Why can’t education be more about thinking?

My Grandma once said to me something rather profound: that she does not know how to think. It was not an out of the blue statement; we were discussing educational philosophy at the time, something we discuss a lot, as she is a former primary school teacher. She did not attend university, but teacher training college, as this was the route into primary school teaching in the nineteen-fifties. When she was at college she attended lectures concerning education philosophy. The woman who taught the lectures was rather stern and not particularly approachable, and my Grandma (as quite a shy person) never had the courage to ask her after the lectures: can you teach me how to think?

I guess this could be seen as an overly provocative and exaggerated statement – how can anyone not think? But the very fact that she feels this way is very concerning. It is very concerning that any child (or adult, for that matter) would have issues with this, let alone someone who became a teacher! Of course this is merely one example, but I really do think it feeds into a larger, more important issue in education: when are we taught to think?

There does not seem to me to be any subject in which ‘thinking’ is necessarily encouraged. This is of course quite a vague statement – you can think about any subject, but in our current education system is there any subject that really encourages logical and critical thinking or reasoning? These are very, very important skills and the lack of time dedicated to them in the curriculum is, quite frankly, disgraceful.

I have already taken on the idea of exam-based education, as seen in my last post, but these two things are strongly linked. We have taken to believe that education is essentially a process of filling people with knowledge. Now, that is all well and good, but I am sure we are all aware of times when we studied very hard for an exam simply by remembering answers. Perhaps you did very well in the exam, but in a few months you had probably forgotten everything.

Surely this is not a desirable method of education – it should not just be a memory test. The skill of critical thinking is very important for the work place and life in general. If someone is not able to consider a problem and think through a logical, well-reasoned method to find a solution, then how can they ever progress in any field of work or study?

With these goals in mind I believe that we need to bring philosophy into the classroom. It is the only subject that specialises in thinking. This is not about trying to get young children to read Nietzsche, but there are plenty of interesting engaging questions that can be presented to children, with the opportunity for them to respond to these problems. So many life skills will be gained from these classes: how to disagree without having an argument; how to present examples and counter-examples; how to break down arguments – these are skills that really are invaluable.

I believe that many people who do well in education do so because they develop these skills outside of the classroom, perhaps from family life or extra-curricular activities. By not offering the opportunity to develop these skills to all children, we really are failing them. The Philosophy Foundation is doing some great things in the UK to encourage the teaching of philosophy to primary school children with some brilliant results. The link to their website is at the bottom of the page, along with an excellent TED talk on the subject.

We really need to produce an education system which is about thinking, not remembering. This will enable children to become great innovators and problem solvers, and with the current problems we face as a planet and a society, no one can argue that this is an important aim.




We need to start asking ourselves: what is education for?

When I think about education in this country, the first question I ask myself is: what is it for? This is a very important question: one that we really should be perpetually reassessing. But we are not. This question has got completely lost in a system that does not know what its purpose is.

This question is very important to me. As someone who attended a below-average comprehensive school this question was thrown around a lot. However, it was never something I asked myself – the children who regularly asked ‘What is the point of school?’ and ‘When will we ever need this in real life?’ were usually low achievers and/or badly behaved. At the time I shrugged the questions off – I thought they were stupid and unnecessary; we have to go to school so why question what the point of it is? It is only after entering higher education that I have realised how significant these questions really are.

The British education system seems to me to be fundamentally flawed. Now I am conscious at this point of sounding like an irritating old man who thinks that things were much better in the ‘good ole days’; but I assure you I am not that guy. It is just overwhelmingly clear to me that we have lost our way. We need to forge an education system that has clear goals and constantly searches for the best means to achieve them.

We need to remember that education is a process – recently I think we have got far too interested in what we can get out of education and not what education can draw out of us. The obsession with results, statistics and league tables in our current system seems to be profoundly detrimental to the quality of it. If our system is not first and foremost creating articulate sceptical human beings who are intellectually curious: then what is it doing?

Many academics have argued recently that there is a steady decline in literacy across the board, Professor Sarah Churchwell stated on Question Time that she had seen a decline in essay writing standard over the last fourteen years. She seemed to believe this was down to exam based education. We have neglected the importance of a well-rounded education – we need to remember education is not a commodity that we can buy or sell – a GCSE grade is not a representation of any value; it is a rough indicator of the level of intelligence in this field by a particular pupil.

We must give teachers the freedom to actually teach. Just because you can get through an English Literature A level by reading a handful of books does not mean that this is the way in which you should approach the course. The oddest thing about attending a Russell Group university – as I do – is the feeling that all the pupils who attend, attend in spite of exam based education – they all gained their passion and knowledge for the their subject through extra curriculum reading and research.

We need to move away from exam based education – teaching needs to be seen as a process with an outcome that cannot easily be defined. One well-educated youngster can differ tremendously from another, and we need to acknowledge this. I personally do not even believe in a national curriculum, but if we must have one I think it should be a fairly short list of guidelines compiled by an independent committee of head teachers and university academics – and not the Secretary of State for Education.

I truly believe that the enforcement of these principles would leave us in a much better position. An education system that prides itself in these values will produce much more well-rounded, intellectually curious citizens who will be much more able to solve the problems that our country and planet will face in the future.