Education, they say, is what is left when you have forgotten everything you learned at school.
In the days when school governing bodies still asked interview questions like “Tell us what your philosophy of education is” I would answer: “Whatever children learn from me, I hope they will take away a love of learning that carries them through life. That is my purpose as a teacher.”
Funnily enough, I actually really meant it when I said it.
Asked the same question, what would you say?
I reflect on my ‘philosophy of education’ more and more now that the only thing that people like Ofsted are interested in is “outcomes”. By outcomes, they mean measurable outcomes like SATs results of course. A “love of learning throughout one’s life” is a desirable outcome but isn’t a very measurable one, I grant you that.
If I were facing an Ofsted inspection like many of you are, I would play the game – as I did when I was a Head. I used all the right language and spoke to the same agenda about data for this, data for that, outcomes here, outcomes there. We don’t make the rules of Ofsted inspections, but we have to play by them.
The question is important though. What do you hope children take away from the education you have given them, once they have forgotten they achieved a Level 5 in Maths at Key Stage 2 or a C Grade GCSE English? – as forget they surely will.
In recent years, I have changed my ‘philosophy of education’. No longer do I believe that the most important thing children take from education is a lifelong love of learning. In fact, now I believe that might even be an impediment.
I came to that conclusion a few years ago when I met an ex-pupil of mine who contacted me on Facebook. He had two degrees and was studying for a PhD. He asked would I like to meet for a coffee. I was delighted. I wanted to see exactly how one of my protégé’s had turned out. Here, in living colour, was a personification of my life’s work and philosophy – someone from a modest working-class background who was a living example of a lifelong love of learning. (I probably taught him alliteration too). I couldn’t wait to see him again after twenty-odd years.
He turned out to be a little shit – arrogant, conceited, full of his own self-importance. Once he’d told me about how brilliant he was, how many degrees he had and how much his brain was bursting with rarified knowledge, I couldn’t wait to get out of his company (and it was in Starbucks, so he coffee was awful as well). Mind you, he may have thought the same about me!
It’s fair to say that this meeting wasn’t the only thing that changed my ‘philosophy of education’ but it did focus my reflections. Now I believe the most important thing that we can leave kids with, once all the other stuff is forgotten, is character.
I don’t know how to teach character. There isn’t a syllabus for it and it’s certainly not on the National Curriculum. I have not the first idea of how it can be measured, and I don’t even know how to define it – but I do believe it exists. I also believe that it is the most important element of being a good human being and that teachers themselves must have it.
I met another of my ex-pupils a few years ago (that’s Facebook for you ; -). She had left school without achieving much educationally, had got herself pregnant while still a teenager and was struggling to hold down a part-time job while single-parenting two kids. But when I met her, she was absolutely lovely – courteous to me, generous to others, especially with her praise and above all, a wonderful and loving mother to two delightful children.
“This is my teacher!” she said as she introduced me to them.
As a teacher, it was one of the proudest moments of my professional life.
Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for a decade with the DfE and the General Teaching Council. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk.
His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) was published in March 2014.