My mother, much like your father perhaps, was intrinsically interested in art, literature and music not because she had been schooled (she left school at 14) but because the local library opened up the world to her. This was after a 6 day week of 12 hour shifts in the cotton mill of course. My weekly trips to the library as a child provided my own induction into this amazing and eclectic world.
    Lots to ponder following your post. Thanks again.

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