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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Teaching children to think for themselves: subject choice in the secondary school

When I was teaching high school I worked in an extremely selective and highly academic environment.  I found there were two kinds of students in my highly 'subjective' humanities field of Music.

There were the ones who wanted be given appropriate tools and stimulated to explore their own capacity for thought, then draw their own conclusions about a question and work out a way to support their argument with facts. 

And then there were the ones who wanted you to give them the answer, so they could learn it off by heart and regurgitate it in the exam. Invariably, the latter students had parents who had decided that paying private school fees gave them a right to their children being spoon-fed the correct answers for everything, which would (in their minds) inevitably lead to the high-ranking pass in the final exams which they had paid for.

No prizes for guessing which learning strategy results in the more productive member of a workplace, not to mention the most likely citizen of Planet Earth to help us solve our very real problems.  The reluctance and inability of some people to work with joy and self-belief within a grey area is, I find, extremely worrying.

What is your feeling on this?  If you enrol your child in an expensive school, do you think you've purchased a pass mark at day one?  Do you value subjects with clear right-and-wrong answers, like  maths, above subjects which involve some degree of informed choice in the response?  Do you actively steer your teenager away from subject choices which involve original thought?

Or do you look at secondary schooling as an opportunity for your child to learn to think for themselves, in the hope that this will lead to success? 


I am convinced that there is absolutely nothing to be gained by teaching children to parrot information and think in black and white, on any level.  (For this reason I'm not a fan of conventional religion, either.  Dogma is for people who can't cope with grey areas, who have to have a 'right' answer for everything- even death.)  And for this reason, I believe every student should study at least one humanities subject.

Think about it.  How useful, really, is the belief that there's a correct answer for everything?

When a bully fights back and breaks his tormentor's ankle, as featured in the news this week, is there a clear answer about who was right and who was wrong?  The school simply suspended both students, which suggested to me that the hierarchy had succumbed to the lure of black and white.

Is there a correct answer to reducing the tension between indigenous people and the one-time invaders of their land? None of the 'right answers' tried so far seem to have worked particularly well.

Is there a black-and-white response to reducing crime?  Neither the black end (increased penalties) nor the white end (universal love and understanding) of the solutions tried so far seem to be particularly effective, because the problem is not black and white.

Yes, 'right' answers are possible in some areas of life, but if you haven't learnt to think deeply about questions before applying your 'right' answer (if there is one), you are likely to find yourself in diabolical trouble.  Let me give you an example. 

Yes, it's right to leave a chronically violent partner, but you'd better have done a complete analysis of how you're going to approach the split if you want you and your children to stay safe.  You'd better have learnt who in your life you can trust, and that requires a deep analysis of past events without a veil of emotion. You'd better have learnt to project possible outcomes and choose a course that makes the best result likely.  Are you going to learn that sort of thinking by choosing 'safe', black-and-white subjects at school?

The most valuable subjects, to me, are those where a student has to deal with multiple possibilities, choose, experiment, reflect, learn to be wrong in a multi-phase process- then analyse WHERE they went wrong and choose again. 

That is how we solve real life problems.  Burying the 'greyness' of real life is no way to prepare a child for the world.

So when your child comes home with their subject choice form and says they want to study art, or music, or drama, or any of the other grey-area subjectively marked subjects that might give you the heeby-jeebies- think before you crush their plans.  EVERY child should study a 'grey' subject.  It's the best preparation for life that a school can offer.

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